Why Gay-Straight Alliances are Essential

A Matter of Acceptance

Let’s start with the story of Suzette and Tonya. They were a romantic couple before 2005 but even though they wanted to get married, they couldn’t because it was not legal. When marriage equality became legal across Canada, even in Alberta (the last province to allow it), they booked Calgary’s Deane House as their wedding venue, exchanged rings, and declared their love in the presence of friends, family and a representative of the province of Alberta. They celebrated with much happy crying. They were legal; their relationship officially protected by the laws of the land.

Now let’s consider another story with no happy ending. In 2004 a boy—call him Patrick—took his own life. He had been subjected to relentless homophobic bullying at the Calgary Catholic high school where Tonya was teaching. The day she learned of his death, Tonya came home, her hands shaking, and asked Suzette if she would support Tonya’s quitting her job and going back to university. She wanted to go to graduate school and study homophobia in Canadian Catholic schools, the problem she felt had caused Patrick to take his life.

Both Tonya’s and Suzette’s lives were dramatically changed by Patrick’s death. Tonya’s graduate work looked for causes behind the sad statistic (confirmed by the Canadian Mental Health Association) that LGBTQ youth are a high risk for suicide. Patrick had been a promising drama student in his school. He had sought help from school counselors and administration but found none. When Suzette, a novelist, read Tonya’s Master’s thesis, she asked, “Can I turn your life into a novel?” She wrote Monoceros, a novel in which a gay youth named Patrick Furey commits suicide after being unremittingly bullied in his Calgary Catholic high school. Pure fiction—based on pure fact. Tonya’s thesis was also published under the title That’s So Gay: Homophobia in Canadian Catholic Schools.

Later, when Tonya taught at the University of Calgary, a frequent reaction to her saying she had written about homophobia in Canadian Catholic schools was a shrug. “Homophobia in Catholic schools? What else would you expect?” Though Monoceros was positively reviewed all over Canada and won literary awards, people would often say to Suzette, “That couldn’t happen nowadays, right?”

We have come to understand that our background is a lot more than just our story. It is part of the evolution of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) rights in Canada. In Alberta, the latest chapter in that development is an educational, legislative and social struggle over Gay-Straight Alliances in schools. Because of Patrick’s death and the books we have written in response to his tragedy, we have naturally been involved in that struggle. Could a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in Patrick’s school have swayed things for him, enabled him to live on?

Originating in the US, GSAs are in-school student clubs that focus on making schools safe spaces for LGBTQ students and their straight friends. Scholarly studies have shown GSAs to be a success story contributing to whole-school wellness with positive effects on the broader community. Of particular note was a 2014 University of British Columbia study headed by Elizabeth Saewyc that compared GSAs to school-based anti-homophobia policies. It found that GSAs are more successful than school policies in creating a more welcoming atmosphere for LGBTQ students.

Just ask any student who is currently, or has been, involved in a GSA. One of 16-year-old Mackenzie Beerbaum’s “proudest accomplishments” is being one of the founders of Alberta’s first junior high school GSA (at Calgary’s George P. Vanier Junior High School) in 2014. An avid musician who is active in marching band, she is hoping to be accepted as a mallet percussionist in the Calgary Stampede Showband. Her GSA made T-shirts, held bake sales, attended the Calgary Pride parade and worked on educating club members about LGBTQ social issues. Her most poignant memory from an early GSA meeting was when a guest from the Calgary Sexual Health Centre helped Beerbaum’s GSA make buttons with rainbow images and “I (heart) diversity” on them. “It was so simple,” Beerbaum recalls, “but just being in a group of people, talking and making buttons was so nice. It felt so comfortable. This is when I realized that the people around me…were going to be there for me when I needed support or just someone to talk to.”

At the university, a frequent reaction was “Homophobia in Catholic schools? What else would you expect?”

According to Grade 12 student Austin Bender, the 2015 recipient of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, being able to start a GSA at Springbank Community High School changed his life. Having endured homophobic name-calling since Grade 5, things came to a head in 2013 when he came home crying. His mother talked to school administration and the bullying stopped. But Bender felt he could not wait for the school environment to change. “By doing nothing I would be hurting those who couldn’t speak. I had to take the initiative.” At the first meeting, only Bender, his teacher-sponsor and two friends attended. But the club grew to a regular attendance of 25–35. A pivotal moment for Bender was when he noticed that his friends had stopped using homophobic slurs. He also reconciled with his bullies. “The best thing is the people who were doing this, I’m actually friends with them now. They’ve come to meetings. We’ve reconciled. My motto is…forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness but because you deserve peace.” Interestingly, one of the students who bullied Austin has now identified as LGBTQ.

Because of the GSA, Bender’s school has become a safe place. “We’ve had people say that they’re suicidal and we’ve gotten them to see the counselor, and it’s really helped them.” Bender’s future is bright. He has been conditionally accepted into the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education.

