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Catholic trustees prefer 'Respecting Differences' clubs to gay-straight alliances

After months of deliberation, the group representing the province's Catholic school boards has come up with a new name for anti-homophobia clubs while still toeing the church's line.

Common in public schools, gay-straight alliances (GSAs) became the centre of a media furor after the Halton Catholic school board banned them. While the Ontario government said anti-homophobia groups must be allowed, Catholic school boards have struggled with how to support gay students, while steering clear of activism.

The solution? Call these anti-bullying groups "Respecting Differences" clubs, the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association says in a report.

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Recognizing that suicide rates are higher among homosexual students compared to their heterosexual peers, OCSTA president Nancy Kirby said Catholic schools remain committed to providing support for students who are discriminated against as a result of their sexual orientation.

The report sent on Thursday to all Catholic schools suggests that the Respecting Difference clubs have a staff adviser present at all times, the school review any materials for promoting awareness and invite the chaplaincy to meetings. They are not intended as a "fora for activism, protest or advocacy of anything that is not in accord with the Catholic faith foundation of the school," the report said.

"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," Ms. Kirby said in an interview on Friday.

"These groups will not look like a GSA, because the objectives are different from the mandate of a GSA," she said. "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."

Leanne Iskander, who has been fighting to start a gay-straight alliance at her Mississauga Catholic school since March, 2011, was less than impressed.

"It's very generic, and just the fact that it has 'differences' in its name further marginalizes queer students," Ms. Iskander said. "How is that an alliance at all?"

Ms. Iskander, a Grade 12 student at St. Joseph's Catholic Secondary School, called the name worse than Open Arms, the current title of her school's anti-homophobia group.

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"It's about respecting students for who they are, not highlighting their differences," she said. "We wouldn't use this name if they [the school]tried to push it on us."

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