I have a very clear memory of the moment I learned that my son’s high school had a gay-straight alliance (GSA), a club dedicated to helping gay and lesbian kids feel safe and accepted. Back then, I had no inkling one of my sons would turn out to be gay, but I immediately thought of another boy I knew who I felt pretty sure was (he came out about six months later). I remember thinking, “Am I ever glad Chris [not his real name] is going to this school.” I’d heard stories of gay kids who’d been mistreated, suffered mental health problems and even committed suicide because of the rough ride they had in high school. A recent US study found that one in five gay and lesbian high school students reported attempting suicide in the previous year — five times more than straight students.
So I was troubled to hear about schools and school boards that do not support students who want to start GSAs.
In November 2010, the Halton Catholic District School Board near Toronto) banned GSAs. Controversy erupted in January, and the school board chair commented that students are not allowed to form “Nazi groups” either. (She later apologized; the ban was rescinded, but the board’s current policy on GSAs is vague.) Then, last spring, students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School, in a neighbouring Catholic school board, tried to launch a GSA and were thwarted by their principal who told them they could have a group to discuss various equity issues. Later, the school allowed a group that focused on homophobia, but without the words “gay” or “lesbian” in the name.
Subsequently, lesbian and gay students at the school reported increased verbal and online harassment.
Hello! Isn’t this precisely why schools need GSAs? The groups are not a magic fix for the non-acceptance, harassment and mistreatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) youth in schools. But I’ve yet to hear a better idea. The issues confronting these kids are unique and intense — students face discrimination for other reasons, but most aren’t receiving the message that it’s a “sin” to be who they are. Equity clubs aren’t going to cut it.
Groups designed to confront homophobic bullying sound good, but by deflecting the purpose away from accepting GLBT students and avoiding the use of words like gay and lesbian in group names, the message to kids is clear: Non-straight identities are not truly accepted by the establishment.
Two key responsibilities of schools are flouted when GSAs are not allowed. One is ensuring that students are safe and comfortable at school. The other is encouraging and sponsoring student leadership, especially when it is aimed at helping others. GSAs would seem to meet both these responsibilities very well. Kids who put themselves on the line in support of GLBT students sure seem like leaders to me. And research suggests that even straight students are safer in schools that have GSAs. The study referred to above found that suicide attempts by straight youth were nine percent more likely in communities that were unsupportive of gays; the presence of GSAs was one indicator of community support.
So schools that don’t allow GSAs will have a hard time convincing me — and more importantly their communities — that they are doing everything possible to ensure the safety and acceptance of non-heterosexual youth.
Still, I’m optimistic. The pro-GSA kids will win this one, even if they have to operate outside the system for a while. There will be gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools sooner or later. And when it happens, the sky won’t fall. But certain students may find life at school a little easier.