GSAs in Ontario Catholic Schools Grow Students’ Faith, Build ‘Glory of God’

Gay-straight alliances are sometimes controversial in Catholic education. Yet five years after some Canadian legislators required schools to offer them if requested, Catholic schools in the province of Ontario are doing well on LGBT inclusion.

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Ontario’s Catholic educators marching at Pride

The Legislative Assembly of Ontario approved Bill 13, or the Accepting Schools Act, in 2012 against some Catholic leaders’ opposition. The Act requires that all schools funded by the government, which includes Canadian Catholic schools, must offer a student group titled “gay-straight alliance” if it is requested by students.

Those requests happened immediately, according to Danielle Desjardins-Koloff, the principal of Safe Schools, Equity, and Inclusion for the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board. She commented to the National Catholic Reporter:

“‘To be honest, I was very excited, because I do believe that [the alliances] celebrate our human dignity and they recognize that these students have a unique place. . .We had allies where we didn’t know allies existed, where we hadn’t yet defined “ally.”‘”

Though she admitted that working in Catholic education is more difficult than secular settings, in the past five years Desjardins-Koloff has successfully trained every Windsor-Essex Catholic school on LGBT support, and all secondary schools have gay-straight alliances.  Achieving this goal has not meant watering down or sidelining Catholic identity:

“Desjardins-Koloff understands that some members of the community may fear that a gay-straight alliance would ‘devalue the traditional sense of a family,’ but she is quick to point to the convergence of a gay-straight alliance and Catholic ethos. She said she worked to ‘convince the community that these clubs weren’t about sex or sexuality. It was about sexual identity and orientation; it’s about identity and celebrating individuals’ authentic versions of themselves.’

‘Seeing Catholic social justice teaching providing ‘beautiful support,’ Desjardins-Koloff helps students design gay-straight alliance meetings that are ‘centered on Christ-like actions and discipleship.’ She thinks gay-straight alliances are helping to bring students back to a church where they felt they hadn’t belonged before.

“‘The first few times these kids don’t see themselves as part of the Catholic community at all, and they kinda laugh, and they don’t want to join hands and they don’t want to join in, and it’s by choice,’ said Desjardins-Koloff. ‘But by the end of the semester or even some by a month, we are praying together. Our hands are held and we’re in a circle and they feel that energy. They feel every bit a part of that community.'”

These efforts and similar ones throughout Ontario are bearing fruit beyond school walls. Catholic students have begun collaborating between schools and helping support the Catholic Student Leadership Team’s annual inclusivity conference, which now addresses LGBT issues. Students and staff in the Windsor-Essex district have also begun partnerships with secular LGBT groups in the community

Even with these many successes, there are still several aspects of LGBT supports in Ontario’s Catholic systems that are being worked out. Arlene Davis, vice principal at St. Anne’s Catholic School, said she has had several conversations with parents about the school’s gay-straight alliance which she advises:

“Our religious background is something that we respect, but at the same time, it is conservative, and we want to respect that and we want to help these kids along so that they can definitely go along and feel like they’re accomplishing things,’ said Davis.

“Having set up a booth for the gay-straight alliance group at St. Anne’s parent-teacher interview nights, Butler noticed that some parents seemed pleased to see it, but others she watched direct their children to avoid the club.”

But even with these obstacles, and several others you can read about here, Ontario educators have remained supportive. Kevin Welbes Godin of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association wrote for Bondings 2.0 about how Catholic teachers have led the way on LGBT inclusion. This support has included marching as a contingent in WorldPride and other Pride celebrations. Davis explained part of her own reasoning for staying involved:

“‘As a parent first, to see kids that just feel so free and so able to just express themselves and enjoy. And not be judged. . .like, this is who I am, and I’m cool with it. . .I think there still is that extra thing, when you’re on a team. It makes you feel a little bit more special, a little bit more heard, a little bit more accepted. . .”

In Davis’ comment, I hear echoes of St. Irenaeus’ words, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Five years on, I am thankful for Bill 13 and the ways it has made the glory of God that much more visible in our world through the flourishing of LGBT students and their educators.