The first known Alberta GSA was begun in 1999 when a student at Red Deer’s Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School approached her English teacher, asking him why an anti-discrimination group already in existence in the school was doing nothing to counter prejudice based on sexual orientation. The teacher helped her negotiate with the school administration, and the group was allowed to form in 2000. In 2005, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) showed its support for GSAs through a subcommittee called Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). SOGI promotes understanding of gender and sexually diverse students and teachers, including students who have parents of the same gender. Prior to its support for GSAs, the ATA was the first teachers’ federation in Canada to amend its Code of Professional Conduct to protect students from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. But the ATA can only create its own policy. For GSAs to be more than an idea, government had to become involved.

In 2014, Alberta Liberal MLAs Kent Hehr and Laurie Blakeman were both well aware of GSAs and looking for ways to assist them. In April of 2014, Hehr introduced Motion 503 in the Alberta Legislature, a motion to support GSAs within provincial law. Speaking to his motion, Hehr said, “(The) reality is GSAs save lives.” Hehr’s motion was voted down by both the PC majority and the Wildrose opposition. Though the motion was defeated, Blakeman felt that Alberta public and the government were not on the same page. “Albertans were already there,” she said. “It was just the politicians who needed to be brought along.”

In late 2014, Blakeman won the rare opportunity for an opposition member to present a private member’s bill of her choosing. Her choice was Bill 202, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act, which she dedicated to her mother, a principal and high school teacher who was especially concerned about rights for vulnerable students. With this Act, Blakeman wanted to ensure students could have GSAs in their schools, but she wanted to take advantage of the bill’s form to go further. “Given that I had a whole bill, not just a motion,” she says, “I put in all the things I felt needed to be addressed: granting of GSAs; protecting students’ choice to call them GSAs if they wished; repealing section 11.1 from the Human Rights Act (which gave parents notice and the right to opt out); and re-instating of references to the Charter and the Alberta Human Rights Act in the Education Act and the Schools Act.” That students must be able to name a GSA a “Gay-Straight Alliance” was especially important for Blakeman. She didn’t want school administrations choosing “cute euphemisms.”

Former premier Jim Prentice called Blakeman’s Bill 202 “unfair” and “unbalanced.” He said, “Bill 202 asks us to cast aside our constituents’ beliefs in parental rights, and in the autonomy of school boards, to support GSAs.” Rather than amend Bill 202, the government introduced Bill 10, an Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children. Procedurally Bill 10 displaced Bill 202; Blakeman’s bill died. In a television interview following the news, she wept.

According to Prentice, Bill 10 was going to “build consensus” and resolve the “divisive” elements of Bill 202, the ones threatening to take control over GSAs away from parents and schools. Unlike Blakeman’s Bill 202, Bill 10 did not guarantee a student’s right to form a GSA in a school. Its support of school “autonomy” left the decision on GSAs up to school administrators. A clause in Bill 10 described how a student whose request for a GSA had been denied could go to court to request that one be created. This was simply impractical. At the age of 14, getting a learner’s license is probably daunting enough. Forget about navigating the court system and its costs.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Bill 10 was met with an eruption of criticism in news editorials and from NDP and Liberal politicians. After Bill 10’s second reading, Thomas Lukaszuk, the only PC politician to initially oppose the bill, said, “I simply do not believe in incremental granting of human rights… We didn’t give women half a vote, we gave them a full vote.” Another high-profile critic was the Calgary Stampeders’ star Canadian running back, Jon Cornish, who tweeted sarcastically, “Gay Straight Alliance? No! Get back in the closet!”

The negative publicity over Bill 10 caused the PCs to add an amendment two days after the original bill was introduced. The change was that students denied a GSA by their school could appeal to the Ministry of Education rather than to the court. According to PC MLA Sandra Jansen, who presented the amendment, if a GSA were not allowed in a school, it could occur “hopefully within a school environment.” Blakeman and other opposition members immediately interpreted Jansen’s words as a loophole schools could exploit to move GSAs off school grounds.

Seeing these developments in the news, anyone—LGBTQ or straight—who cared about social justice could only shake their heads. It was like the old Jim Crow laws, the US segregation laws whereby African-American people were supposed to be separate but equal. In this situation, young LGTBQ people like Patrick would still be out in the cold.

The PCs’ Bill 10 was like US segregation laws in which African-Americans were supposed to be equal but separate.

Frustrating as the “amended” Bill 10 was, the outrage that it had caused among LGBTQ people and straight allies was gratifying. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi was most succinct when he said the bill would make Albertans look like “hillbillies.” Responding to Prentice’s comment about Bill 10 that “Rights are never absolute,” comedian Rick Mercer mockingly tweeted, “Nice ring to it, Jim. Maybe that should be on the [Alberta] license plate.”

