Engagement, Equity, Leadership, Policy, Research

After the Happily Ever After

One year post-Bill 13, are Ontario Catholic schools supporting gay-straight alliance development?

Once upon a time Gay-Straight Alliances were granted in Ontario Catholic secondary schools…

It’s been one full school year since the passing of the Accepting Schools Act, Bill 13, which legally enables students to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and name them such in Ontario Catholic (and public) schools. However, it is difficult to gauge how the new legislation is impacting school communities. Are students attempting to create these clubs, now that they are legally able to? If so, are school boards, administrative staff, and educators supporting GSA creation and development? Are they working with students to facilitate GSAs’ growth in school communities? Does this story have a “gay” ending after all?

And they all lived happily ever after?

In the fall of 2010, the Ontario Ministry of Education introduced an equity and inclusion policy that referenced homophobia and required school boards to support GSA establishment if students requested these groups.[1] Halton Catholic District School Board (HCDSB) trustees disagreed with some aspects of this policy and decided to edit the document by removing references to “sexual orientation” and “gender,”[2] and vetoed students’ rights to create GSAs.[3] Likewise, many Ontario Catholic schools, such as St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, banned GSAs. Student activists and leaders confronted this human rights violation and persuaded politicians to develop Bill 13. Once Bill 13 passed, media reports on GSAs in Catholic schools stopped, and this inadvertently created a “happily-ever-after” story that left viewers with the impression that there would be no more resistance.

Although it may seem that the fight for GSAs is over, it is not safe to assume that students are successfully creating and running these clubs on their own terms. If history (the former banning of GSAs) is any indication, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their allies may still be lobbying for student-led groups. With the limited information available on GSAs in Catholic schools, there is no way of knowing for certain whether all Catholic school boards and schools are playing by the new rules and if GSA development is happening at a “just” pace. Some Catholic school boards and schools may very well be finding loopholes they can work around.

Within an educational context, it is obvious that ideological tensions exist between the provision of religious freedom and the legislative guarantee of LGBTQ rights. These seemingly oppositional freedoms both need to be respected, but make it difficult to discern exactly what just education is, seeing as “just” means something different to every stakeholder. Some people argue that Section 93 of the Constitution Act (1867) not only permits Catholic people to establish faith-based schools, but it also affords them the “right to maintain the religious character of the schools and to function according to Catholic philosophy and tenets.”[4] These beliefs and rights may make it difficult for many teachers and administrators to support the development of GSAs in Ontario Catholic schools and provide a just education for LGBTQ students.

Adult/student relationships and “supports”

With few exceptions, such as the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, media reports have documented adults’ opposition and resistance to GSA development in Catholic schooling. See, for example, accounts of religious and educational leaders’ responses to GSAs.[5] It is extremely rare, if not impossible, to find media depictions of students resisting GSA formation. But if students did not contest GSAs, why did adults think it was necessary to hinder their development? Adults, as they often do, position themselves as knowing what is best for youth, which masks students’ voices, stifles their agency, and trivializes their independence. The banning of GSAs illuminates the unequal power dynamics that exist between adults and youth in education. It is clear that the education system is rooted in a powerful hierarchy, where adults’ insights, experiences, and voices are privileged over those of students.

The publicized banning of GSAs in Ontario Catholic schools has helped expose the politics of sexuality in schooling and has directed attention to how adults impose limitations on student-directed clubs. This adult/youth dichotomy underpins documents that are used to guide GSA formation and development in Ontario Catholic secondary schools, for example:

“Adolescent students are not always the best judges of their own sexual orientation . . . Teachers and others entrusted with the pastoral care of students experiencing same-sex attraction should also keep in mind the different stages in a student’s life and his or her ability to absorb Teachings.”[6]

The text, Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-sex Orientation, positions youth as vulnerable and in need of guidance from adults about their sexuality. In this document, stable same-sex attraction is depicted as “abnormal”: “Adolescents are in the process of discovering their sexual identities, and a homosexual inclination may be quite normal when it occurs only for a period of time and is not firmly fixed.” When these types of beliefs are projected onto GSA members, can we say that just education is being provided? Another document, “Respecting Difference”: A resource guide for Catholic schools in the province of Ontario regarding the establishment and running of activities or organizations promoting equity and respect for all students, has been created to influence the conduct and content of GSAs, although these clubs are supposed to be student-directed. This text is troubling because it does not include information on the root cause of homophobia: heteronormativity. Heteronomativity assumes heterosexuality as what is “normal” and “natural” in society. If one of the priorities of GSAs is to address homophobic bullying, drawing on heterosexist documents will certainly not help solve the problem.

In September 2012, an Ontario Catholic school board distributed a letter to parents and guardians regarding Bill 13 and GSAs, which read:

“The Respecting Difference approach will continue to be an invaluable resource to ensure that student-led groups reflect Catholic values and adhere to Ontario Education Ministry guidelines … Our concern has always been about the content more so than the term [GSA], therefore we want to assure you that this law [Bill 13] does not remove the right of our principals to ensure the appropriateness of materials used in the school, and clubs will continue to strongly reflect and promote Catholic values and traditions.”[7]

It appears as although the fairytale does not have a happy ending, because this loophole further constrains LGBTQ students and their allies in their club activities. The roles and purposes of GSAs fall under four broad categories: providing safe spaces, support, education, and advocacy. The resources created to “support” GSA development in Ontario Catholic secondary schools appear to dissuade students from engaging in at least two of four categories: educating the school community about LGBTQ issues and engaging in advocacy-based work. For example, the Respecting Difference document states, “Student Activities or Organizations are not intended as fora for activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school.”[8] Another document developed to clarify this states: for “issues/topics that call for action or advocacy on positions that may be contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church… The presence of a caring adult to listen and to facilitate, as needed, provides a healthy and open forum for discussion.”[9] Once again, students are positioned as incapable of discussing issues that impact them without the help of adults who are assumed to be the knowledge keepers. Unfortunately, these resources may be uniformly used to keep GSAs and their members in check with religious doctrine and to regulate group activities and initiatives, despite the needs and desires of group members. GSAs are student-led, non-curricular groups that are there to meet the needs of students and not the visions of adults who believe they know best.

Most recently, in May, 2013, two Toronto Catholic District School Board (TDCSB) trustees put forth a motion to ban GSAs despite provincial legislation, which specifically indicates that school boards and principals cannot veto students’ rights to form these clubs.[10] The board’s chair, Ann Andrachuck, did not believe the motion would pass and declared that, “This board does support the legislation,” but she also stated that, “We [the TDCSB] don’t particularly like GSAs from our Catholic perspective …“[11] Although the motion failed with a vote of seven to four, Erin Edghill, a GSA member at a Catholic high school, was quoted as saying, “I think this motion is a step backwards from what we worked so hard to get to.”[12] It is obvious that this motion has negatively impacted many students because they had to revisit their fight for GSAs. The implicit message of this motion is that if the board had a choice, GSAs would not exist, but since it is out of their hands they begrudgingly tolerate them. If this is not evidence that some Catholic boards need to clean up their act in order to provide safe and supportive educational environments for LGBTQ youth, what else is out there to convince us otherwise?

Rewriting an underwhelming ending

It’s clear that some Catholic schools have provided good support for the development of GSAs. But for Catholic school boards that are doing their job, where is the celebration? For those that are not, where is the whistle blowing? Legislation that protects LGBTQ students’ human rights is one step towards more equitable education, but what is the next step? Catholic schools boards, administrators, and teachers must work with students and support their ideas, initiatives, and activities. GSAs should not be treated differently from other school-based clubs and their purposes or goals should not be censored to fit a particular religious framework. For Catholic schools to provide just education for LGBTQ students, GSAs and the diversity of their members should be acknowledged and celebrated in schools. Granting students GSAs will not automatically eradicate homophobia and it will not disrupt the heteronormative school systems that make GSAs necessary in the first place. The safety net needs time to grow and strengthen in order to reach the whole school community; the story needs a sequel. It’s time for adults to match student commitment to social justice and look beyond the neatly packaged fairytale ending to what happens after the “happily ever after.” 

Facts about GSAs

  • GSAs do not put LGBTQ students at further risk for marginalization. LGBTQ youth seem to be more vulnerable when their needs are ignored and the school system fails to support them in the ways they ask to be.
  • Clubs are safe havens where students belong to a community of like-minded people. GSAs enable LGBTQ students and their allies to feel supported and empowered to create positive change in their school communities. GSAs hold schools accountable when the education system fails to do so. Rampant homophobia exists and sexuality and gender “norms” are taught (usually indirectly) and reinforced in schooling. GSAs are often the only place where LGBTQ students can talk about their experiences as minorities and collaborate with peers and staff to make things better.
  • GSAs develop student leadership skills similar to other school-related clubs, such as planning, organizing, communication, and teamwork. If there is a GSA-related risk, it involves denying students opportunities to lead in their own clubs.

One School’s Success

By Holly Bennett

Rochelle Witter attends a Catholic high school in southwestern Ontario. She shares this experience with their GSA:

“Our oldest members have told me that before this year, getting the GSA started was a challenge. Not many teachers or students were open to the idea. This year, however, was a success. Our school has actually been supportive of the program, and the teacher that supervises our GSA is very supportive and caring. Freedom of speech and a hand to hold is what she gives us. She helped give us ideas for posters to put around the school.

“The student body has been very accepting and now knows you do not have to be gay or lesbian to join our club. This past March the school helped four of us to attend “Outshine,” a gathering in Toronto of GSAs across Canada. My fellow members and I had a great time learning about different sexual identities, how to be an ally to someone who needs sticking up for, and much more. We plan to share these newfound facts with next year’s GSA team.” 

