Catholic students in the GTA are bringing attention to their efforts to create more safe spaces in their schools by marching in Sunday's Pride Parade.
Leanne Iskander is the spokesperson for a group of students at St. Joseph's Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga who have started an "unofficial" gay-straight alliance at their school called the Open Arms club.
The group was in the news earlier this month when the Dufferin-Peel Catholic board prevented the use of a rainbow flag, a symbol of gay pride, at an anti-homophobia event after refusing to allow a chartered gay-straight alliance at St. Joseph's.
"Pride is an excellent way to get the message across to the community, the government, and the Catholic School system that there is a want and a need for gay-straight alliances in Catholic Schools,"Ms. Iskander wrote in a news release.
The students are in the process of beginning a coalition of Catholic Students for GSAs and hope their participation in the march will bring more attention to the cause.
Bruce Campbell, a spokesperson for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board, explained that the board supports the students in terms of the need to promote anti-bullying and anti-homophobia efforts, but that any club or group within the board also needs to be in line with the requirements of the Catholic faith.
He said Open Arms "has been widely accepted and hugely successful in terms of engaging students and creating awareness of issues." The board supports anti-bullying and anti-homophobia efforts and see the group as a template that could be used at other schools should there be a demand for it.
Gay-straight alliances are often places to go for support in a school environment, explained Ms. Iskander. "The LGBT students have never had a voice before in Catholic schools. They've been closeted."
Equality For Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (Egale) is an LGBT advocacy group that has been working with Ms. Iskander's club for the past three months. Egale runs a website that provides materials for students who want to establish gay-straight alliances in their schools called mygsa.ca.
There are efforts like the one at St. Joseph's being made by students across the country to develop safe spaces in their schools. "I don't think this is an isolated incident. We're a national organization and we see this right across the country and it's not, unfortunately, specific to the Catholic school board," said Helen Kennedy, Egale's executive director.
This is not just a gay issue either. It affects the school environment in its totality, said Ms. Kennedy. Eighty per cent of students targeted by homophobic violence identify as straight. Egale just completed a study that found schools that have GSAs among their school clubs are safer and the incidence of homophobic violence in schools are reduced because of them.
The benefits of the unofficial GSA at St. Joseph's have already become clear. Ms. Iskander said there has been less bullying in her school because of the club. "If something happens to one of us, there are 50 other people in our GSA who are going to stand up for us." Half the students in the group identify as LGBT.
Ms. Kennedy said she expects the students will have strong support for their efforts on Sunday both within the LGBT community and outside of it.