Ontario students forming gay-straight alliances face opposition from some Catholic boards.

Ontario students forming gay-straight alliances face opposition from some Catholic boards.

February 6, 2012
LUC RINALDI
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

TORONTO – The Marshall Medium student newspaper was looking for hot topics for its spring 2011 issue. So when 12th-grader Erica Lenti pitched a story about the gay-straight alliances springing up in Ontario schools, the newspaper staff was sold.

Lenti interviewed staff and students at Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School in Toronto and the article passed through editing. But when Lenti picked up a copy of The Medium, she learned her story had been pulled.

Her facts were incorrect, she was told. Her take: school administrators wanted nothing to do with the topic.

Disagreements surrounding gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in Ontario's Catholic schools are not unusual. Few people want to discuss them, many people want to disallow them, no one knows what to call them and hardly anyone is sure of what they do.

GSAs - or whatever they are called at Catholic schools - are creating a stir in Ontario. Some Catholic boards have banned them outright, while others allow them or something similar to operate as anti-bullying clubs.

LEGAL RESPONSE

But if the Accepting Schools Act - introduced by the Ontario Liberal government in late 2011- becomes law, school boards may face pressure from the government to establish GSA-like clubs for students with same-sex attraction.

Catholic school boards fully support anti-bullying initiatives. The problem with GSAs is their potential to become clubs that go beyond offering anti-bullying support to advocating a lifestyle that contravenes Church teaching on sexual morality. The Accepting Schools Act would compel schools to support organizations "with the name gay-straight alliance or another name."

Premier Dalton McGuinty

Premier Dalton McGuinty

Premier Dalton McGuinty has stated that Catholic schools "will have gay-straight alliances," even though the right of Catholic schools to promote Catholic values is constitutionally guaranteed.

A showdown may be looming over this point but, meanwhile, Catholic schools have been trying to find ways to uphold Catholic teaching while respecting the requirements from the Ministry of Education. Marshall McLuhan has gone even further. Several months after pulling Lenti's article, it had a GSA.

When it opened it was called Bright Minds and was unadvertised to students. The group began with five members, but grew to about 20, Lenti said.

"When I was there, it was mainly just a bunch of kids sitting around talking about what they thought would be important to discuss," said Lenti.

Now the alliance organizes events and receives support from staff and students.

TRUSTEE OPPOSITION

Toronto Catholic school trustee John Del Grande opposes GSAs because he says they are not aligned with Catholic teaching and practice.

"GSAs as they exist have been much more than an extracurricular group," said Del Grande. "They have become synonymous with a movement with goals that extend much beyond student safety and supports."

John Del Grande

John Del Grande

While the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals must be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity," it also teaches that under no circumstance can same-sex acts be approved. When the Toronto Catholic District School Board held consultations on an equity policy it was drafting, Del Grande proposed several amendments.

"We need to respond (to the issue) as there is growing public pressure, but just responding to public pressure to do something does not make it the best course of action," he said. "We cannot afford to give up any more protections or uniqueness of our school system."

What the appropriate response to that pressure is, Del Grande said, is "the million dollar question" still being debated.

Paul Marai, an openly gay school trustee with the Halton Catholic District School Board who denounced his board's decision a year ago to ban GSAs, said he wants more schools to open clubs to combat intolerance and bullying.

"That could mean GSAs and that could mean other groups as well."

Rather than GSAs, Halton has clubs called SIDE Spaces (SIDE stands for safety, inclusivity, diversity and equity) that tackle all forms of bullying, not just homophobia. Marai calls this a step in the right direction but said students should be able to form whatever group they want, including GSAs, to protect them from bullying.

"It's better to have (SIDE Spaces) than to have nothing," said Marai. "At the end of the day, though, I think we should leave these things up to students who are the ones actually affected by it."

Marai said there is a misunderstanding of what GSAs do. They're in place to connect gay and straight students, he said, and to foster communication and tolerance. They also help prevent early self-identification, he added, something some GSA critics believe the groups cause.

"Tolerance is a very Catholic value and accepting others is a very Catholic thing so I'm frustrated when some people on the fringe seem to want to hijack the dialogue on this and somehow say this isn't Catholic," said Marai.

No one disputes Catholic schools should be safe environments that foster respect, equity and inclusiveness for all students.

CATHOLIC SOCIAL JUSTICE

"The notion of equity is one of fairness which touches at our notion at Catholic social justice," said Patrick Keyes, superintendent of education for the TCDSB.

Catholic schools are guided by the Catholic Equity and Inclusive Education policy, a document shaped by Catholic teaching. And there's no shortage of other resources that Catholics can consult on the issue. These include the 2004 document Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation.

Lenti, for one, would prefer to see GSAs remain as they are, both in name and function. When the GSA at Marshall McLuhan was called Bright Minds, she said, "it really took away from (the group's) mission and whole purpose."

But whether they are called gay-straight alliances or something else, Keyes said, in the end, it's about whether the board is providing a valuable service for the students.

"We're really hoping to give kids support . . . a support that follows Catholic teaching," he said. "Catholic teaching is about acceptance, about being part of a community."