Rainbow Socks at Graduation: A Sign of Catholic Students’ Victory

June 6, 2014

Vanier Catholic students wearing rainbow socks during their graduation

When Liam Finnegan was 16, he challenged his Catholic high school about its use of pastorally damaging language about gay and lesbian people.  He  eventually succeeded in making changes. His message of acceptance has spread since then, and recently Finnegan’s peers donned rainbow socks for graduation to show their support for LGBT students.

Seniors at Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Canada’s Yukon province sported knee-high rainbow socks under their gowns in solidarity with the school’s gay-straight alliance which had been hotly contested. According to CBC, more than half the graduating class participated in the action, which was started by Kate Power, a friend of Finnegan’s. The socks represented a year’s worth of organizing, which resulted in the GSA’s formation and the removal of pastorally insensitive language in the Catholic school district’s written policy on homosexuality.

In April 2013, Finnegan, who is gay, successfully challenged Vanier Catholic’s use of the terms “intrinsically disordered” and “acts of grave depravity” when referring to lesbian and gay people on the school’s website. At the time, he said:

“There were a few things in the document that were not homophobic and that made me think that maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing, since it said homosexuals shouldn’t be discriminated against, and I liked that part of it. But then as I continued reading the policy it veered into the ridiculous, describing homosexuality as an ‘intrinsically moral evil’ and saying that I was a ‘sinner’ and that I needed to be ‘healed.’ ”

“Somebody had to say something.”

Due to Finnegan’s complaint, the bishop and province’s education minister met and agreed that the offending document should be removed because it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada’s Catholic schools are publicly-funded and must abide by government policies.

In the fall of 2013, a new policy on homosexuality was released. The offending language was removed and language about the dignity of LGBT people and need for respecting them was added.  The policy also mandated students be allowed to form GSAs and that administrators deal with hate crimes immediately.

Of Kate Power’s rainbow sock demonstration, and the broader changes at Vanier Catholic, Finnegan said:

” ‘She wanted to make a statement saying “We’re not a homophobic school’ because a lot of people have that perception, so it was a really cool experience to see that,” ‘

” ‘I remember my dad telling me afterwards how it was an emotional experience, because it showed my class really supporting me, my cause and just being a really open group of people.’…

” ‘It’s a big difference and it’s noticeable…Even though it might have just been a few words that changed in the policy, it’s given us the chance to start a wonderful  group that’s trying to make a huge difference in our school and in our community.’ “

Mural painted as part of a Pride Week celebration at a Canadian Catholic high school.

The school’s GSA had about 30 members this year, and it will continue next year. Bondings 2.0 has written previously bout the many inroads towards LGBT inclusion that Canada’s Catholic schools are making, including the Ontario teachers’ decision to march in World Pride this month and the beautiful mural painted during one high school’s first ever Pride week. For full coverage of developments on Catholic LGBT issues in Canada, click here.

Congratulations to Liam Finnegan and the students of Vanier Catholic Secondary School on graduating, and for the LGBT-inclusive legacy they will leave behind!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related Articles

Canadian Catholic Schools Update LGBT Policy, But Not All Are Satisfied

Gay Teenager on Catholic Policy: ‘Somebody Had to Say Something’ 

 


‘Year of Lady Gaga,’ IDAHOT, & Other Events Show Catholic High Schools’ Progress

May 17, 2014

Canadian student paints mural to celebrate IDAHOT

Catholic colleges have long modeled LGBT acceptance for the wider Church, offering student organizations and offices tasked with fostering a welcoming campus for all. Lately, it seems Catholic high schools, too, are more and more responding to students’ expectations for equality and striving for more inclusive classrooms.

As LGBT advocates worldwide act for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) today, let’s look at some of the positive steps being taken in Catholic high schools.

Members of Blessed Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Toronto celebrated their first Pride Week this past week, linked to today’s IDAHOT. Students involved with the school’s gay-straight alliance spent this week painting a mural which was unveiled yesterday (see photo for detail). Junior Maneesa Sotheedwaran said of the mural, according to DailyXtra:

” ‘Our mural is a picture of an eye, and it’s black and white because we don’t want to choose an ethnicity or gender, so it’s sort of our GSA’s vision of seeing the colours unite and promoting the colours that the Pride flag represents,” Sotheedwaran says, noting that when it’s finished, the mural will say ‘love is love’ above the eye and ‘gay straight alliance’ below.”