To watch a video about St. Anne’s Catholic School in Windsor-Essex, Ontario, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 15, 2017

 

NEWS NOTES: Parish Supports Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” Charity; Other News

Here are some items that may be of interest:

News Notes1) The Gay Fellowship of Blessed Sacrament Church in New York City recently hosted a dance party, “Moving with the Spirit.” Proceeds from the event benefited the Born This Way Foundation, Lady Gaga’s charity for youth empowerment named after her LGBT-related song “Born This Way,” and the Ali Forney Center in New York City that helps shelter LGBT youth experiencing homelessness.

2) Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, criticized Bishop Thomas Paprocki’s latest discriminatory action that seeks to deny Communion to LGBT people, allies, and others in the church. Duddy-Burke said of the video in which he defends his decision, “What we seek is not for others to be subject to banishment and exclusion, as we too often have been.” She added, “Banning people from the sacramental table and. . .from the rituals that provide comfort and consolation at the time of death, are egregious violations of . . . pastoral responsibility.”

3) The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement critical of the nation’s Bill C-16 law passed in June which adds gender identity and gender expression as protected classes in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The bishops’ response was moderate, opening with a statement that transgender people deserve “compassion, respect, and love” because they are made in God’s image.

4) A right-wing Catholic organization in Chile clashed with police after bringing two buses with anti-LGBT messages on their sides into Santiago. LGBT groups were present to counter-protest, bringing their own “diversity bus,” after which the 300 or so people gathered began to fight. Police had to intervene with tear gas and water cannons to get the crowd to disperse.

5) An author in England claimed a Catholic school cancelled an educational event with her because she is a transgender woman. Juno Dawson was scheduled to speak about her latest book, Margot and Me, at Brownedge St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Preston. Buzzfeed reported that the school “had previously been widely commended for its work on LGBT issues.” The school said the cancellation occurred because of the book’s content, though it was not specified what the offending content was.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 30, 2017

 

Students Protest Catholic School’s Decision to Remove Rainbow Flag

Controversy over LGBT issues in one of Canada’s Catholic school systems has once again made headlines, resulting in unfortunate harm during Pride celebrations.

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Students protesting at Blessed Oscar Romero High School

To mark Pride, students at Blessed Oscar Romero High School in Edmonton, Alberta, hung a rainbow flag in the school with some additional rainbow decorations. The next day, students drew a rainbow flag in chalk at the school’s entrance. CBC reported what happened next:

 

“On Tuesday morning, student president-elect Francis Nievera was called into the principal’s office. He said he was told all the decorations must come down because the chalk was being tracked inside, which he said was understandable. But those weren’t the only reasons.

“‘They said putting up flags was a political statement and it made some people uncomfortable and we need to make everyone feel comfortable,’ said Nievera, an openly transsexual and transgender Grade 10 student. ‘To have it all torn down in less than a day kind of sucked.'”

Lori Nagy of the Edmonton Catholic School Board denied claims the decorations were authorized, and said the school’s principal was willing to support other pride celebrations. Nonetheless, Nievera’s invitation, students protested, according to the CBC: 

“Prior to the protest, a video shows an emotional Nievera, near a handful of supporters including the school mascot, address students from the stage in the school cafeteria.

“‘We have to take down all the decorations today,’ he said, setting off boos from the crowd. ‘But I just want to say because of this I really don’t feel safe.'”

“‘If you guys want to help support pride week, even though all of this will be taken down, feel free to come outside and protest.'”

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The chalk rainbow flag in dispute at Blessed Oscar Romero High School

Students gathered at the chalk rainbow flag as other students used power washers to remove it. According to the CBC, “More than 30 students refused to return to class.”

Kennedy Harper, who helped organize the school’s Pride celebrations, said administrators threatened protesting students with suspension. She commented further:

“‘It seems like along with the chalk they were just washing away their identity. . .It felt really good for a little while, seeing the school really come together and standing up for the rights of minorities whether they’re part of the LGBTQ community or not.'”

Shortly after all the decorations had been removed , school administrators then said that the flags would be allowed for the remainder of the week.

