When Chelsey Worth attended a Halton Catholic school in 2009, the principal of her school barred her from planning a day of silence to honour bullied gay students.
Worth, now 19, and her girlfriend were both in Grade 12 at Assumption Catholic Secondary School in Burlington, a school that wasn’t very welcoming for gay, lesbian and trans students, she says.
The principal quickly put a stop to Worth’s idea, fearing the wrath of anti-gay trustees and teachers at the school, she says.
“It was supposed to be a day to commemorate gay students that suffered from bullying,” Worth says. “He didn’t let us say anything. He just talked at us and it was over.”
And not much has changed, it seems, at Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB).
The HCDSB is facing a storm of outrage following an Xtra story Jan 6 that quoted the board chair comparing gay-straight alliances (GSAs) to Nazi groups.
The comments were made when Xtra asked board chair Alice Anne LeMay to explain the decision to ban GSAs when the HCDSB passed its equity and inclusion policy Nov 2.
“We don’t have Nazi groups either,” LeMay said. “Gay-straight alliances are banned because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
The story lit up Twitter all weekend and made the rounds on Facebook, attracting the highest number of visitors ever on Xtra’s website. It was even picked up by media powerhouses Perez Hilton, Dan Savage and Rick Mercer, who helped push the staggering number of hits to more than 100,000 and counting.
“[LeMay’s] comments don’t surprise me too much,” Worth says. “She’s definitely still in the dark ages.”
Sarah Kelly is a masters of education student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. For her teaching placements she works with two GSA groups, so when she heard about the ban, she says, she had to fight it.
After starting the Facebook group “Fight the Halton Catholic School Board’s Ban on Gay Straight Alliances,” she began to actively promote a petition that has collected more than 700 names, and she made a YouTube video to rally support to force the board to overturn its decision.
She’s also helping to organize a protest at the next HCDSB meeting on Jan 18 in Burlington.
“I’m also getting my students in the GSA groups involved,” she says. “This is very important. This is shocking. This blatantly violates the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
On Jan 7 the HCDSB posted a statement on its website, claiming LeMay’s comments were taken out of context.
“It was not my intent to make any type of comparison between gay-straight alliances and Nazi groups. Rather, I was providing a number of examples of groups that are not endorsed and permitted in Halton Catholic schools. For example, groups in favour of abortion or hate groups of any nature. I did not make a direct comparison between gay-straight alliances and any of these groups, nor was that my intent,” states LeMay.
Halton trustee Ed Viana didn’t seem to understand the question when Xtra called for comment on the ban.
“As long as they don’t bring private matters to the board, we’re okay,” he says. “As soon as they step out of that it’s a different story.”
When pressed about whether he supports LeMay’s comparison of GSAs to Nazi groups, he says, “I do support [LeMay’s] comments. She was very clear. We have policies we go by. People have private lives. Nobody ever asked me about this during the election.”
Another trustee, Anthony Danko, told Xtra he had no idea so many people were upset over LeMay’s comments. “I don’t use Facebook or Twitter. So I don’t know what outrage you’re talking about.”
But HCDSB’s newly elected openly gay trustee, Paul Marai, says the board has been inundated with emails and phone calls from people demanding the ban be scrapped.
“That ban is unacceptable,” he says. “This is a waste of time. We can actually be talking about things that improve the lives of students.”
Marai says his constituents in Oakville are “overwhelmingly” encouraging him to challenge the ban at the next board meeting.
But he may not have to wait that long. Marai says the board will discuss the ban during a planned policy meeting on Jan 11.
“Thanks for bringing attention to this,” he told Xtra. “I don’t know if I would have brought it up with the board because I have other issues I want to deal with, but I see people are upset about this. Bullying in schools is an important issue anyway.
“I hope things change because of this. The community has spoken.”