To many people’s total surprise, before Bill 10 went to its third and final reading, Premier Prentice announced the Bill would be put on hold. He admitted, “Bill 10 has added to, rather than resolved, these divisions.” Albertans still did not have legally protected GSAs, but they also were not stuck with the flawed Bill 10.

It was three months before the Alberta government introduced a radically amended Bill 10. It received Royal Assent on March 19, 2015. As of that date, all Alberta schools could have GSAs if requested by students. The final version of Bill 10 contained all the features of Blakeman’s Bill 202, and her smile was wide when she said in the Legislative Assembly, “It’s hard to contain my joy.” Both our elation and frustration were reflected perfectly in a piece by long-time activist Stephen Lock in GayCalgary magazine. He wrote, “This was, and is, such a clear-cut case of ‘Just-get-on-with-it-already’.”

Passage of the improved Bill 10 was a great achievement: a complete reversal on GSAs by the PC government of Alberta. But the people who helped cause the change still see potential for trouble. Following Bill 10’s passage, Hehr asked the Legislature, “When a staff member is not able to be found to run or organize a GSA, what will the process be, and how will it go forward?” He imagined that the excuse of not finding a staff member could “be utilized by some schools or school systems to derail the process.” The ATA expressed additional reservations. In a news release, ATA president Mark Ramsankar noted, “Government, boards and many individuals have some widely divergent views on what Bill 10 will mean in practice.”

The way GSAs have played out in other jurisdictions suggests the kind of hurdles that might remain. In Ontario in 2011, Catholic education leaders reluctantly agreed to a Catholic version of GSAs after pressure from Catholic students, Canadian human rights and civil liberties groups, the media and the general public. What the Catholic leaders were advocating were watered-down versions of GSAs with names like “By Your SIDE Spaces” (an acronym for Safety, Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity). Some in the media called these “decoy GSAs.”

The Ontario GSA debate made international headlines in 2011 when a group of students led by Leanne Iskander at St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga tried to start their own “LGBT club” ¬—Iskander and her friends had never heard of GSAs. School administrators’ response was a blunt no.

Unfazed, Iskander’s unauthorized GSA group brought rainbow signs and posters to school, only to be told they could not put them up because, as Iskander recounted in an interview, “They said rainbows are associated with [LGBTQ] pride.” In spite of the school’s ban, the students managed to secretly unfurl their rainbows by baking dyed batter into cupcakes that they sold for 50 cents apiece, raising $200 for charity. This campaign went viral.

The result in Ontario of unrelenting international, national and provincial pressure was Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, passed in 2012. According to this Bill, all Ontario schools—including faith-based schools—must allow students to establish GSA support groups. Bill 13 included a notable provision that required schools to allow students to use the word “gay” in the name of their GSA. This was necessary because of Ontario Catholic education leaders’ ongoing resistance to GSAs, especially to having “gay” in a GSA’s name. They also continued to resist the use of celebratory symbols like the rainbow pride flag.

In similar fashion, Alberta’s Catholic education leaders are looking for loopholes. Shortly after the final passage of Bill 10, the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association issued a statement praising the “flexibility” of Bill 10 and referred to a Catholic education policy document, the LIFE Framework, which claims among other things that names for student groups must be approved by a school’s principal. The Life Framework states that student group names “will incorporate language in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church” and that group facilitators will “integrate prayer, scripture and Catholic teaching…as appropriate.”

Calgary Bishop Fred Henry’s support for the original, reviled Bill 10 as a “win-win for everyone,” and his insistence in a December 2014 pastoral letter circulated to congregants that “we already have in place policies, protocols and resources supporting inclusive communities” do not offer much hope. Bishop Henry’s dismal record with LGBTQ issues was tellingly revealed during the marriage equality battle when he lumped together “homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography” as elements that “undermine the foundations of the family, the basis of society.” Those who follow Henry’s directives will not be able to create bona fide GSAs.

In light of Bill 10, someone like Patrick should now be able to start a GSA in his Alberta school. But will he be allowed to call it a “Gay-Straight” or a “Queer” Alliance? Will he be required to call it a “Diversity Club” or some other “cute euphemism?” Would Patrick and his peers even be told that a GSA existed in their school? Would the GSA’s meetings be advertised, the same way that the school’s chess club or yearbook club meetings are? If Patrick were able to join a diversity club in his school, would he be subjected there to negative information about LGBTQ people?

If, as seems likely, Patrick’s Alberta Catholic school would not have a GSA by its true name and meaning, the question of where kids like him will go to find support is left open and empty. Some of the former students Tonya interviewed for her book ended up on the street. In Monoceros, and in real life, Patrick ended up dead.

Tonya Callaghan is an assistant professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Suzette Mayr is the author of four novels including Monoceros, which won the ReLit Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize and was longlisted for the 2011 Giller.

If you or someone you know wants to start a GSA, google “Alberta Teachers Association GSA”.


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