This is hardly the first time Edmonton’s Catholic school system has been roiled in LGBT-related controversies. A student at the neighboring St. Joseph Catholic High School was also asked to remove a rainbow flag he wore during a school ceremony. The Edmonton Catholic School Board’s actions in 2015 around a transgender policy saw meetings erupt into a “shouting match” as the Board approved a draft policy allowing  “just discrimination” of some youth. Elsewhere in Alberta, a former bishop referred to LGBTQ policies being implemented in Catholic schools “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.”

The situation at Blessed Oscar Romero adds to this list of avoidable, damaging incidents where LGBTQ students are made to feel less than comfortable and even unsafe in Catholic education. No harm was caused by allowing some minor Pride decorations to be displayed, but much harm was done by power washing them and ripping them away.

Once again, it is young students in Catholic schools who are the ones leading our church to be more just and inclusive for LGBT people. And of these students’ commitment to justice for all people, Monseñor Romero would likely be very proud.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 19, 2017

 

 

Catholic Schools in Ontario Cancel Children’s Play on Gender Identity

Catholic schools in Ontario, Canada have canceled scheduled performances of a play because of concerns that its protagonist is a small child who explores gender boundaries.

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Photo of a “Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures” performance

Carousel Players, the theater company behind the play, announced the cancellations of “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures.” According to Global Newsthe play “tells the story of 8-year-old Simon, who dreams of becoming a princess and feels boxed in gender stereotypes.”

Parents’ complaints about the content led the Niagara Catholic District School Board to cancel the show on the grounds that the play was “not age-appropriate” and students would not understand the issues it raises. The Board claimed Carousel Players did not include information in its promotional materials that the play was about gender identity.

Yet, CBC Radio reported the play, targeted at elementary age children, “was created in conjunction with representatives from several Ontario school boards to be in line with the province’s new sex-ed curriculum.” The Players were explicit in marketing their performance as such.

Not everyone is convinced the cancellations happened due to concerns over students’ ages. Jessica Carmichael, the artistic director for Carousel Players, released a statement which said, in part:

“I fear these cancellations may be based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny. . .The core message from the main character, Simon(e), in Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures, is that every child needs the support of friends and family no matter who they are, what they dress like, what toys they like to play with and what they imagine they can be. I wholeheartedly believe in this message.”

Carmichael further said the play has been well received when performed at other schools, where staff are “encouraging children to have conversations which promote acceptance” and where the magic of live theater “brings people together to work towards a better today and tomorrow and it encourages discussion.”

The Carousel Players have since staged a free performance, followed by a question and answer period so anyone in the local community who wished to view the play could do so.

Having not seen “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures” myself, I cannot comment on the play’s contents, and whether it would be appropriate for elementary age children. But school officials should be aware that even young children are already grappling with questions about gender. Many trans individuals claim they had a consciousness about their identities as young as five or six years of age.

Whether through the Carousel Players or some other means, Catholic schools in Ontario and elsewhere should be addressing issues of gender identity as an essential aspect of their commitment to students’ flourishing.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 8, 2017

Vancouver Archbishop Objects to Franklin Graham’s Anti-LGBT Presence

Catholic LGBT issues have been making headlines in Canada. Here are three updates that may be of interest:

Archbishop Campaigns Against Franklin Graham

Former Presidents Bush And Clinton And Carter Attend Opening Of Billy Graham Library
Franklin Graham

Vancouver’s Archbishop Michael Miller joined other religious figures in opposing evangelical leader Franklin Graham’s attendance at a Christian gathering that happened in early March, reported The Washington Post. In an open letter, the leaders shared their concerns about anti-Muslim and anti-gay views held by the son of preacher Billy Graham, writing:

“Regrettably, Franklin Graham’s public comments appear to compromise Jesus’s mission of love and justice for all. He has made disparaging and uncharitable remarks about Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community, while portraying the election, administration and policies of US President Donald Trump as intrinsically aligned with the Christian Church.”

