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.
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.
“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 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.
A trustee of the Waterloo Catholic District School Board in Ontario, Canada, has been punished by his colleagues, in part because of his support for LGBT youth and the establishment of gay-straight alliances (GSA) in the religious institutions.
Anthony Piscitelli is not allowed to attend special committee meetings, though he can attend general board meetings. This punishment was enacted because board members felt he violated principles in an op-ed that he recently published on Pope Francis’ new openness to LGBT issues and how that relates to Catholic education. The Record newspaper reported:
“Trustees agreed that fellow trustee Anthony Piscitelli made misleading and inaccurate statements in an opinion piece in The Record last week when he said non-Catholic students are not allowed to attend Catholic elementary schools.
“Only two trustees — Janek Jagiellowicz and Joyce Anderson — supported Piscitelli on Thursday by voting against the motion, which came as an initial complaint by trustee Peter Reitmeier. . . .
“Reitmeier said Piscitelli’s article, which also referred to gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools and how more needs to be done to support gay and lesbian youth, was ‘undignified, unprofessional or contrary to the preservation and promotion of Catholic values and teachings.’
“Reitmeier said Piscitelli was inaccurate when he wrote that ‘the Ontario Catholic school system was slow to adopt reforms aimed at improving circumstances for gay and lesbian students.’ “
In the op-ed, Piscitelli discussed how statistics show strong support for same-sex marriage among Canadian Catholics, and so it would be likely to assume that they also support GSAs. Yet, he pointed out:
“Last year, for example, the Ontario Catholic Trustees association aggressively fought the provincial government’s attempts to ensure that gay-straight alliances were available as a student support for every student in this province.
“Instead of fighting gay-straight alliances, school board leaders should have been focused on finding a way to make them work within a Catholic context. The church’s emphasis on loving one another should have made this easy to do.”
In regard to his claim that non-Catholic students are not allowed to attend Catholic elementary schools, Piscitelli stated that he made a technical error:
“Piscitelli agreed that he made a minor technical error and apologized for saying non-Catholics are not allowed in the system. However, he did not agree that he had violated the code of conduct.
” ‘I am sorry for any misperception this may have caused in the community,’ he said.”
In fact, allowing non-Catholic students to attend the schools is a complicated matter, reported The Record:
“Waterloo Catholic District School Board policy allows non-Catholic students to attend elementary schools if permission is granted by the education director. There are currently 80 non-Catholic students in elementary schools.
“At least one parent must be Catholic or the child must be baptized in the faith to attend elementary school. Catholic high schools are open to all students, regardless of faith.”
Piscitelli did not back down from his support for GSAs and LGBT people. According to The Record, :
“I will continue to argue that we need to do more to ensure that our gay and lesbian staff are comfortable being open about their sexuality in our schools . . . because I believe they are the areas where we are failing as a Catholic school system.”
Catholic schools here in the United States need a voice like Piscitelli, who is willing to speak out for justice and equality for LGBT staff and students.
Meanwhile, The Windsor Star reported that Catholic schools in Ontario still are calling the provincially-mandated GSAs “social justice equity clubs,” so that they do not have to use the word “gay.” Catholic schools in Ontario receive government funding, and so are subject to provincial laws.
The identity of these clubs was highlighted recently by a study which points out that schools which have GSAs in them report significantly less binge-drinking among students. CBC.ca reported:
“In schools with gay-straight alliance clubs, heterosexual teen boys are 45 per cent less likely to have had an episode of binge drinking in the past month. Heterosexual teen girls are 62 per cent less likely to binge drink.
“It benefits LGBTQ students too. Lesbian students, for example, are 50 per cent less likely to drink five or fewer drinks at one time.”
A prominent LGBT Canadian activist explained the importance of the student organizations having a more accurate, specific name:
“Deirdre Pike, a Hamilton LGBTQ activist, was vocal last year about the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board’s refusal to allow issue-specific gay-straight clubs.
“This is evidence that they benefit all students, she said. And it’s another reason why the Catholic board needs to reconsider its practice of only allowing generic anti-bullying clubs.
” ‘The Catholic school board really needs to pick up the pace and the integrity in terms of naming these groups, and be intentional about naming them for what they are,’ she said. ‘ “Diversity club” is not going to cut it.’ “
Catholic schools in the United States can learn a lot from the courage of Anthony Piscitelli and the Canadian experience about how to establish welcoming environments.
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 Newsreports:
“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.