Other events during the week included a film and discussion on homophobia, a fitting end to the GSA’s first year after Ontario’s government mandated that Catholic schools receiving public funding allow for the establishment of  LGBT groups. Sotheedwaran, who helped found the group, says of the process:

” ‘The principal we had at the time was completely supportive of it…He actually got really emotional and told me about his own experiences in his family, and he was very interested in having this happen. He thought it was very important.’

” ‘It’s important for a school to say that and accept all students because, whether or not you’re going to join because you’re gay or bisexual or whatever, knowing that your school has a GSA and that environment is there is like a sort of validation.’ “

(As an aside, in Italy, many Catholic churches are hosting prayer vigils for IDAHOT celebrations this year.  For a complete list, click here, and scroll down to the middle of the page.)

Lady Gaga

Across the border in Amsterdam, New York (near Albany), Fr. John Medwid of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and the attached St. Mary’s Institute (SMI), explained his remarks that this was “going to be the Year of Lady Gaga at SMI.” The priest’s comments about Lady Gaga, a strong supporter of LGBT equality, were first made at the school’s opening Mass in September, but Edge on the Net reports Medwid followed-up this spring saying:

” ‘…many people may not realize that Lady Gaga is the product of Catholic education…she was someone who followed her own path…It takes a great deal of courage especially for young people to blaze their own trails in life!’ “

In Ireland, Catholic schools will participate in the government’s anti-bullying campaign that specifically addresses LGBT topics. The nation’s Department of Education released specific steps schools will take to curtail homophobic and transphobic bullying, including posters, participation in “Stand Up! Awareness Week,” and additional resources for educators’ use.

The Independent reports these reforms are a response to a book released last winter, Bullying In Irish Education, writing:

“It was reported that almost six in 10 LGBT people, and more than half of current schoolgoers, suffered homophobic bullying in school.

“Over 50 per cent said they had been called names because of their sexual orientation and a startling eight per cent were even taunted by members of school staff.”

“Research reported high levels of depression and self-harm, with increasing risks of suicide among those who were affected.”

It is a hopeful sign that Catholic high schools are responding to not only a changing culture, but to their students’ LGBT-inclusive demands. Emerging generations of Catholics and those educated in the Church’s school systems will not tolerate anti-gay discrimination. They reject disrespectful and fallacious remarks from authority figures,  as in the incident in North Carolina several weeks ago. Yet, more hopeful is their engagement in the work of building up local communities through education and dialogue that receive blessings from their educators and administrators.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Ontario Teachers’ Decision to March in WorldPride Parade Draws Criticism

April 25, 2014

Catholic educators in Ontario are planning to march in the WorldPride 2014 parade in Toronto, a decision which has drawn criticism from some parents and the local cardinal.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), a union which represents teachers in Ontario’s Catholic schools, will participate in the June parade as an act of solidarity with the LGBT community. James Ryan, the union’s president, made clear this action was not a protest and said of the teachers’ involvement:

” ‘It was in support of those members in the community who identity as LGBT, to be free from all forms of hatred and discrimination and that alone is what it is for…Our marching is purely on the basis of support in solidarity for people to be free from discrimination.’ “

OECTA represents 45,000 educators in the province’s Catholic schools which receive public funds. The union released a statement on their website that echoed Ryan’s remarks but was more critical of Catholic institutions, saying further:

“There is no doubt that students and teachers in Catholic schools, like other publicly funded schools in Ontario, face bullying and discrimination that sometimes has fatal consequences. Few in our society would disagree that more must be done to change the culture of our schools in order to allow individuals, without exception, to lead healthy lives free of harassment and prejudice

“OECTA believes that taking the public stand of marching in the WorldPride Parade 2014 will provide comfort and support to our students and teachers who frequently struggle in a hostile environment that does not offer them the support and protection they are owed as citizens of Ontario and Canada.”

In response, a group called Parents As First Educators (PAFE) has been gathering signatures to protest OECTA’s participation in WorldPride events. The petition was launched Easter Monday, directed at the Ontario Catholic school trustees who are asked to use their power against OECTA, according to the Toronto Sun.

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto also criticized the teachers’ attendance in the parade. Michael O’Loughlin of The Advocate reports the cardinal called the teachers attendance in the parade “wrong” and said “OECTA leadership have an inadequate and mistaken understanding of their faith.”

What Cardinal Collins and other critics seem to miss, but what the teachers clearly understand, is that Catholic schools are not harmed, but thrive when they are fully inclusive of LGBT people.  In previous years, the OECTA voiced their support for gay LGBT issues but never formally participated in an event. When the union’s assembly voted this year to ramp up support for WorldPride and march in the parade,  they did this “in solidarity with one of most marginalized groups in Catholic community” according to their website.