The letter cited, in particular, Graham’s comment that, because “the Enemy [Satan] wants to devour our homes,” LGBT people should be barred from churches and homes. Archbishop Miller and other leaders committed themselves to promoting the Christian faith as one that welcomes all people and seeks social justice.

Calgary Bishop to Retain Predecessor’s LGBT-Negative Approach to School Issues

Bishop William McGrattan, the new leader of the Catholic church in Calgary, Alberta, said he will maintain many of the policies from his predecessor, Fred Henry. Asked about LGBT issues, he told the Calgary Herald:

“With regard to gay-straight alliance, even that very terminology creates a sense of what I would say not an agenda but is promoting a certain lifestyle. In Ontario, we call that respecting differences so that we allow young people to know there are differences and that we need to respect those without labelling them with those particular terms.”

Some Albertans had hoped McGrattan’s arrival would be an opportunity for church leaders and LGBT communities to reset tense relations. But the new bishop said he “may not be as direct but I’ll be as firm” as Henry, who once described education policies that protect LGBT students as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic.”

Indeed, McGrattan told the Calgary Sun that proposed guidelines for transgender students in the province are based in gender theory which “is not truth,” and said gender transitioning “does not change the biological fact and truth of the individual.”

Officials in Catholic Education Claim Discrimination

Officials from several Catholic education systems in Alberta are complaining about a regional scholar’s criticisms of how church-affiliated schools are handling LGBTQ students. The Edmonton Sun reported:

“Two Catholic school district superintendents and two groups representing Catholic school boards and superintendents wrote to the university’s chancellor and president last fall to complain about comments made by educational policy studies professor Kristopher Wells regarding school board policies meant to protect LGBTQ students.”

Wells spoke out repeatedly during disputes in the last two years over LGBTQ guidelines being implemented in the province’s schools. In 2016, Wells released a “report card” evaluating four Catholic systems for their LGBTQ supports, all of which received either low or failing grades

Scholars, including the president of the University of Alberta where Wells is based, criticized Catholic education officials’ letters for trying to suppress academic freedom. The letters were disconcerting, Wells said, but would not silence him because “the issues at stake are far too important.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 14, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

Trans Student Honored for Making Catholic Schools More Inclusive

In the same week that the U.S. Catholic bishops praised President Trump for revoking guidelines to protect transgender students, across the border in Canada, a trans teen was honored for bringing equality to her Catholic school.

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Tru, center, with her mother, Michelle, right

Tru Wilson, 13, a resident of the suburb of Ladner, was named a Sexual Health Champion by Options for Sexual Health, a nonprofit agency in Vancouver. The Georgia Straight reported:

“[Wilson’s] family filed a human-rights complaint when Ladner’s Sacred Heart [school] refused to allow her to attend as a girl. As a result, the Catholic Independent Schools Vancouver became one of the first Catholic school boards in North America to change their policy to support gender expression and identity.”

During an awards breakfast, the teen described what transitioning had been like, saying, “I just want acceptance. . .It’s so strange that it’s hard. Why does it have to be hard?” She discussed invasive questions she has been asked and, through tears, about losing a close friend whose family would not accept her.

Tru was honored, in part, for the positive change she and her family were able to effect in Vancouver’s Catholic schools. In 2014, when she began transitioning at age 10, Sacred Heart Elementary School barred Tru from dressing in the female uniform, using female restrooms, or being called by her preferred name. Doug Lousen, the Catholic schools superintendent at the time, said “you cannot just change your sex.”

But the Wilsons, having overcome their own struggles with Tru’s coming out, did not accept Sacred Heart’s discrimination. They filed a human rights complaint against the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese, settling for an undisclosed amount and the adoption of a new transgender education policy by the Archdiocese.

That policy, believed to be the first such policy for Catholic schools in North America, allows trans students to use their preferred pronouns, as well as wear the uniform and use the restroom associated with their gender identity. Transgender students are able to file for accommodations and work with a pastoral team of medical, spiritual, and educational experts to create individualized plans for each student.

