What the GSA fight taught us
In Africa it is common for Westerners like me to be told to “take time, take time.” The process of genuinely slowing down and chewing over an issue is not something many of us readily embrace, especially in cities like Toronto or in the fast-paced world of news.
Yet it is important — particularly for us activist types — to collect ourselves and regroup. As Pride approaches, it is even more important. In this issue we celebrate those students who fought for the right to gather in groups during school time to support one another: gay, straight, trans, whatever. We also take time to remember their journey — which Xtra followed every step of the way — to get to the enactment of Bill 13 on June 5.
The passage of the Accepting Schools Act in many ways concludes the fight for gay-straight alliances in Ontario. For that reason it seemed the right time to “take time” for a closer look at what some of those involved have learned over the past year and a half. Unfortunately, it is not all positive.
For those students and young people paying attention, they learned that their voice is almost meaningless in today’s political discourse in Ontario. While there is never a shortage of column inches in the media lamenting youth disengagement from Canada’s political process, when young people did get involved in this issue — in droves — over the past two years, they were largely sneered at and ignored.
I can think of very few political issues that have been as straightforward. Our politicians should not have blinked an eye. Students were asking for the right to get together in safe spaces so they could heal some of the damage done by the scourge of bullying in our schools. Catholic-bully educators in our democratic, human rights–embracing country compared gay-straight alliances to sex clubs, banned rainbows and threatened students with disciplinary action because they wanted support for what some of their publicly funded teachers were calling an “intrinsic disorder.”
Ontario’s political leaders should be proud of the passage of Bill 13, but many should also be ashamed at how long it took them to get it right. There is a lesson here for our politicians about how to encourage more youth engagement: in future, don’t treat youth with the disdain you treated the students fighting for GSAs. In future, don’t hesitate for so long before doing what you know is right.
At Xtra, this issue taught us again the value of sticking with a story, even when our readers — and some of our staff — might be tiring of it. Xtra reporter Andrea Houston first broke the GSA story, reporting on the Halton Catholic District School Board’s ban on student gay support groups in January 2011. From that day forward, I can think of no reporter in the country who has followed this story as closely and with as much passion as Houston.
Her reporting ensured the GSA story had legs, and she continuously found a new angle and a new reason for Xtra to keep it in our front pages (and for other media outlets to pinch her story and put it in their pages). Houston made sure the GSA students had a voice and agency, and her reporting forced policymakers to pay attention. I am sure she celebrated at Queen’s Park on June 5 for many reasons, not least because it is a rare day when one’s reporting helps usher in tangible, progressive political change.
I hope Catholics paying attention to this issue also take time to digest this story. It seems to me this battle only illustrated further that their anachronistic, misogynistic, homophobic leaders have never been more ready for the glue factory. From the second they left the gate, back when Halton board chair Alice Anne LeMay compared gay-straight alliances to Nazi clubs, Ontario religious leaders have continuously stepped in it.
It is 2012, dear people. For those of you who have not clued in, please wake up and realize that you know gay people and the sky will not fall if you embrace us and accept us as we are. For those who have clued in — including many Catholic teachers who now actively support GSAs — we have the brave gay students and their straight allies to thank. Well done, and thank you.
Danny Glenwright is Xtra’s assignment editor.