Formation of Gay-Straight Alliances Should Be Top Priority at Catholic Schools

National Gay-Straight Alliance DayToday is National Gay-Straight Alliance Day.  February 6th has been marked by a coalition of youth advocacy organizations to raise awareness for the need of such organizations in our schools. Catholic schools are no exception.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network highlights the challenges posed to gay, lesbian, and transgender students:

  • “More than 85 percent of LGBT students have been verbally harassed;
  • Nearly 20 percent of LGBT students were physically assaulted by their peers at school;
  • Almost 40 percent of LGBT students reported that faculty and staff never intervene when homophobic language is used in their presence;
  • Nearly 30 percent of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire school day because they felt unsafe.”

Those behind National Gay-Straight Alliance Day propose expanding the presence of GSAs at schools to combat negative experiences and provide greater safety:

“Violence and discrimination against LGBT students is the rule, not the exception, in American schools. It is a national disgrace that students feel threatened in school simply because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  While Americans need to know that thousands of students each day go to school or college and endure LGBT violence and harassment, they must also know that GSAs are a tool in helping end violence and that these student groups save lives.”

Nearly half of Catholic colleges in the United States offer gay-friendly resources (here is a full listing by New Ways Ministry) and there are many GSA-style groups in Catholic high schools,  but the establishment of support groups remains a conflict for many schools.

In Canada, the province of Ontario passed legislation in mid-2012 mandating that all schools allow student clubs focused upon sexual orientation or gender identity. Catholic schools, which are funded by the government, were included in the law, but critics claim they have failed to provide anti-bullying or school spirit groups with an explicit LGBT focus. The Hamilton Spectator reports on this criticism and the government’s firm enforcement of the law:

“But according to local activist Deirdre Pike, [not naming the support clubs “gay-straight alliances”] could leave students feeling excluded and without the support they need…

“‘Until they get intentional about naming these groups, the silence will continue.’

“The education minister’s office, meanwhile, says the legislation is “clear” about the government’s commitment to safe, inclusive and accepting schools for all students, including those who are LGBT.”

In Australia, Daniel Torcasio is speaking about his troubling experiences teaching at an all-male Catholic high school where homophobic speech, bullying, and discriminatory employment practices were commonplace. The former teacher details one incident in 2009 for The Star Observer:

“‘A 13-year old kid came to me and told me he was gay. He’d only told his family and a few close friends, and told me so that if he was ever bullied at school someone would understand the situation and be able to help,’ Torcasio said.

“‘Naturally I took it to the school leadership, who then went to the Catholic Education Office…’

“‘The reply back from them was that we were never to mention matters like this again. That kid could’ve come to me as a cry for help – if he’d said he was suicidal or that he was being bullied, we would’ve been told to help him in any way we could, but because he was gay, we weren’t ever to discuss it,’ he said.”

Torcasio also left that position because of policies against gay staff that created a culture of silence for fear of termination:

“‘I was fairly open about my sexuality in the staff room, but I couldn’t let one detail of my private life slip to my students. If I’d mentioned my sexuality to someone or a parent had complained, I would have lost my job,’ he said.

“Torcasio claimed the ‘Catholic ethos’ stipulation in teacher’s contracts was only enforced on gay teachers.”

Torcasio, an alumnus of the high school, had returned to teach at the school after fifteen years expecting students would be more accepting than when he was a student and experienced severe bullying. He was disturbed by a continued culture of homophobia. The Catholic school district officially has no policy on LGBT students other than bland language regarding Catholic values.

Clearly, the common thread in these stories is the desperate need for students, educators, and parents to speak up. In Catholic schools, the establishment of gay-straight alliances that provide safe spaces for LGBT and questioning students, allow peer support to emerge, and create respectful atmospheres should be a top priority.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related recent post

February 1: Raising LGBT Standards in Catholic Schools