Catholic School Student Told Not to Use Harvey Milk Quotation

In Ontario, Canada, there has been an ongoing struggle in state-funded Catholic schools to comply with a law there to allow gay-straight alliances (GSA) to form.   This controversy added a new wrinkle to it recently when a Catholic school in a Toronto suburb refused to allow a student to use a quote from gay-rights leader Harvey Milk on a poster for the GSA.

Christopher Karras holding an image of Harvey Milk

Student Christopher Karras, who attends École Secondaire Catholique Sainte-Famille, part of the Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Centre-Sud (Catholic Central South District School Board) in Mississauga, chose a quote from Milk to advertise the existence of the newly-formed student organization.

DailyXtra.com reported:

“The Milk quote — ‘All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential’ — has been deemed to be too controversial, according to an email Karas received from his vice-principal in October.

“ ‘I was told that I can’t have a picture of Harvey Milk or his quote on the posters,’ Karas says. ‘I also had “sexual orientation” written on the posters.’
“But Karas says vice-principal Vicki Marcotte told him to change that to ‘self-expression’ because ‘she felt it was too much about LGBT community and not inclusive of everyone.’ “
In an email, Marcotte said she would not allow the quote because it was “tendentious.”
Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was the first openly-gay man elected to public office in California when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s. He was assassinated by Dan White, another member of the Board of Supervisors.

The earlier controversy over establishing such clubs focused around the Catholic schools board’s wish not to name them “gay-straight alliances,” but “diversity clubs.”   The group in the Mississauga school is not labelled as a GSA, but is called “Porte Ouverte (Open Doors).”
Yet, the struggle for the group’s identity has not ended by simply changing the name.  Karras says there has been other intervention by the school administration.  According to DailyXtra.com:
” . . . he says the school is trying to prevent it from becoming ‘too focused on queer stuff.’
“Karas feels the board and school administrators are censoring and restricting the content of the group and making it difficult for the group to present itself as a GSA.
“Davina Smith, another of the group’s founders, says the posters have caused unnecessary friction between the group and the school’s administration.
“ ‘This gets on my nerves,’ she says, noting that the objection to the poster design gives the impression that the board is homophobic. ‘That’s the impression that I get . . . Harvey Milk is talking about giving youth hope. What’s wrong with that?’ “
Catholic school officials need to learn that opposing discussions of sexual orientation among students is not going to keep students from discussing these topics.  Furthermore, wouldn’t it have been nice if the vice-principal could have seen that what Harvey Milk’s quote was saying is really not very different from their own goals as a Catholic school?  Much education remains to be done.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
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Ontario Catholic School Controversy Could Easily Have Been Avoided

A recent story from Ontario highlights institutional Catholic intransigence over LGBT issues is trumping reasonable solutions to simple problems.

Xtra.ca, a Canadian LGBT news source reports on the case of an 18-year old secondary school student named Brooke who has experienced repeated harassment at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario:

Brooke with her girlfriend
Brooke with her girlfriend

“Administrators at a Catholic school in Windsor, Ontario, are allegedly threatening to launch a lawsuit in an attempt to silence a gay student who is speaking out against homophobic discrimination at the school.

“Brooke, 18, a Grade 12 student at St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School, who asked that her last name be withheld, has had a rough school year so far. It began with the death of her father on Oct 1. On top of that, Brooke says a teacher has been bullying her because she is gay and in a relationship with a fellow student.
“And ever since the teacher outed their relationship to her girlfriend’s parents, Brooke says, the school has become the only place the pair can see one another, so she has no choice but to stay.”
Brooke claims that harassment from her religion teacher, Jolene Coste, has been occurring all year, with the teacher making remarks in class about the girl’s relationship with her girlfriend and with negative remarks about homosexuality.  Things came to a head when Brooke alluded to an obscenity when answering  a question about “real” marriage on an exam.  Her response resulted in a ten-day suspension from school.
The arguing and accusations have been going on for most of the past school year.  School administrators have brought up the possibility of suing Brooke for defamation.
Clearly, this situation has gotten out of hand.  What is sad here is not just the possibility that a religion teacher would be bullying a student or that a student would resort to near-obscenity on an exam, but the fact that school administrators have not explored some way to mediate the situation by having the student, her parents, and the teacher discuss the situation together and come to some ground rules for behavior.
As Bondings 2.0 has reported, Ontario Catholic schools are state-funded, and are also subject to the province’s recent Accepting Schools Act, which was designed to eliminate bullying.  Though Catholic schools originally balked at such a law, this situation clearly shows the need for it.  One member of the Ontario parliament, Cheri DeNovo spoke to Xtra about the need for student safety:
“ ‘That’s not just physical safety, but also psychological and emotional safety as well,’ she says. ‘I call on every adult that surrounds her in that school system to stand up for her safety.
“ ‘Here we have a student in a publicly funded school that is not getting the support from her administration. She does not feel safe. Her concerns are not being addressed. Frankly, I think it’s disgusting that no [administrator] is standing up for her.’
 ‘DiNovo says it’s now the province’s job to ensure the act is enforced. Students shouldn’t have to face a legal battle to get the protection they deserve, she says. ‘[Education Minister] Liz Sandals herself should intervene. It’s sad we have to ask this of our students.’ ”
It is terribly sad that the government might have to become involved here.  Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on a dispute in New York City between a Catholic pastor and a nearby drag show.  The dispute was easily resolved by the parties sitting down and speaking with one another.
In this school case, good Catholic pastoral care and simple human contact and dialogue could have defused this problem before it escalated to such proportions.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry