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Toronto Catholic school celebrates first Pride week

GSA at Scarborough’s Blessed Pope John Paul II set to unveil LGBT mural

Maneesa Sotheedwaran, a Grade 11 student at Blessed Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough, is painting a mural that will be unveiled on the final day of her school’s first Pride week. Credit: Graeme Coleman

Maneesa Sotheedwaran, a Grade 11 student at Blessed Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough, has been spending time after classes to finish a special mural.

Students will unveil it on May 16, the final day of the school’s first Pride week. The east Toronto school’s gay straight alliance (GSA) chose this week because it’s closest to May 17, widely known as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

“Our mural is a picture of an eye, and it’s black and white because we don’t want to choose an ethnicity or gender, so it’s sort of our GSA’s vision of seeing the colours unite and promoting the colours that the Pride flag represents,” Sotheedwaran says, noting that when it’s finished, the mural will say “love is love” above the eye and “gay straight alliance” below.

Sotheedwaran pitched a GSA to her school two years ago, but it wasn’t until this school year that it came to life. The group has something planned for students each day of the week leading up to the unveiling, including an LGBT movie night and a discussion about homophobia.

“When I was in Grade 9, I wanted to start something like this, but I just couldn’t find the right teacher support,” Sotheedwaran says.

The Ontario government’s Accepting Schools Act passed into law in 2012 after a protracted battle with some parents and school administrators who didn’t want to see the support groups in the province’s Catholic schools. The bill gives all students in the public system the right to have groups such as GSAs.

Sotheedwaran and a fellow student first got support from teachers last year before they pitched their principal a proposal outlining the benefits of having a safe, LGBT-positive space in a Catholic school. “The principal we had at the time was completely supportive of it,” Sotheedwaran says. “He actually got really emotional and told me about his own experiences in his family, and he was very interested in having this happen. He thought it was very important.

“It’s important for a school to say that and accept all students because, whether or not you’re going to join because you’re gay or bisexual or whatever, knowing that your school has a GSA and that environment is there is like a sort of validation.”

Ryan Fleming, a teacher and the school’s GSA moderator, says students received applause when they introduced their GSA at a staff meeting. “For them to get up in front of our staff or get up in front of a classroom and talk about homophobia, that’s as brave as you can get in high school. I’m proud to be part of it,” Fleming says.

Although there were many anti-gay parents and religious groups who loudly opposed Bill 13 before it became law, Blessed Pope John Paul II’s GSA hasn’t met with opposition.

However, Fleming says there is still plenty of opposition to such groups, and some parents have forbidden their kids to join his school’s group. And the Catholic Student Leadership Impact Team, part of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, hosted its first GSA retreat this month with little advertising “because there would have been people actually protesting if they made it loud,” Fleming says.

Fleming says the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, a teachers’ association that represents all publicly funded Catholic schools in Ontario, plans to sign up and march in its first Pride parade at WorldPride, despite “organizations that are petitioning us to withdraw.”

International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia

Last year, people marked the May 17 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in nearly 120 countries.

The date was chosen because May 17 is the day the World Health Organization decided to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases in 1990, ceasing a streak of homophobia in the medical field that lasted more than a century.

The idea for a day of awareness was born in 2004. After a year-long campaign, the first International Day Against Homophobia occurred on May 17, 2005. It has grown to often include biphobia and transphobia in the title.

Canadian organization Fondation Émergence created a similar event in 2003. It originally took place on June 1, but the date was changed in 2006 to coincide with the international movement.

The “Declaration of Montreal on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Human Rights,” a document adopted in 2006 by the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights, which formed part of the first World Outgames, recommended annual recognition of an International Day Against Homophobia worldwide.

Fondation Émergence’s 2014 campaign, I Love My Two Moms/I Love My Two Dads, aims to reduce discrimination toward families with same-sex parents.

Read more about the campaign