What is a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA)?
I believe that there are some misconceptions about Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) that need to be discussed given Bill 202 and Bill 10. From my research and speaking to experts in the field, I learned that though the word “alliance” is in the name, they are not political groups or groups that promote a gay lifestyle. The word “alliance” is related to the fact that these groups bring straight and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) students together as allies. I also learned that they are not sex groups or dating clubs but “identity clubs” for students who identify as LGBTQ and their straight friends. To put this in language that Catholics can understand: they are pastoral care groups for LGBTQ students. Another misconception is that they meet during school hours. In actual fact, they meet after school on school property.
Do our LGBTQ students need pastoral care in our Catholic schools? Absolutely! I have learned that though 5% of youth are LGBTQ, they make up 25-40% of homeless youth (go to homeless hub). (A reader has informed me that according to Statistics Canada 2.4% of the population identifies as LGBTQ. There are 40,000 students at ECSD so 1,000 of our students would identify as LGBTQ). LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers (go to http://www.thetrevorproject.org/). I also know from both first-hand experience and hearing the stories of parents with gay children, that homophobia is alive and well in our schools–both Catholic and public. A 2006 Toronto District School Board Research Report concurs (http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/AboutUs/Research/StudentCensusReport-SchoolExperiencesFinal.pdf):
- Sixty-nine percent (69%) of heterosexual Grade 9-12 students indicated they feel comfortable with the overall school environment all the time or often, compared with 52% of LGBTQ students. There are also 12% more LGBTQ students indicating they rarely or never feel comfortable with school.
- In terms of relationships with other students and with school adults, 17% more heterosexual students indicated they feel comfortable all the time or often than LGBTQ students.
- With regard to school safety, 71% of LGBTQ students reported they feel safe at school all the time or often, which is 12% lower than heterosexual students. On the other hand, 10% more LGBTQ students indicated they do not feel safe at school (p. 46)
Some have raised the issue that there are many reasons why students feel discriminated at school and some of these reasons far outweigh being discriminated because of being LGBTQ. This is in fact true. The Toronto District School Board 2006 Student Census System Overview gives the following reasons why students most often are bullied: (go to http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/aboutus/research/2006studentcensussystemoverview1.pdf)
|Reasons for Being Bullied||Grade 7-8||Grade 9-12|
|Grades or marks||17%||12%|
|Cultural or racial background||11%||14%|
That body image and marks are top of the list for being bullied does not surprise me — these were the same top 2 issues listed by the students attending our recent District Wide Student Council meeting. I believe that our schools need to address these issues through groups and through the curriculum just as we need to address any reasons why students would be bullied. And our district does try to address the listed reasons for being bullied. In regards to body image, I was recently visiting a Catholic junior high in our district which offers an onsite after school care program just for girls ages 11-15 led by the YWCA called GirlSpace. The flyer states the following:
“Come join YWCA Edmonton’s GirlSpace Empowerment and Leadership Program. Activites and Discussion led by female mentors from your community. Themes: Healthy Relationships, physical, mental, and sexual health, body image and media analysis, decision making, budgeting, bullying, your rights, and more!”
So this is an after school care group specifically for girls offered in a Catholic school to help girls become empowered. It addresses body image and other factors that contribute to their self esteem.
In regards to being bullied on the basis of marks, our district has a whole high school dedicated to high achieving students so that they can be with other like minded students who enjoy studying and learning. At a recent parent council meeting at this high school, parents shared how much more comfortable their high achieving child was at the school since they no longer had to deal with discrimination and bullying due to being high achievers.
In regards to being discriminated against due to culture and racial background, our district offers a wide array of special programming and groups for our First Nations, Metis and Inuit students (FNMI). If you go to https://www.ecsd.net/Programs/Overview/AboriginalLearning/Pages/Aboriginal-Learning.aspx you will see the myriad of supports we offer to these students — everything from culturally relevant counselling and support, to connections to elders, to programming that is permeated with the aboriginal culture. Ben Calf Robe school is a whole school dedicated to supporting the FNMI student. Certainly there are students from other racial backgrounds who would be suffering from discrimination so we need to address their concerns as well–we can always do more.
So as a Catholic school district we offer specific pastoral care and programming to specifically vulnerable students. We do this because we are followers of Jesus who in Matthew 25 tells us that when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner, we do all these things to him. He did not suggest that we give drink to the hungry and clothe the sick – he said that we needed to meet each group’s specific needs. So I believe that we should continue as we have already been doing in providing specific support for specific students in regards to our LGBTQ students. This in no way goes against what we are already doing for our vulnerable students.
I also have a concern that if we do not have pastoral care groups for our LGBTQ students in our schools, our Catholic students will go to public school groups. I have learned that this is already the case. I am very concerned about what this says about our district–it shows that our students who need support are not getting it from a Christian institution whose mission it is to support vulnerable people. I am also concerned that in going outside our schools for support, our students will miss out on learning through our Christian lens the Christian view of the human body and sexuality.
At a recent Alberta Catholic School Trustees meeting I learned of a video called “The Third Way” which features 3 adult gay Catholics describing what it was like for them to grow up Catholic and gay (go to http://www.blackstonefilms.org/films.html). They suffered greatly because they didn’t receive any support from their school, their parents or their parish. In actual fact, they experienced quite the opposite — homophobia, rejection, and isolation. The 3 people featured in the film, in the end did find their way back to the church with the help of caring Christian people. Once given support they chose to lead celibate lives as a way to live with their sexual orientation. Whether you agree or disagree with their final decision of how they chose to live with their sexual orientation, the video is valuable in understanding better the struggles LGBTQ students have with understanding their sexual identity and being accepted by others for who they are. It is my view that we need to provide a pastoral response specific to their particular situation just as we provide a pastoral response to our girls, our FNMI students, our special needs students, our English Language Learners and so on. We are Catholic schools – let’s witness to Jesus’ love for all people and be cognizant of Mother Teresa’s wise words: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”.