The highly controversial debate over what to name the government-mandated anti-homophobia clubs in state-funded Catholic schools of Ontario has been settled. Though they are commonly called “gay-straight alliances” (GSAs), Catholic officials balked at this title. After eight months of wrangling, the Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees’ Association (OCTSA) has settled on a choice, and it has also issued guidelines for how to run these groups, reports the Toronto Star:
“Now, at last, the puff of white smoke has emerged. In a report sent Thursday to schools, the committee suggests anti-bullying groups be called “Respecting Difference clubs.” They must have a staff advisor committed to the Catholic faith, they are not to provide personal counseling in a group setting, and are not to be a forum for “activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school,” says the 15-page blueprint sent out this week to all Catholic school boards.
“ ‘This is about helping kids feel safe against bullying, not as advocacy for a lifestyle,’ said Nancy Kirby, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association. ‘We have nothing against homosexuals, but it’s the (homosexual) act that is in contradiction of the teachings of the church.’ “
Why is there such a controversy over what to name these groups? In an article on Xtra.ca, a Canadian lesbian/gay news organization, quotes Kirby’s reasoning for opposing “gay-straight alliance:”
“ ‘It won’t be a gay-straight alliance,’ she told Xtra in past interviews. ‘When I look at a gay-straight alliance, I see an activist group. We are answering the students’ request for support and assistance, not for activism. Students don’t want to become activists; they want to be supported in being bullied by their peers.’ ”
At least one observer disagrees with Kirby’s assessment. In The Windsor Star‘s article, Larry Lavender, vice-president of Windsor Pride says that gay-straight alliances are not activist organizations and that, in reality, they function pretty much in the way that Catholic trustees want the groups conducted. He states:
” ‘They’re just meeting once a week after classes, and socializing and talking about their problems and being there for each other.’ ”
Lavender has no problem with the new name:
“ ‘As long as they allow them and don’t impede them, don’t suppress their function, is it really important what they’re called?’ Lavender asked. ‘No, not really.’ ”
However, one of the people at the center of this controversy and who stands to be one of those most affected by the decision is not happy with the Trustees’ decision. Leanne Iskander, a student who has been asking for a GSA at her school since last March and who has organized Catholic Students For GSAs, doesn’t like the new term at all. In an interview with the Toronto Star explains her position:
“ ‘It highlights the difference, rather than the similarities, and it should be about more than just respect — it should be about accepting people as they are. . . ‘ “
In The Globe and Mail article on the topic, Iskander added a thought which highlights how futile it is for authorities to try to pull the wool over young adults who can smell phoniness a mile away:
“ ‘We wouldn’t use this name if they [the school] tried to push it on us.’ ”
Is something’s name really important? Definitely. The name sets a context for an organization and sends a message about what is permissible and not permissible for discussion. A name is not only a label: it also contains values. Part of the problem in this controversy is that the (OCTSA) sees that the word “gay” only can mean illicit sex and/or political activism, and so it is devalued. In The Globe and Mail article, Kirby stated:
“ ‘We may not agree with the advocacy of a lifestyle, but still believe that gay students, and for that matter any students, should not be bullied. . . .We are totally against bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and have nothing against homosexuality. But this is about anti-bullying specifically, not promoting a lifestyle that goes against our Catholic teachings.’ ”
While it is admirable that Kirby is against bullying, her worries about “promoting a lifestyle” are overblown and reveal a defensiveness that, if enacted in these organizations, will guarantee their failure.
If sexual activity and political activism are one’s starting points for understanding LGBT people–particularly young LGBT people–this assumption reveals that there is really no understanding at all.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Bondings 2.0 reported earlier about this controversy in the following postings: