Fifteen-year-old student Matt West is insulted and offended by the blatant homophobia he heard at an April 27 meeting regarding the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s (TCDSB) draft equity and inclusive education policy.
The homophobia didn’t come just from a few parents, West says, who asked that the name of his Toronto Catholic school not be included, to protect his safety. He says some school officials seemed to take pains to keep youth from being heard.
“The people who organized the event didn’t write down any questions or comments,” he tells Xtra. “So that makes me think it was all an act to make us feel like our voice was being heard. [Student] opinions are a minor fact for them.”
“Some of my friends were told not to clap [when students spoke] or speak to the media… It was just a generally horrible meeting.”
The gymnasium at Our Lady of Lourdes Public School on Sherbourne St was packed with approximately 150 parents, trustees, clergy and students. It was a chance for the community to comment or voice concerns on the policy before the final vote May 19.
Over the course of the evening, the TCDSB heard claims that GSAs “indoctrinate” and “confuse” youth by “normalizing” a “dangerous lifestyle.” Many others demanded that any reference to “sexual orientation” be removed from the document. The sense is that if students start talking about their identity, they will begin having sex.
The crowd was distinctly divided by age. Most of those who stood to speak were adults who argued that allowing a GSA would open the door to “sexual promiscuity and disease.”
One parent quoted the Catholic Catechism that says gays are “objectively disordered.”
“There is nothing wrong with telling our kids [being gay] is a dangerous lifestyle,” said another parent, who refused to give her name.
“Once you allow a GSA, then [schools] will have to allow everything else. The Catholic faith is being undermined. Our children will be so confused,” said another parent, Lola Fortino.
On April 15, the Assembly of Catholic Bishops and the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA) sent a memo instructing Catholic schools to allow students to form “anti-bullying” groups. But the president of the OCSTA, Nancy Kirby, stresses to Xtra that GSAs are still banned in all Catholic schools because the clubs lead to activism.
West disagress. “Banning GSAs makes students feel under attack, like we’re discriminated against by our school,” he says. “Some of my friends are scared to go to school because of bullying. It absolutely sickens me.”
Toronto Catholic student Cathy Marland, 16, wearing a rainbow button on her jacket, says she would love to start a GSA at her school. “I’ve tried to talk about starting one, but some of our religion teachers aren’t very open about this,” she says.
Sitting at the same table, Clinton Somerton, 46, a parishioner at Holy Family in Parkdale, wants sexual orientation removed from the policy. He says Catholic schools are slowly becoming less and less Catholic.
“I’m a Christian, so I believe people can be transformed,” he tells Xtra. “We are indoctrinating children at a young age to be hyper-sexualized. Sexual acts are a matter of choice.”
Jacquie Guerron, a parent of six children, says talking about sex at any age is “wrong.”
“As Catholics, [sex education] should be taught by church and parents,” she says. “This is protecting the innocence of children.”
Xtra has been keeping a close eye on Catholic school boards in Ontario since revealing in January that the Halton Catholic School Board banned GSAs. Also “sexual orientation” was removed from the equity policy as something that shouldn’t be discriminated against, like race, disability or religion. At the time, board chair Alice Anne LeMay told Xtra that the board “doesn’t allow Nazi groups either. Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Xtra revealed in February that GSAs are forbidden at all Ontario Catholic schools. The final vote for Halton’s “Catholic template” equity policy is May 3. The Catholic template includes “sexual orientation.”
In March, Xtra told the story of a group of students at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga who were rejected in their bid for a GSA. Since going public, the students have faced vicious bullying in class and online. Led by 16-year-old Leanne Iskander, the St Joe’s GSA is currently moving forward with an anti-homophobia event on June 3 at the school.
Patrick Keyes, superintendent of education for the TCDSB, tells Xtra the board has been flooded with diametrically divided feedback about the policy. With TCDSB being the last Catholic board in Ontario to pass the policy, he is very aware of the media spotlight.
“The Catholic community is very confused as to what equity and inclusion means. That’s what we’re trying to communicate,” he says. “I’ve heard from lots of people who self-identify as gay, and they certainly don’t feel like they are part of the church. And thought needs to be given to that.”
The meeting at Our Lady of Lourdes is really a continuation of an April 18 information session about the policy that turned “pretty ugly,” says Chris D’Souza a lecturer at York University and, previously, the equity and diversity officer for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. “I was verbally attacked by seven or eight people.”
He was asked to speak about protections for all identities in the Ontario Human Rights Code. He was met with shouts and anti-gay attacks.
“They attacked me because I openly supported groups that will protect students,” he says. “I am perfectly comfortable talking about same-sex marriage, which is a right in Canada. They don’t seem to be able to understand and reconcile how I can be a practising Catholic and still promote vociferously the rights for all identities. So, they voice their opinions angrily.” The forum was cut short to stop the heckling.
D’Souza is also the reason why a March 26 TCDSB information session on the policy was abruptly cancelled, following angry and vocal complaints from parents who called the board demanding he be removed from the speaker list.
“I believe it was cancelled because of me,” he says. “I was scheduled to speak at the forum on the equity strategy.” D’Souza adds he was one of the experts who helped draft the equity and inclusive education strategy.
“I think they are really struggling, trying to balance a really strong desire by teachers and administrators in Catholic school boards to meet the needs and ensure students are indeed protected, and balancing that with the public perception of what school boards should be doing,” he says.