But students involved in a gay-straight alliance at a Catholic school says that the two trustees’ notion about what the student clubs do is incorrect:
“ ‘Gay-straight alliances and Catholicism are not mutually exclusive; they go hand in hand … and provide a safe space for those who need support,’ said student Jersey David from the gay-straight alliance at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School. ‘Our discussions are about anti-bullying and inclusive language,’ and does not conflict with Catholic schools’ promotion of chastity, argued fellow student Erin Edgehill.
“Students from the gay-straight alliance club of Francis Liberman Catholic High School — which is called Bridges — noted they start each club meeting with a prayer and believe the Catholic faith extends to accepting those of different sexual identities.”
One of the trustees who voted to support the continuation of gay-straight alliances explained his position in terms of gospel inclusion:
‘Trustee Sal Piccininni said Catholic education must change with the times, and that he was always taught that ‘Jesus accepts everybody.’ He said he was proud of the students who defended GSAs at the meeting.”
The decisive defeat of the attempt to squash the GSAs is a victory for positive Catholic social teaching about non-discrimination. GSA’s not only help LGBT students feel safer, but they help other students get over their ignorance and fear about sexual minorities. Catholic institutions should follow the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s example by instituting programs to eliminate bullying and end homophobia in young people.
Here are some items that you might find of interest:
1) Tonight, two Toronto Catholic District School Board trustees are proposing to banish gay-straight alliances from Catholic schools in the city, reports The Globe and Mail. Catholic schools are funded by the Ontario provincial government, which last year required all schools to institute gay-straight alliances if a student makes a request.
2) An ultra-traditionalist French Catholic professor committed suicide by shooting himself in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral after writing a blog post in which he lamented France’s new marriage equality law, according to The Independent.
3) The Czech Republic’s President Milos Zeman has refused to approve the appointment of a Catholic gay man to a professorship at the nation’s Charles University, Prague, reports Agence France Presse. Zeman explained that he refused to approve Martin C. Putna’s appointment because Putna marched at a gay-rights rally with a sign which contained an anti-gay slur.
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.
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.careports:
“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.
A documentary about CUAllies, the unofficial gay-straight alliance at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., was released this week by two recent alumnae.
Andrea Mineo and Heidi Green, both class of 2012, released the short film originally created for a media studies course in April. Mineo’s and Green’s documentary is the latest in a series of student-produced films about CUAllies since students began seeking official recognition in 2009.
You can view the video here:
The documentary captures the students’ ongoing struggle, noting the challenges of attending a religiously-affiliated university where official Church doctrine seems unsettled by a group of people or an idea. It highlights support from students at CUA for a recognized gay-straight alliance, many of whom believe CUAllies’ purpose aligns perfectly with the Catholic identity and mission of the University.
At present, CUAllies awaits a response on their proposal for official recogniton, submitted seven months ago. Provost James Brennan, who assumed charge of student life this fall, will make the final decision, which could be several months away. CUAllies is a student movement at Catholic University to create a safe, welcoming, and affirming environment on campus for LGBT students that does not presently exist.Previously, the Organization for Gay and Lesbian Rights was disbanded by former President Fr. David O’Connell for being ‘political’ in 2002 and sexual orientation was removed from the University’s non-discrimination clause in 2006.
Bondings 2.0 contacted the new leadership for comment on their vision and hopes for CUAllies this year, along with responses to the documentary.
CUAllies Communications Director Chelsea Schoen said: “The documentary was truly well-done and offered beautiful images of community, as well as demonstrated the wide array of support of our movement throughout campus. We are the same as any other student organization: a group of like-minded students seeking to share in fellowship and commonality….we are a group of students striving to create a safe and welcoming environment on campus, working as one to live out the virtue of love.”
CUAllies Deputy Director Travis Dichoso said: “I think this year I would like to focus on solidifying our mission and raising awareness of our mission. I would like to say that we are trying to take the approach of working with CUA’s administration rather than against it. We want to create a group which helps to integrate GLBT students into CUA’s community in a way that is respectful to the mission of the University.”
Speaker of the Student Government Ryan Fecteau, formerly a co-director of CUAllies, released the following statement: “The Student Association made a commitment to support our LGBT brothers and sisters last semester by approving a 20-3 resolution that encourages the administration’s approval of CUAllies. It is clear from my discussions with students on campus…that CUAllies embodies the spirit of our University’s mission. No one should be excluded and a community of love and safety should be fostered for all students. This is our obligation.”
The CUAllies Executive Board recently stated the only agenda of the group is love and safety, which will manifest itself in ‘community’ and ‘safety’ being the primary focuses for the 2012-13 academic year.