First published in Education Canada, September 2013


EN BREF – Cet article examine la loi 13 de 2012 sur les écoles sécuritaires et tolérantes en Ontario, ainsi que ses implications pour les alliances gai-hétéro (AGH) dans les écoles secondaires catholiques ontariennes. Il peut sembler que l’adoption de cette loi ait clos la lutte des élèves pour obtenir des AGH. Toutefois, comme il existe peu d’information sur les AGH dans ces écoles, il est impossible de savoir si tous les conseils scolaires et toutes les écoles catholiques respectent les nouvelles règles et si les AGH peuvent se développer à un rythme équitable. On discute encore des tensions découlant de l’opposition entre la liberté religieuse et la protection des droits des LGBTQ. Enfin, des suggestions sont présentées afin d’aider les écoles secondaires catholiques ontariennes à soutenir l’établissement et l’épanouissement des AGH.

[1] Kate Hammer, “Halton Catholic School Board Under Fire for Banning Gay-Straight Alliances,” The Globe and Mail, August 24, 2012. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/halton-catholic-school-board-under-fire-for-banning-gay-straight-alliances/article1864793/?service=mobile

[2] Andrea Houston, “Halton Catholic Policy and GSA Ban Remains in Effect. ‘I don’t think sex clubs should be in school’: trustee,” XTRA!: Canada’s Gay and Lesbian News, January 11, 2011. http://www.xtra.ca/public/toronto/halton_catholic_policy_and_gsa_ban_remains_in_effect-9626.aspx

[3] Andrea Houston, “Halton Catholic Schools Ban Gay-straight Alliance Groups: ‘We don’t have Nazi groups either.’,” XTRA!: Canada’s Gay and Lesbian News, January 6, 2011. http://www.xtra.ca/public/Toronto/Halton_Catholic_schools_ban_gaystraight_alliance_groups-9611.aspx

[4] Steven Chase, “Constitutional Challenge Threatens Ontario’s Anti-bullying Law,” The Globe and Mail, September 26, 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/constitutional-challenge-threatens-ontarios-anti-bullying-law/article4571147/

[5] Andrea Houston, “Mississauga Catholic Students Demand GSA: NEWS/Told supports already exist, such as group that ‘cures gayness,” XTRA!: Canada’s Gay and Lesbian News, March 16, 2011, http://www.xtra.ca/public/toronto/mississauga_catholic_students_demand_gsa-9888.aspx ; Keith Leslie, “Cardinal Thomas Collins Opposes Students Calling Clubs ‘Gay-straight Alliances’,” The Globe and Mail, May 28, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/cardinal-thomas-collins-opposes-students-calling-clubs-gay-straight-alliances/article4216548/

[6] Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Guidelines To Assist Students Of Same-Sex Orientation, PDF, 2004. http://acbo.on.ca/englishdocs/Pastoral%20Guidelines.pdf

[7] Ann Andrachuk and Bruce Rodrigues, Untitled, PDF, September 12, 2013, https://www.tcdsb.org/Board/EIE/Documents/Parents%20re%20Bill13%20-%20Gay%20Straight%20Alliances%20Clubs,%20September%2012,%202012.pdf

[8] Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, “Respecting Difference”: A resource guide for Catholic schools in the province of Ontario regarding the establishment and running of activities or organizations promoting equity and respect for all students, PDF, January 25, 2012. http://www.archtoronto.org/pdf/RespectingDifference.pdf

[9] Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, Respecting Difference Resource for Catholic School Boards, undated PDF. http://www.tcdsb.org/Board/EIE/Documents/Clarification%20for%20Respecting%20Difference%20Resource%20for%20Catholic%20School%20Boards.pdf

[10] Andrea Houston, “Toronto Catholic School Board Moves to Ban GSAs,” Xtra! Canada’s Gay and Lesbian News, May 16, 2013. http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/Toronto_Catholic_school_board_moves_to_ban_GSAs-13586.aspx

[11] Moira MacDonald, “Trustees Prepared to Ban GSAs: Catholic schools,” National Post, May 17, 2013, A9.

[12] Andrea Houston, “Toronto Catholic School Board Rejects GSA Ban: ONTARIO NEWS / Education Minister Liz Sandals says all schools must follow Accepting Schools Act,” Xtra! Canada’s Gay and Lesbian News, May 24, 2013. http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/Toronto_Catholic_school_board_rejects_GSA_ban-13618.aspx

Meet the Expert(s)

Jenny Kassen

Jenny Kassen, OCT, is an Intermediate/Senior educator and freelance illustrator. She works in the Thames Valley District School Board and has teachables in Visual Arts, English, French and Special Education.

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Alicia Lapointe

Alicia Lapointe, OCT, is a PhD candidate with a focus on equity and inclusive education in the Faculty of Education at Western University, researching GSAs and student activism in secondary schools.

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