3 min

Toronto newsmakers of the year

Students fighting for GSAs

The GSA students. Credit: N Maxwell Lander

Meagan Smith remembers the nastiest bullying, which happened during Grade 9 gym class. They called her “dyke” and “lezzie,” but the worst was when she was told to “just go kill yourself.”

That was before she met Leanne Iskander and, along with about 30 other students at St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, founded the first ever gay-straight alliance (GSA) support group in an Ontario Catholic school.

Although the group isn’t allowed to call itself a GSA, there is no mistaking what it is.

For the students, being in a GSA means they walk the school hallways with their heads held high, as a team. They have each others’ backs.

But it doesn’t mean the bullying has stopped. It actually got worse.

One lunch hour, Taechun Menns was reading Xtra when a bully ripped it from his hands and tossed it in the trash. Someone scrawled “fag” on Oliver Mathias’s locker. Other students found Bible verses quoted on their Facebook walls.

These brave teenagers are heroes because they haven’t backed down. They took their fight for Catholic-school GSAs even further. Harnessing the power of mainstream and social media, the students have continued to push their school, the board, the Ministry of Education and the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, across North America, queer youth suicides have become front-page stories, highlighting the urgent need for support in schools. The rest of society is quickly realizing that gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans youth are at an increased risk of bullying, depression and suicide.

For these reasons and many more, the students fighting for GSAs are resoundingly Xtra’s newsmakers of the year.

The beginnings of the issue can be traced back to January, when the Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) reported that it had banned GSAs from all its schools.

When questioned about the ban by Xtra, board chair Alice Anne LeMay blurted out her now infamous response: “We don’t have Nazi groups, either. Gay-straight alliances are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

The story grabbed international attention and was picked up by Perez Hilton and Dan Savage, making it the most-read story ever published on Xtra’s website. Rick Mercer soon joined the conversation, stating he was “appalled that Catholic boards continue to deny GSAs.”

In the face of national outrage, the HCDSB lifted its ban, yet Catholic schools still refuse to allow the formation of any club focusing on gay, lesbian and trans issues.

In March, Iskander was told that a GSA “makes students prematurely identify as gay” and that “GSAs lead to activism.” Frustrated, she and her friends decided to go public.

The fight got ugly when the school banned rainbows during an anti-homophobia event because “they are associated with Pride.” The students found a loophole by baking cupcakes from rainbow-coloured batter.

With help from Queer Ontario, Xtra and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the students have continued to fight, even while politicians and gay apologists tried to silence them.

Led by Iskander, the students have remained remarkably cool under the intense glare of the media spotlight. They took every opportunity to get the story out and raise awareness.

Iskander has been showered with praise for her fierce activism and leadership. She was named Pride’s Honoured Dyke and Youth Grand Marshal and led the largest contingent of youth in the parade’s history. The shy and soft-spoken 16-year-old emerged as a media darling.

At the Inspire Awards gala on June 16, Iskander thanked her supporters for standing in solidarity during her ongoing fight for Catholic school GSAs: “I just want to thank all my fellow GSA members. You’re all awesome.”

Throughout the year, politicians stayed mum, avoiding Xtra’s calls and the issue itself by playing politics and ignoring pleas from students.

As the provincial election inched closer in October, activists pushed to make GSAs a ballot box issue, while many candidates tried to downplay it. But the students didn’t let that happen. Their fight for GSAs continues to garner headlines in both Xtra and mainstream media, with many now calling for an end to provincial funding for Catholic schools.

The students at the centre of the fight have sparked a movement that has galvanized both youth and enraged activists. The year is ending with a triumph: the Liberal government’s new Accepting Schools Act should really be called the St Joe’s GSA Law.

Although it contains a problematic loophole that means Catholic boards can continue to ban students from naming their support groups GSAs, the legislation is a monumental first step toward tackling the pervasive problem of homophobic bullying in Ontario schools.

A year after the initial Halton ban, the tide seems to have turned. Politicians such as Education Minister Laurel Broten (who replaced Leona Dombrowsky) and Premier Dalton McGuinty seem to finally grasp what the Catholic students fighting for GSAs have been saying all along.

Schools will soon be safer places thanks to their work.