'GSAs save lives': why gay-straight alliances matter to teachers, students

Jane MacNeil came out to her parents in Grade 6 and was immediately accepted. But in her Catholic school, one that didn’t have a gay-straight alliance, she felt rejected and isolated.

Bill 24, which stops teachers from outing kids to their parents, passed Wednesday

Jane MacNeil, seen here speaking at the McDougall Centre in Calgary at a pro-Bill 24 rally. (Tet M Photography/Supplied)

When Jane MacNeil was preparing to come out to her parents in Grade 6, she was nervous. "My parents have always been supportive of the community," she said. "But I still spent a week to prepare in case I got kicked out.

"But then the day I was planning to do it, I remembered that my parents wouldn't kick me out — they're probably going to be cool."

But in her Catholic school, one that didn't have a gay-straight alliance, she felt rejected and isolated.

"When I was at my old school, all the stresses made me so sick that I had to transfer," MacNeil told CBC's Radio Active Tuesday.

Her new school, Queen Elizabeth in Calgary, has a GSA — and since then, the Grade 9 student's life has changed for the better.

"Going to Queen Elizabeth was probably one of the greatest decisions I've ever made in my life," she said.

"I'm more comfortable, I'm happier [and] I have more friends."

The gay-straight alliance at Forest Lawn High School launched a campaign for GSAs in all schools. Bill 24 stops teachers from being required to out kids who join them. (CBC)

Bill 24, an Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances, passed its third and final reading in the legislature Wednesday, with 42 MLAs voting in favour and 23 voting against.

The bill prevents teachers from outing students who join a gay-straight alliance.

The bill's passing was a relief to Natasha Krec, a guidance counsellor and teacher in a Wetaskiwin public school.

"I think it adds clarity to both the public and the teachers to make sure that students' confidentiality is respected and kept private," she told CBC's Radio Active Wednesday after the bill passed.

"[Now], teachers aren't put in that awkward position to out kids."

Alyssa Demers, who teaches junior high at an Edmonton school, has been involved with GSAs both on the student and teacher level.

"The journey was definitely interesting, but I'm so excited to hear that Bill 24 has passed," Demers said.

"GSAs save lives."

Hurdles to acceptance

MacNeil tried to start a GSA at her Catholic school. At first, the principal agreed.

"It was really important to me that I could be religious and express myself the way that I did," she said.

We continue the discussion about gay straight alliances with two teachers. One a junior high teacher who is the GSA advisor at her school and was part of one herself. And another who is a guidance counsellor and teacher. 9:25

But almost immediately, she ran into a series of hurdles. The room where the meeting took place kept changing and the time kept changing. Teachers weren't allowed to attend, just the principal and vice-principal.

"We voted over six times on the name because they didn't want to have the word 'gay' or 'queer' in the name," MacNeil said.

"I don't know about you, but a chess club is called a chess club and a gay-straight alliance should be called a gay-straight alliance."

But when she switched schools to Queen Elizabeth, everything changed.

"I feel safe in school," she said. "Honestly, the GSA is almost school-wide, because I feel safe everywhere."

For both Krec and Demers, that's exactly what they hope every school environment will be in the future. For now, they're glad each school that has a GSA can operate without worrying about outing kids.

"GSAs are a stepping stone so that students feel safe and can have that safe belonging in a school setting," Krec said.

"The community spreads beyond the four walls of the school," Demers said.

'We are supporters'

Those opposed to Bill 24 cited concerns about sex education in the gay-straight alliance meetings. In Alberta, parents are notified when sex education is being taught and have the right to pull their child out of the class if they wish.

But in Krec's experience, sex education was never taught. "Zero. None. And I'm really saddened to hear that that was one of the, I guess, excuses used, that this would be a covert sex-ed group," she said. "It is absolutely not."

"It really functioned as, again, a safe space for youth to just come and be themselves," Demers said.

MacNeil said the GSA she is part of will often just talk about how things are going and a subject like politics. "Sometimes, it's just giving each other advice when we're going through something."

And though Demers said she understands parents should be able to keep up with what their kids are doing at school, she said they should trust teachers in regards to GSAs.

"The rights of parents do exist, and as parents they should have rights. But I do believe that teachers function in a very deliberate and specific way with youth," she said. "We're not only teachers; we don't just cover curriculum with them.

"We are mentors, we are supporters."

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.

On the show...We talk to two high school students about their experiences with GSA's in their schools and communities. And Rod Kurtz meets one of his childhood idols. He chats with Ken Dryden about his new book Game Change. 20:38