Leanne Iskander has been blocked from starting an “LGBT support group” at her school and told that if she continues to advocate for gay-straight alliances she will face “disciplinary action.”
Iskander, the founder of Catholic Students for GSAs (CS4GSA), and her parents were summoned for a meeting with St Joseph Catholic Secondary School principal Jeff Quenneville on Sept 1 to discuss her latest proposal for a GSA, Iskander says. The principal told her unequivocally that “an LGBT support group or GSA will never be permitted in any Catholic school because the bishops forbid them.”
“I was told a gay-straight alliance will never happen,” she says. “We are allowed to have a group called ‘Open Arms,’ a general equity group, nothing specific to LGBT. And he said it will not be student-run, either.”
Quenneville then threatened Iskander, she says, telling her she will face “disciplinary action” if she continues to promote and advocate for GSAs at her Mississauga school.
The principal went on to say that “Catholic schools are not permitted to allow LGBT-specific groups because the bishops forbid them, so none of the schools are allowed.”
Iskander is now looking at legal action and is speaking to a lawyer. “We are obviously not going to compromise any more. They aren’t going to move.”
In June, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised, via MPP Glen Murray, that students would be allowed to start queer support groups in September, and that students would lead the way on all decisions.
Murray could not be reached for comment.
Queer Ontario’s Casey Oraa tells Xtra he is very disappointed but not surprised. “It’s obvious the Catholic board and the Liberal government have no interest in bettering the lives of LGBT youth. There’s no commitment.”
“In the upcoming provincial election, vote with your conscience. This issue should be shaping how you vote,” Oraa says. “The current government promised LGBT support groups would be allowed in all Ontario schools. This is not happening. It’s a systemic problem and it’s not going away.”
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s equality program, says she is “shocked, disturbed and appalled” at the principal’s decision.
“[The Catholic school board] is now openly declaring a ban on GSAs, LGBT support groups and even anti-homophobia groups, it now sounds like,” she says. “I am devastated that these students would have to fight for what is their due. They have a constitutional right to associate and express themselves.”
“It is not reasonable or acceptable to ban GSAs. I am very upset by this news. On a personal level this is like a punch in the gut.”
It wasn’t just Iskander who faced a threat on Sept 1 from the St Joe’s principal. A teacher at the school who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job says Quenneville had a clear message to staff about GSAs: “The principal said, ‘Our job is Catholicism first, curriculum second. The secular world may look at our beliefs and say we are bigots, but it is our beliefs and they are protected.’”
The teacher says Quenneville also made it clear that “if you didn’t agree, then find another job.”
The battle for GSAs began in January when the Halton Catholic District School Board banned the groups, which are stipulated as requirements by the Ministry of Education in its equity policy.
Roman Catholic schools have repeatedly denied students’ requests for GSAs, saying supports are already in place and church doctrine condemns gay sex as “sinful and immoral.” One example of the “supports” given to gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans students is the community group Courage International, an organization that claims to “cure gays.”
In March, Iskander and the St Joe’s GSA were blocked from forming any group with the word gay in the title.
This summer, a letter from a priest representing Toronto’s Coptic Christian community threatened to pull thousands of students from Toronto Catholic District School Board classrooms if homosexuality is taught in schools in any way.
On Aug 31, at a meeting packed with anti-gay parents, clergy and community members, the TCDSB passed amendments that put Catholic “denominational rights above human rights.”