These teachers know firsthand the suffering of students who are LGBT and the hardships of their LGBT peers, like transgender educator Jan Buterman who was fired from a Catholic school last year. Catholics everywhere would do well to learn from the witness of these teachers in Ontario.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


NEWS NOTES: April 18, 2014

April 18, 2014

NewsHere are some follow-up news items to previous posts:

1)  The Tablet reported that Conor Burns, a Catholic member of the British Parliament, said he does not feel welcome to receive communion in his diocese because his bishop  had suggested that Catholic Members of Parliament who voted for last year’s marriage equality law should not be allowed to receive communion.  Though Bishop Philip Egan had suggested banning these Catholic politicians from communion, the Catholic Conference of England said they have no plans to follow such a policy, according to Gay Star News.

2)  Following a heated meeting of parents who were upset that a nun with an anti-gay message was allowed to speak at an assembly at Charlotte Catholic High School, North Carolina, Bishop Peter Jugis of the Charlotte Diocese has written a letter “to express my support and encouragement for all the parents, students, staff and faculty at the high school.”   A copy of his letter is available on the WSOC-TV website, which reported this development. 

2)  The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported that Ken Bencomo, who was fired from his teaching position at St. Lucy’s Priory H.S. in Glendora, California, for marrying his husband, is suing the school for ” wrongful termination in violation of public policy, violation of the state Labor Code and breach of contract.”

3) Though publicly-identified LGBT groups were not allowed to march in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade last month, the central Massachusetts city of Holyoke welcomed Mass Equality, the state’s LGBT rights organization to march in its parade in honor of the Irish saint, reported WGGB-TV.  The Holyoke High School Gay/Straight Alliance, also marched.  Mayor Alex Morse said it was the first time in memory that LGBT groups participated in the parade.

4) TheSpec.com reported that Christopher Karas, a Catholic high school student in Mississauga, Canada, who had been told earlier this year that he could not use a quotation from Harvey Milk on a school poster advertising the students’ gay/straight alliance,  has now filed a complaint with Ontario’s human rights tribunal, accusing the school of systemic homophobia.  His complaint extends beyond the incident with the poster, and includes a history of incidents that Karas said he has experienced at the school.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

4)


Fired Transgender Educator Will Have His Day in Court

January 16, 2014

Jan Buterman

A Canadian judge has ruled that a transgender educator fired from a Catholic school should have his case heard in court before the Alberta province’s human rights tribunal.

In 2008, Jan Buterman was fired from teaching in the Greater St. Albert School district [a publicly funded Catholic school district] after transitioning from female to male, which Catholic administrators claimed was a violation of Church teaching.  That same letter terminating his employment also praised Buterman as a teacher. Since the firing, Buterman has pursued a complaint against the district in a lengthy legal battle. The Calgary Herald details the recent ruling by Justice Sheila Greckol, who hopes to resolve the matter:

“Justice Sheila Greckol of Court of Queen’s Bench dismissed the district’s request [to dismiss the complaint] in a written ruling obtained Friday by The Canadian Press. She said it is time for a commission tribunal to hear Buterman’s complaint.

” ‘Five years have passed since the school board terminated Mr. Buterman. The voluminous and continual retreading of arguments at the commission, as well as this application for early judicial intervention on thin grounds, has served only to delay the hearing on the merits,’ Greckol wrote.

” ‘Human rights process is not only for the lion-hearted and well-heeled conversant with litigation, but also for the timorous and impecunious — for all Albertans.’

” ‘The expeditious resolution of complaints becomes an issue of access to justice; justice delayed is justice denied.’ “

Initially, the school district offered Buterman $78,000 to drop the human rights complaint and remain silent about his firing. This offer was refused, and the teacher remains committed to the legal process even if there is no guarantee of victory. A hearing will be set in the coming weeks.

An outcome in this case could set Canadian legal precedents, as the St. Albert Gazette reports:

“This is one of the first cases of its kind to go before a human rights board in Canada, said Kris Wells, director of program services for the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, and it deals with a long-simmering issue: does a publicly funded Catholic school have the right to discriminate against someone based on their gender identity? …

“Buterman’s complaint said that his dismissal was discrimination based on his gender and disability (he had been diagnosed with gender identity disorder, a recognized biological phenomenon)…

“The Catholic school board is going to have to prove that Buterman’s transgender identity precludes him from being a good teacher, Wells said.”

