New Ontario Anti-Bullying Bill for Gay Teens Might Actually Fix Things

via wthrockmorton.com

Students in Ontario public schools, including Catholic schools, will be allowed to establish gay-straight alliances — but might they might not be allowed to call them that.

“We’re going to require that, at every school where students request that this be put in place, they be permitted to organize themselves with a gay-straight alliance. It may not be that name that they use, but the important thing is we’re going to have that kind of a supportive group there available in all our schools,” Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty said in an address earlier this week.

A new anti-bullying bill, introduced by education minister Laurel Broten this Wednesday, will require that school boards allow student-run groups that support gender equity, racial equity, students with disabilities, and students of all sexual orientations. Schools themselves will be required to “promote a positive school climate that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils, including pupils of any race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability.”

Guess which part is controversial.

Ontario schools, and Catholic schools in particular, have had an antagonistic relationship with gay-straight alliances that has grown worse over the past year. Last November, the Halton District School Board banned GSAs, and while the ban was overturned in January, students face ongoing problems with creating groups. St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School banned rainbows rather than deal with the school’s unofficial GSA, which was also told to call itself “Open Arms” because “Rainbow Alliance” was “too LGBT-sounding.”

At Toronto Pride in July, McGuinty pledged that high school students who wanted to have an LGBT support group would get one, but carefully did not use the words “GSA.” At that time, the statement only affirmed existing legislation.

The current proposed legislation still does not use the word “GSA,” a fact which some people find problematic. According to CTV, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said, “I was a little worried with the way the premier couched his remarks saying they might not be called that. Look, if we’re not prepared to allow kids to use the word gay, if we as we put legislation together and put new rules in place say that gay is a bad word, then how are we going to end bullying of kids who want to self-identify as gay?”

While some supporters of the bill don’t think it goes far enough, some Catholic leaders think it goes too far. Nancy Kirby, the president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, thinks that allowing GSAs is too controversial and will try to “push” students: “From where I’m sitting, it is an adult movement that is trying to push young people and they’re not adults yet, so I find it has become so controversial. That’s what we’re trying to get away from and get to the point (which is) to make schools a safe place regardless of race or sexuality.” In the past, Kirby argued against GSAs because they are “associated with activist groups, and the purpose of our clubs will be to provide support, not activism.” There is a similar feeling of unease across the Catholic school system:

“In 2011, not 1988, the Ontario Catholic Bishops’ official advice is that gay students be instructed never to act upon their sexual orientation in any way. Don’t hold hands, don’t go to a movie. Sodomy lies that way.

Some have complained, justifiably, that the anti-bullying bill seems to allow Catholic schools an out when it comes to the names of these clubs. It refers to “organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.” I would add that the bill does not specify which brand of “awareness and understanding” such student organizations would be allowed to “promote.” The Bishops are very much aware of homosexuality, and they clearly think they understand it and even respect it. The question is whether the students in their care are permitted to acknowledge reality and run a club there.”

In addition to re-affirming the need for gay-straight alliances, whatever they end up being called, the bill will require that schools work to prevent bullying, intervene when necessary, and punish offenders. It will also give schools the power to permanently expel students for bullying (currently, students are only suspended). It also has a much looser definition of bullying itself, defining it as “repeated and aggressive behaviour” that is meant to or would probably cause “harm, fear or distress to another individual, including psychological harm or harm to the individual’s reputation [… when] said behaviour occurs in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance.” The bill is currently moving to a second reading.

Big changes can start with small steps; while making schools safer for gay kids without being able to use the word “gay” raises some questions, it’s a step in acknowledging that they’re real, and so are their bullies. The schools can’t deny that their students are experiencing “harm, fear or distress,” and getting rid of that kind of bullying can only be a good thing.


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Ryan Yates

Ryan Yates was the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com, with bylines in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, The Daily Beast, Jezebel, and elsewhere. They live in Los Angeles and also on twitter and instagram.

Ryan has written 1136 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. Hmm.. I may be missing something here, but I’m not sure why we’re worried about the groups being called something other than a GSA… If it does say “organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name”, doesn’t that explicitly protect any pro-queer group regardless of name?

    I mean “GSA” is far from ideal for a name anyway. It erases bisexuality, privileges gay over lesbian, and doesn’t even imply trans*. My high school called our group Friends of Dorothy. I don’t think it’s only fear of saying the word gay that would encourage a group to rename it. I feel like I’m missing something, though. Would it allow schools to force them to call themselves something bland, like the Open Arms group?

  2. It was the Halton Catholic District School Board that banned GSAs…
    by saying Halton District School Board you are implicating the public board who did no such thing…

    I wouldn’t expect too much from Ontario Catholic schools, many still have abstinence only sex-ed.

    • Yeeep, story of my highschool years. The only time we ever broached the subject of sex was in grade 9 religion, with a teacher who was a trillion years old. She kept her hair in a down-to-her-ass, stringy gray braid, and wore plastic sunflowers in it. She also insisted that she had no qualms about still being a virgin, because virginity was God’s greatest gift. Scared the living piss out of us girls.

  3. As one of the reporters who investigated and uncovered the “GSA” ban, I just want to point out that the title of the group isn’t the point – the ban on the word “Gay” in the title of a student group is. What is motivating the ban? What kind of message does it send to say on one hand homophobia in the hallways will not be tolerated but homophobic board dictates are fine?
    It’s mixed message that tells students some homophobia is acceptable. And while no fan of bullies, are we really that shocked that homophobic bullying should continue to be a problem when the government itself refuses to be explicit – refuses to extend a “zero tolerance” policy of its own against anti-“Gay” (literally, anti-“Gay”) school board decisions?

  4. Ontario’s Catholic school board must be secularized.

    We need comprehensive sexual education. It is nonsensical that the Roman Catholic Church, which spreads misinformation about all aspects of sexuality, should be granted any formal influence over vulnerable children in Ontario.

    The institution itself grants legitimacy to bullies by creating a hierarchy of love with same-sex relations at the bottom. Even with pro-queer groups allowed in schools, it does not cut to the core of the problem.

    If we are serious about ending bullying we should stop granting privileges to enabling institutions.

  5. My ontario high school had a GSA that by the time I realized I was confused and possibly wanted to go to its meetings had changed its name to Pride Club …. in the closet me was not about to go to a thing called pride club an have people think I was gay…. I went to an arts high school that was very accepting, I always felt safe there, as did my out gay friends, I can’t imagine what it would have been like at any of the other high schools I could have gone to, but honestly I hadn’t realised that forming GSAs was controversial when I was actually in high school, I thought it was completly normal. I think that is kind of side affect of having something like that go unopposed by students and school admin, you don’t see it as strange, it would be nice if that were to happen across ontario with this new bill, but I can imagine not everyone will jst go along with it.

  6. I attended Catholic elementary school thirty years ago, and they absolutely taught sex ed. When I was ten the science of human reproduction was taught factually and acurately. Throughout the higher grades, and in high school religion class was an open discussion in which all world religions and schools of thought were introduced as different belief systems that exist.

    Should tax paying families be able to send their children to a publicly school without their children being taught subject material that is morally opposed to their religious beliefs? Teaching proper social behaviour is a role of publicly funded schools, so absolutely teach our children that bullying others is not acceptable. This is a very different thing than imposing, via the curriculum, a set of moral beliefs that are in opposition to the religious beliefs of many Canadians. Where is the tolerance for my Roman Catholic religious beliefs? Let us teach our children to live peacefully and productively in the pluralistic society we live in, without infringing on the religious beliefs of others. While we are at it, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals should sit it on the lesson.

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