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Toronto Catholic board blocks lesbian comedian from anti-bullying event

The board and school refuse to release speaker list

Comedian Dawn Whitwell. Credit: Courtesy of Dawn Whitwell

After giving a lesbian comedian the boot, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) is now refusing to say if there were any queer speakers at an anti-bullying event June 7.

The event at Bishop Marrocco-Thomas Merton Catholic School in Toronto featured guests speaking on eight topics: equity and anti-oppression, dance instead of violence, awareness-raising about equity for all, drama/masks and masking alienation, the Catholic school boards’ Pastoral Guidelines on Same Sex Orientation, gender issues in partner dancing, parallels in discrimination, and guidance services available in schools, says Emmy Szekeres Milne, spokesperson for the board.

The sole lesbian scheduled to speak was dropped from the bill just prior to the event.

Comedian Dawn Whitwell, who regularly talks about homophobia and same-sex marriage in her material, says she was invited by a teacher to speak to students. “The teacher who asked me to be a part of this day fought like hell for it,” she says. “It barely squeaked by with approval, and they kept looking for loopholes to revoke it the entire time.”

Just before the event, a lawyer for the board Googled Whitwell’s name and discovered she’s married to a woman. “So, [the board] made the school cancel me from the event. The lawyer also found out I was an egg donor, so that was another reason. They knew I’m gay and in a gay marriage. The teacher that organized the event has seen me perform.”

Milne maintains that the board reviewed Whitwell’s MySpace videos and “didn’t feel she would be a good fit.”

Whitwell, who went to Catholic school, says her plan was to tell a few jokes poking fun at homophobia. “Mostly I feel bad for the students,” she says. “They want information. They are gay positive. This behaviour is why I was so deeply closeted in high school.”

The teacher sent a disappointed letter to Whitwell, breaking the news that the board had cancelled her appearance.

While Milne says the event focused on “bullying, not specifically LGBT bullying,” the topics covered gender issues and the Pastoral Guidelines.

Written by the bishops, the Pastoral Guidelines is the primary document for instructing school administrators and teachers on homosexuality. It reads that “gay” is not an identity, gay sex is “immoral and sinful” and gay people ought to live a life of “chastity.” Queer Ontario and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have already blasted the document, calling it anti-gay and homophobic from start to finish.

Milne refused to confirm if there were any other gay, lesbian or trans speakers on the bill to discuss homophobic or transphobic bullying. She also refused to reveal the speakers’ job titles or even what qualifies each to speak on each topic. “I don’t have the list of speakers. You are welcome to call the school,” she says. “I can tell you it’s external people and staff on the list.”

But principal Maria Pereira also refused to provide a list of names or even the job titles of the speakers. “The list of speakers is in the hands of Emmy Milne at the board. She asked me to tell you to contact her.”

Why all the secrecy surrounding the people invited to speak to students?

“People are paying for this discrimination,” Whitwell reminds. “Taxpayers are actually paying for something that’s against the law, homophobia. People in Ontario should know this is happening.”

Catholic school boards in Ontario have been under fire since Xtra reported a ban on gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in January at the Halton Catholic School Board. Xtra later revealed that a silent ban remains at all Ontario Catholic schools on any group focused on gay, lesbian and trans issues. Even groups with “gay-sounding titles” are prohibited.

In March, a group of youth at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga was blocked from forming a GSA. On June 3, the group organized an anti-homophobia day at the school but was banned from proudly displaying any rainbows at their information booth. To get around the ban, the students dyed cupcake batter in a rainbow of colours.

Determined to see that all youth in Ontario have a safe space at school, the youth of St Joe’s GSA have launched Catholic Students for GSAs and are bringing their fight to the Pride parade, says the group’s founder, Leanne Iskander.

Now, Iskander, who was recently named the Pride Toronto 2011 honoured dyke and youth grand marshal, is appealing to the community for donations for buttons, T-shirts and a banner to lead her group in the parade and spread their message at the festival.

Join the group in marching in the 2011 Pride parade