But, there has been a downside. The Archdiocese claimed that church teaching stopped schools from supporting students who medically transition. And it has not quickly become the “template” the Wilson’s lawyer had hoped it would become in Catholic education. Disputes over LGBTQ student policies have been fierce in the neighboring province of Alberta. Lastly, Tru never returned to Catholic schools, and religion has become a mixed blessing for the Wilsons. Michelle explained during the breakfast:

“‘We thought that we could kind of ignore the aspects of the faith that we didn’t necessarily agree with and take advantage of all the really good things about it. . .For me, [this experience has] reinforced that there are some great things about faith and there are some really sad things that people use to pit people each other because of faith.”

Unfortunately, as in Tru Wilson’s case, LGBTQ youth too often experience these negative aspects of faith. A trans student at a Catholic school in England was shot with a BB gun after months of bullying. In the U.S., federal guidelines aimed at protecting trans students were repealed by the Trump administration last month.

But through the steady and courageous work of people like Tru Wilson and her parents, positive changes are happening. Catholic officials should do their part to expedite such changes by preemptively adopting supportive policies for trans students like Vancouver’s.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 6, 2017

Jesuit Priest Speaks Out for Canadian Transgender Equality Bill

A Jesuit priest in Toronto, Canada, has emerged as an important voice in support of a national bill for transgender equality.

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, associate professor of systematic theology at Regis College, Toronto, has spoken out in favor of bill C-16 which would include gender identity and expressions as protected categories in Canada’s  Human Rights Act.  According to an article in America magazine, Fr. Mongeau stated:

“To the extent that it seeks to protect the quest of trans people to be themselves in a safe environment, Bill C-16 is something to be applauded by Christians.”

Mongeau has worked with Our Lady of Lourdes parish, situated in the gay neighborhood of Toronto.  The parish hosts a program called “All Inclusive Ministries,” which hosts a weekly Mass for the LGBT community, among other programs.

The Jesuit priest acknowledges that biological sex and gender may be more complex phenomena than simple physical characteristics.  He follows his brother Jesuit, Pope Francis, in describing church outreach to transgender people, saying:

“We must begin from the fact that the church, at this time, has no official teaching about gender identity or trans persons.”

“[Mongeau] underlines the need to, as Pope Francis suggests, accompany real people in real situations. For his part, though the Holy Father has been critical of ‘gender theory,’ he has been sensitive to preferred pronouns in the context of real encounter. That is reflected in his comments about a letter he received from a transgender man: ‘He who was a she, but is a he,’ the pope said.”

The question about pronoun usage reveals a more important question about our understanding of transgender people as human beings, Mongeau noted:

“The question of pronouns cannot be separated from the real lives of people. Asking these questions in the abstract is part of the problem we are facing because it makes it possible to evoke the image or idea that trans people somehow serve an agenda of attacking the moral fiber of society or serve an anti-Christian agenda. Trans people, in my experience, are trying to live healthy, productive and (sometimes) spiritually fruitful lives.”

In the America article, the need for equal civil protections for transgender people was expressed by Janice Towndrow, a Christian transgender woman from Toronto:

“I used to wish I had cancer because when you have cancer all the family rallies around you. But when you’re trans, you don’t have family, they kick you out.

‘It is very difficult,’ she says, even ‘comparable to biblical times,’ when lepers were shunned by the community. ‘You’re distanced; you’re pulled from your family; you’re cast out of the community. So you don’t see your children anymore. If you had a job, you probably don’t have it anymore.’ “

Janice Towndrow

And she noted how important it is for Christian churches to support transgender people and Bill c-16:

“Christian support for Bill C-16 would make a huge difference for transgender people looking to lead healthy spiritual lives, who are often alienated by communities of faith. As Ms. Towndrow explains, ‘I think somewhere along the line, everyone [in the transgender community] turns their back on the church because the church has turned its back on them.”

The bill passed Canada’s House of Commons in December, by a vote of 248-40, and is now being sent to the Senate.

While opponents of the bill continue to make their voices heard, we can thank God for courageous Catholic leaders like Fr. Mongeau and for communities like Our Lady of Lourdes parish for showing their public support for transgender equality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 31, 2017