fighting homophobia; the teen slur “That’s so gay”

 In Boardwatch, Education matters, The Catholic Board -TCDSB

In some gay-straight student clubs, like the one at Maxwell Heights Secondary School in Oshawa, it’s all out in the open – who’s gay, who’s bisexual, who’s straight.

In other clubs, like the gay-straight alliance Dylan Ungerman Sears belongs to at Toronto’s Vaughan Road Academy, “we could all be straight or most of us gay; we don’t know and it wouldn’t matter. We’re not a support group; we’re a group that fights homophobia.”

Whether their members are in, out or not sure, gay-straight alliances are suddenly the most controversial student clubs in Ontario, but they don’t talk much about sex.

In a rare look inside four gay-straight alliances (GSAs), the Star found the focus is on and the disclaimer “No homo!” many kids add when they compliment someone of the same sex, even on Facebook.

These little weekly lunchtime gatherings of students are at the eye of a big political storm that began last fall when the Halton Catholic District School Board banned them for not fitting with Catholic doctrine that accepts homosexuals but not homosexual sex.

The debate flared again this week in Mississauga, when Xtra! newspaper reported St. Joseph’s Catholic School had turned down student Leanne Iskander’s request for a GSA, recommending instead students consult with guidance counsellors or join a club with a broader equity mandate that doesn’t have “gay” as its sole focus.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” the Grade 11 student told the Star. “A lot of kids would benefit from having that kind of club and whatever the name, it has to be recognizable for what it is.”

In Halton, the debate may flare again Tuesday when a committee reviews a proposed alternative to GSAs: broad equity clubs that deal with discrimination of all kinds but don’t cite “gay” as the focus.

Yet it must be the focus, argued Grade 12 student Dylan McKelvey of Maxwell Heights.

“Our school has an equity club which I joined, but even there, some students weren’t comfortable with me being gay,” said McKelvey, 18. “I still hear kids call out ‘faggot’ and ‘queer,’ so the GSA is a sanctuary. Having ‘gay’ in the name gives people something to relate to.”

At a recent meeting, members worked on a poster for an upcoming conference for Durham’s gay-straight alliances; last year Rick Mercer was keynote speaker and this year it’s Helen Kennedy, head of Egale, the national gay-rights advocacy group whose alarming 2009 study showed gay students are roughly twice as likely to feel unsafe as other students in Canadian schools.

Students join GSAs for different reasons. At Maxwell Heights, one Grade 11 girl joined because she is bisexual. Nikita Travato joined because her uncle is gay. Billie-Jean Bennett says 90 per cent of her friends are gay or bisexual even though she herself is straight. Katelyn O’Hagan says she joined after a girl she knew killed herself because she was lesbian.

“If there were more GSAs,” said O’Hagan, 16, “people who are depressed and isolated might know they have support.”

Students can get labelled as gay just for joining a gay-straight alliance, admitted members, so gay teens who aren’t “out” sometimes don’t join to avoid suspicion.

“But it’s not gay people who are causing homophobia, so it’s the rest of us who have to change,” said Victoria Denney, a Grade 11 student at Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby. “Every school should have a gay-straight alliance.”

Sinclair’s GSA recently tossed around ideas for Anti-Homophobia Week in May – a bake sale with rainbow chip cookies? – and discussed the Egale report that gay students in Durham are twice as likely as others to skip school because they feel unsafe.

“I know kids at other schools who get pushed into the lockers because they’re gay,” said Grade 11 student Jonathan Marsellus, who said he is trying to stamp out the insult “That’s so gay” because some of his family members actually are.

At the Etobicoke School of the Arts, one student founded a gay-straight alliance this year as part of an anti-homophobia project inspired by her father who has come out as gay.

“I’m 100 per cent straight but I founded a GSA because homophobia is replacing racism as the new trend in discrimination,” said the student, who asked that her name not be used.

“Without this kind of club, you’re kind of ignoring the homophobia in your school and we spend a lot of time at school; it’s our second home. To know there are people who care about you will be extremely comforting.”

Student Jackson Poldrugovac of the Vaughan Road GSA has designed a number of striking anti-homophobia posters on his computer, including a popular Valentine’s Day picture of Bert and Ernie that says “There’s more than one kind of love.”

But that’s not a message all students like. When the club designed buttons to say “No homo. . . phobia,” some students put tape over the “phobia,” sighed Grade 12 student Shari Gananathan, whose mother is lesbian.

“I’m like, guys – come on! This is why we need a club with the word ‘gay’ in the name – because gay is such a pejorative.”    louise brown  A look inside Ontario’s controversial student clubs     March 18, 2011

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