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Student barred from using Harvey Milk quote unsatisfied with board’s statement

'They don’t get it. They aren't talking about LGBTQ acceptance,' student says of French Catholic board

Mississauga French Catholic student Christopher Karas says he is still considering filing a human rights complaint about discrimination at his school. Credit: Andrea Houston
Mississauga French Catholic student Christopher Karas says he is still considering a human rights complaint despite a statement from the board conceding that the school won’t object to the Harvey Milk quote being used on the gay-straight alliance’s (GSA) posters.
 
Karas’s board, the Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Centre-Sud (Catholic Central South District School Board, or CSDCCS), released a statement, saying it “fully respects” the Accepting Schools Act.
 
“The administration at both CSDCCS and École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Famille did not interfere either in the choice of committee members nor in the choice of the committee name Porte Ouverte (Open Door). The information received last November was that the committee members were not in agreement on the publicity concept proposed by one of their members. The CSDCCS administration has no objection that the concept be published and posted at École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Famille if such is the will of the Porte Ouverte members.”
 
The statement from board administration goes on to say, “CSDCCS regrets this misunderstanding.” Officials could not be reached for comment.
 
Karas is not satisfied. He wants administrators to prioritize accepting gay students throughout the school board. 
 
“They don’t get it. If you read their statement, it’s very general. They aren't talking about LGBTQ acceptance,” he says.
 
Karas first went public with his story on Dec 16 after battling for months with his school and board to start a GSA. Even after getting approval in September, he says, the school has been making it difficult for him every step of the way. 
 
When it came time to design the posters, Karas wanted to honour his hero, Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city supervisor assassinated in 1978, with a quote: “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.” But the quote was deemed too controversial by vice-principal Vicki Marcotte. 
 
She also suggested Karas change “sexual orientation” to “self-expression.” Karas put up the posters in defiance, only to find them torn down the next day.
 
“I would like them to allow me to put up the posters I asked for,” Karas says. “And maybe an apology would be good for the time it took to put the group in place.”
 
The Accepting Schools Act states that school administrators must grant students permission to start GSAs if they request them. When the legislation passed in 2012, it was the culmination of a lengthy battle waged by students demanding GSAs at their schools. Until that time, many Ontario Catholic schools had consistently prevented students from forming queer-focused support groups. Some boards, like the Halton Catholic District School Board, went as far as banning the creation of gay-straight support groups.
 
Since Karas’s story was first published in Xtra, other media have picked it up, including Life Site News, an evangelical Christian news website, which spoke to a number of anti-gay groups that commented by saying the Accepting Schools Act “is now coming back to bite Catholic schools.”
 
“I hate to say we told you so, but we warned the Catholic trustees and church leadership that you cannot permit gay pride clubs into the schools, by whatever name you call them, and seriously expect they won’t conduct homosexual activism,” Campaign Life Coalition’s Jack Fonseca said.
 
When the province passed the Accepting Schools Act in 2012, Catholic school board trustees and bishops met to find ways to work around the legislation.
 
Internal memos obtained by Xtra at the time state clearly that the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association board planned to make GSAs a “subset” of another group, and all group discussion would be “in keeping with Catholic teaching.”
 
This was also explained in the Respecting Difference guidelines, released in 2012. The document states that the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Attraction will be used to guide group discussion. The guidelines follow the Catholic catechism, which states that gay people are “intrinsically disordered” and “gravely depraved.”
 
Karas calls the Respecting Difference guidelines “unnecessary and flawed policy that should be deleted.”
 
The plan by Catholic trustees to find a way around the legislation was echoed by Fred Collie, the bishop of the Thunder Bay Diocese, who pledged there will be a “Catholic component” to clubs, as reported by the Kenora Daily Miner after the legislation passed. Schools will continue to teach that homosexuality is wrong and gay people are “sinful” and “immoral,” Collie said.
 
“We’re going to say the Catholic Church is not going to endorse or support homosexual lifestyles because we don’t see it as a proper lifestyle or a morally good lifestyle for people,” Collie continued.
 
Karas says Catholic schools are now doing what they promised they would. They are creating “inclusive umbrella groups,” not GSAs, and erasing queer identity.
 
“The school and the board keeps talking about tolerance,” Karas says. “I am talking about acceptance . . . I really want my school district to be accountable and all Catholic school boards to be accountable. Students should not have to do this. We should not have to go to the media to ask that Bill 13 be enforced.”
 
Student Christopher Mckerracher, who fought for a GSA at Mississauga’s St Joe’s Catholic Secondary School in 2012, says queer youth have the legal right to a safe space of their own.
 
“You can’t just ‘umbrellify’ every topic,” he says. “Also, respect requires an actual identification of who you’re respecting. A school board can’t lob together all the misfit groups and act like everyone is being respected.”
 
Jeremy Dias, founder of Jer’s Vision, is now collaborating with Karas to create a GTA GSA forum to train 100 youth on how to start, manage and run inclusive clubs. The five-day conference, expected to take place some time this spring, will welcome students from schools across the GTA to discuss how to get GSAs into every school in Ontario. 
 
“I am going to tell students how to create safe spaces in their schools,” Karas says. “Schools need to know these safe spaces are for everyone, and everyone has a right to those safe spaces.”
 
An anonymous donor has already pledged $10,000 toward the forum, Dias says. He and Karas still need to raise $25,000.
 
Dias says Karas’s story reminds him of his own. The Ottawa-based activist successfully launched a lawsuit against his own school in 2002. He took the Algoma District School Board to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for blocking him from forming an LGBT-inclusive group at his school. Dias used the settlement to start Jer’s Vision.
 
“Chris is really showing such amazing leadership,” he says. “Nostalgically, he’s doing exactly what I did a decade ago. How could I not support him? How could I not get behind him?”
 
Dias says Karas’s story really highlights the problems with implementation of the Accepting Schools Act. It’s not enough to have a law; there must be accountability from the Ministry of Education, he says.
 
“Students should not have to sue their schools to get acceptance,” he says. “It’s time to start listening to students. LGBT Catholic students still say they are not supported in their schools, especially as they try to start GSAs. The province needs to start listening.”