Finally, The Edmonton Journal’s recent editorial highlights an important point Catholic schools should be taking note of: that even when legally correct, morally, these firings are wrong. The editors write:

“District officials also should do some soul-searching. Perhaps the human rights tribunal will eventually find such discrimination was technically within the district’s rights as a Catholic organization under Canadian law. But on the simple moral test of right and wrong, the school district was wrong to fire Buterman. The quality of his teaching, the only thing that should matter in a publicly funded school district, was never at issue…

“Anyone who thinks that violates the principles of Catholicism should take a page from Pope Francis, who has talked about the need for compassion, not judgment, and the importance of love.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Canadian Catholic Schools Update LGBT Policy, But Not All Are Satisfied

September 16, 2013

Vanier Catholic High School

A Catholic school district in Canada has released a new draft policy on homosexuality, after controversy erupted in April at a high school there. The policy has pleased Church officials in the area and is acceptable to government officials, while others remain ambiguous on this latest action to make Catholic schools in that nation more LGBT-friendly.

In April, a gay teenager who was a student at Vanier Catholic Secondary School complained to the provincial government that the school’s document on LGBT issues was homophobic and violated civil law. Giving the state funding that Catholic schools in Canada receive, they must adhere to laws about non-discrimination and LGBT rights. Officially, the education minister in Yukon stated the document violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yukon News reporters further:

“The new document, released for public review on Wednesday, would serve as a replacement for a former policy that called homosexuality a ‘disorder’ and an ‘intrinsic moral evil’ – words that echo the church’s official views on the matter…

“The controversial language found in the old policy is gone, although the new document still cites the same church documents that describe homosexual acts as sinful – the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a 1986 letter from the Church to its bishops are both listed as footnotes on the new policy.”

However, the new policy also speaks about the Church’s commitment to respecting the dignity of every person and implements a plan to ensure discrimination and hate crimes are dealt with in a timely manner.  This change comes after another gay student at Vanier Catholic was forced to use a locker with an anti-LGBT slur carved in it for two weeks in 2012. Anti-bullying measures are elucidated for staff, and students will now be allowed to form gay-straight alliances, which henceforth have been barred.

Not all find the policy a step forward, including Professor Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta, who studies sexual minorities. CBC News reports:

“Wells says the Yukon Government already has a sexual identity and gender identity policy in place. He says a second policy creates two classes of personal rights.

” ‘So the question to ask is, would we do that to any other group of students? … For example, would we have a completely separate policy for Aboriginal students that limits their abilities and freedoms within schools? Really there can be no separate but equal. What this policy does is it creates an educational apartheid in our schools.’

“Wells says Vanier school adopting its own sexual orientation policy is a step in the wrong direction. He says policy must apply equally to all students in publicly funded schools, adding anything less is discriminatory.”

The policy will now go before the Whitehorse council for Catholic schools to be approved or reworked. In the meantime, it is likely that LGBT advocates will continuemaking Catholic schools in Canada more LGBT-friendly.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Another Canadian Catholic Teen Speaks Out for Equality

April 18, 2013

In Canada it seems that Catholic school teenagers are leading the struggle for LGBT equality in church institutions.

Last week, we reported the case of an 11th-grader in Yukon province who successfully lobbied to have a bishops’ document removed from his Catholic high school’s website because it contained pastorally harmful terms to describe lesbian and gay people.

Halla Scott

This week, we have the case of a Saskatchewan 11th-grader who is trying to form a gay-straight alliance in her Catholic high school, but meeting with roadblocks from the administration.  Halla Scott, a student at LeBoldus High School, Regina, said that when she proposed the idea, she met with resistance.  The CBC.ca reports:

“She said a guidance counsellor suggested her idea might go against Catholic values.

” ‘It’s funny … the main Catholic value is to treat your neighbour as you want to be treated,’ she said. ‘If that’s true, wouldn’t you want to treat your LBGTQ [lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer] neighbour the same way as you’d like to be treated?’ “

“She said if the group got the green light to proceed, students would support it.

” ‘It would provide support to LGBTQ students in the school and also, you know, help squash some stereotypes that some people hold about students that identify that way,’ she said.”

If Scott succeeds, it will be the first gay-straight alliance in a Saskatchewan Catholic school.

One lesson to be learned from these stories is that the next generation of Catholics seem willing to continue to the struggle for LGBT equality in church institutions.  They have a lot more support in that struggle than previous generations have had, and may meet with much greater success.  The future looks bright.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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