On a cold day in March 2011, an inconspicuous, unremarkable group of students at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, did something remarkable, something that, in their school – indeed in Catholic schools across Canada at the time – was unthinkable. They requested permission to establish a club, a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) club in their school. To the unenlightened eye, their action appeared small, routine even. It was a logical request for an in-school club whose focus would be to make the school a safe space for lgbtq students and their straight allies by raising awareness about, and so hopefully reducing, school-based homophobia. It was not even an original idea; GSAs had originated in the United States almost 25 years before. Unbeknown to these students, they would soon be taking on a significant battle for Canadian LGBTQ rights. Their actions set off a series of events that would reverberate across the country.
The students quickly learned that St Joseph’s school was not ready for such a club. A maelstrom ensued. The students, led by 16-year-old Leanne Iskander, encountered strong opposition first from their principal and then from administrators at the district level. By June, they remained in a standoff. The students vowed to continue their fight in the next school term.
The establishment of a GSA in a secular Canadian public school barely seems an issue worth noting, judging by the lack of media stories about such attempts. There is, in fact, no formal mechanism in place to ban GSA clubs in non-religious public schools. Starting a GSA club in a secular public school has often, though not always, proved no more controversial than setting up an anti-racism or debate club. Students who join a GSA in a non-religious school have the right to broadcast their club meeting schedule over the school’s public address system, actively solicit other students for their club using posters and other means, meet on school property, and name their club a GSA without any concern over the use of the word gay. Note that publicly funded separate Catholic schools are accountable to civil, not church, authorities. Religious bodies do not have a constitutional or legal interest in separate schools, and, as such, Canadian Catholic separate schools are not private or parochial schools as many are in other countries.
In Canadian Catholic schools, such as St Joseph Secondary School in Mississauga, however – a publicly funded school, I must emphasize – Leanne Iskander and friends’ request to establish such a club was rejected outright more than once and caused serious alarm, not only for the administrators of St Joseph’s but also for its school district, the Ontario bishops, and the Ontario provincial government.
The increasingly public battle between this particular group of students in St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School and their Catholic school administrators is significant because it represents the growing discontent between publicly funded Canadian Catholic schools and Canadian society at large. In Canada, same-sex legal rights have been steadily advancing – in 2005 Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize marriage equality nationwide (Rayside, 2008) – and Canadian gay Pride parades regularly attract millions of tourist dollars. In the publicly funded Canadian Catholic school system, however, advances in same-sex legal rights have been virtually non-existent. When trying to determine how to manage the existence of lgbtq people (students, teachers, aids, and support staff included) in Canadian Catholic schools, Catholic education leaders turn to Catholic doctrine rather than to their legal authority – Canadian human rights law. Catholic doctrine describes “homosexual acts” as “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered” and count among the list of “sins gravely contrary to chastity” (cited in Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops [OCCB], 2004a, p. 53). Needless to say, relying on Catholic doctrine as a guide for curricular and policy decisions makes Canadian Catholic schools hotbeds for homophobia.