Gay-straight alliances are sometimes controversial in Catholic education. Yet five years after some Canadian legislators required schools to offer them if requested, Catholic schools in the province of Ontario are doing well on LGBT inclusion.
The Legislative Assembly of Ontario approved Bill 13, or the Accepting Schools Act, in 2012 against some Catholic leaders’ opposition. The Act requires that all schools funded by the government, which includes Canadian Catholic schools, must offer a student group titled “gay-straight alliance” if it is requested by students.
Those requests happened immediately, according to Danielle Desjardins-Koloff, the principal of Safe Schools, Equity, and Inclusion for the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board. She commented to the National Catholic Reporter:
“‘To be honest, I was very excited, because I do believe that [the alliances] celebrate our human dignity and they recognize that these students have a unique place. . .We had allies where we didn’t know allies existed, where we hadn’t yet defined “ally.”‘”
Though she admitted that working in Catholic education is more difficult than secular settings, in the past five years Desjardins-Koloff has successfully trained every Windsor-Essex Catholic school on LGBT support, and all secondary schools have gay-straight alliances. Achieving this goal has not meant watering down or sidelining Catholic identity:
“Desjardins-Koloff understands that some members of the community may fear that a gay-straight alliance would ‘devalue the traditional sense of a family,’ but she is quick to point to the convergence of a gay-straight alliance and Catholic ethos. She said she worked to ‘convince the community that these clubs weren’t about sex or sexuality. It was about sexual identity and orientation; it’s about identity and celebrating individuals’ authentic versions of themselves.’
‘Seeing Catholic social justice teaching providing ‘beautiful support,’ Desjardins-Koloff helps students design gay-straight alliance meetings that are ‘centered on Christ-like actions and discipleship.’ She thinks gay-straight alliances are helping to bring students back to a church where they felt they hadn’t belonged before.
“‘The first few times these kids don’t see themselves as part of the Catholic community at all, and they kinda laugh, and they don’t want to join hands and they don’t want to join in, and it’s by choice,’ said Desjardins-Koloff. ‘But by the end of the semester or even some by a month, we are praying together. Our hands are held and we’re in a circle and they feel that energy. They feel every bit a part of that community.'”
These efforts and similar ones throughout Ontario are bearing fruit beyond school walls. Catholic students have begun collaborating between schools and helping support the Catholic Student Leadership Team’s annual inclusivity conference, which now addresses LGBT issues. Students and staff in the Windsor-Essex district have also begun partnerships with secular LGBT groups in the community
Even with these many successes, there are still several aspects of LGBT supports in Ontario’s Catholic systems that are being worked out. Arlene Davis, vice principal at St. Anne’s Catholic School, said she has had several conversations with parents about the school’s gay-straight alliance which she advises:
“Our religious background is something that we respect, but at the same time, it is conservative, and we want to respect that and we want to help these kids along so that they can definitely go along and feel like they’re accomplishing things,’ said Davis.
“Having set up a booth for the gay-straight alliance group at St. Anne’s parent-teacher interview nights, Butler noticed that some parents seemed pleased to see it, but others she watched direct their children to avoid the club.”
“‘As a parent first, to see kids that just feel so free and so able to just express themselves and enjoy. And not be judged. . .like, this is who I am, and I’m cool with it. . .I think there still is that extra thing, when you’re on a team. It makes you feel a little bit more special, a little bit more heard, a little bit more accepted. . .”
In Davis’ comment, I hear echoes of St. Irenaeus’ words, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Five years on, I am thankful for Bill 13 and the ways it has made the glory of God that much more visible in our world through the flourishing of LGBT students and their educators.
To watch a video about St. Anne’s Catholic School in Windsor-Essex, Ontario, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 15, 2017