Alberta's first gay-straight alliance for teachers a learning curve for acceptance

The original intent of Alberta's first gay-straight alliance for teachers to lead by example. But the group has become a place of learning for participants - and an example for other school districts starting their own chapters.

'We need to support our teachers as well, to show that they're not marginalized'

An image from a 2018 Alberta Teachers' Association brochure entitled Breaking the Silence, which is a guide for sexual and gender minority teachers in Alberta.

The original intent of Alberta's first gay-straight alliance for teachers was to lead by example.

But the group, started three years ago by a local teachers' association in south Edmonton, has had a learning curve for the teachers who participate.

It's also become a leading example for other local teachers' associations now starting their own chapters.

"If we're going to support our children and our students, we need to model it. We need to support our teachers as well, to show that they're not marginalized," Greg Carabine, a science and physical education teacher at Austin O'Brien Catholic high school, told CBC's Radio Active on Wednesday.

As president of the Edmonton Catholic Teachers' Local 54 with the Alberta Teachers Association, Carabine took on organizing and chairing the initial meeting. He says that first meeting was historic and enlightening.

"I led the first meeting and I go, 'This is historic. Should we take a picture?' And even with that, there was concern… If that picture was posted, they had concerns about what might happen to them. And that was very enlightening to me."

The monthly meetings, just like the student GSAs, are open to gay and straight teachers. For about the first 15 minutes of each session, teachers share stories — things that happened to them or situations they saw in a school hallway, and how they dealt with it, Carabine said.

Discussions about hurtful language — for example, students who use the word "gay" to mean "lesser" — are common, he said.
Greg Carabine, a teacher at Austin O'Brien Catholic High School in Edmonton. (The Alberta Teachers' Association website)

"I knew there were gay teachers but it never really impacted me. Now that I've heard the stories and the things they go through … when you actually hear the stories, and hear some of the sadness in the stories, it's been very eye-opening for me."

The monthly meetings draw about 20 to 30 teachers and have been open to any teacher belonging to the ATA.

Currently, there are almost 60 gay-straight students alliances established in schools all over Alberta. Bill 24, a piece of provincial legislation approved in November, ensures that students who have joined a GSA cannot be "outed" by school staff, even to the student's parents.

This month, the ATA published a 20-page brochure which provides information, statistics, legislation and coping tactics for teachers who identify as a sexual or gender minority (SGM).

The brochure, called Breaking the Silence, states "many SGM teachers are still directed not to 'come out at work.'"

 It goes on to say that "others avoid sharing any personal information with colleagues while many still worry about losing their jobs, receiving parental or student complaints, or being outed at school."

Carabine said the teacher gay-straight alliance he helped start has already made great strides toward better empathy and understanding. He is hopeful that new teacher GSAs in Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere will continue that growth.

"I've never had to hide the fact that I was Irish. On St. Patrick's Day, I never had to think, 'Well, what if I let them know I go to the Irish club or that I play Gaelic football,'" Carabine said.

"But for some gay teachers, that is a worry. And they live with it. Day in and day out."