'Gay-straight alliance' name forces debate in Ontario

Ontario politicians are debating legislation on bullying in schools, while the province's Catholic bishops object to using the name "gay-straight alliance."

Roman Catholic archbishop opposes requiring GSA name

Ontario politicians are debating amendments to the province's Education Act designed to deal with bullying and they find themselves running up against formidable opposition in the form of the province's Catholic bishops.

It is not that the clergymen are in any way supportive of bullying. What they object to is that Bill 13, the accepting schools act, gives "particular emphasis" to "LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersexed, queer and questioning) people." They also oppose a particular clause that would enable students to call anti-bullying groups they form at school a "gay-straight alliance."

And this week the archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins, spoke out against the new amendments, writing that "all forms of bullying need to be addressed, and all victims of bullying need to be helped."

In that vein, he said, "it is not helpful to propose one particular way, such as the one commonly called GSA."

The Catholic bishops also say that the emphasis in any anti-bullying campaign should be based on "an accurate understanding of those who are most at risk."

But that is a point that has been dealt with in a number of research studies.

Sexual orientation and bullying

Actual or perceived sexual orientation is the number 2 reason students are bullied, according to a U.S. survey in 2005. Appearance was the number 1 reason cited.

Protesters outside a high school in Flour Bluff, Texas, on March 4, 2011, support a senior at the school, after she was denied permission to start a gay-straight alliance club. (Todd Yates/Corpus Christi Caller-Times/Associated Press)

A more recent 2010 study by doctors at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that sexual minority youth are bullied two to three times more than heterosexual youth.

2011 study funded by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, a gay rights advocacy group, found that "20.8 per cent of LGBTQ students indicated being physically harassed due to their sexual orientation, compared to 7.9 per cent of non-LGBTQ participants."

The LGBT students also endured six times as much verbal harassment about their sexual orientation.

The survey also found that almost two-thirds of LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school.

Students support GSAs

There is also strong support for gay-straight alliances from students in both public and Catholic schools in Ontario.

In a 2011 survey of over 7,000 students for the Ontario Student Trustees' Association, 88 per cent agreed,"that a student wanting to establish a Gay Straight Alliance club in their school should be allowed to do so."

Bullying defined

Here's the definition of bullying that the Ontario government proposes to add to the province's Education Act:

"Bullying" means repeated and aggressive behaviour by a pupil where,

(a) the behaviour is intended by the pupil to cause, or the pupil ought to know that the behaviour would be likely to cause, harm, fear or distress to another individual, including psychological harm or harm to the individual's reputation, and

(b) the behaviour occurs in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance between the pupil and the individual based on factors such as size, strength, age, intelligence, peer group power, economic status, social status, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, family circumstances, gender, race, disability or the receipt of special education; ("intimidation").

Bill 13 then adds that bullying behaviour, "includes the use of any physical, verbal, electronic, written or other means."

What's more, surveys in both Canada and the U.S. found bullying of sexual minority students is less common in schools that have an anti-homophobia policy and/or have a gay-straight alliance.

In a May 28 interview with CBC Radio's Matt Galloway, Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten defended her new amendments.

"To many of our students, we know that the term gay-straight alliance has great meaning and that words matter and that if you can't name something, you can't address it," she said.

Philip Squire, chair of the London District Catholic School Board, told CBC Radio's Wei Chen that "no student has come forward and said they want a gay-straight alliance."

The legislation actually accounts for that: If no student requests such a group, a school would not be required to establish a GSA.

Squire also objected to the term itself, arguing, "It's an advocacy term that started in the United States."

The first GSA was established in 1988 at the Concord Academy, an independent boarding school in Concord, Mass. But it is also a term that is widely accepted in other Canadian provinces.

'We are all sinners'

Thomas Cardinal Collins, archbishop of Toronto, opposes an Ontario government bill that would allow students in any school to form groups called gay-straight alliances. Collins waits for the start of a mass at the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Feb. 20. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

The Toronto archbishop views GSAs as "a particular method of addressing one form of bullying, and providing personal support" and a model closely related to the gay movement.

At his May 28 press conference, Collins asked, "Why are Catholics and Catholic schools not free to attain the same goal, of love and respect for everybody, not allowed to attain the same goals in their own different ways?"

He did concede that "this may not always happen in a Catholic school, for we are all sinners, but we earnestly try to live up to this standard."

But while Collins and the Ontario bishops favour an anti-bullying policy that addresses all forms of bullying, Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, told CBC News that, "generic policies don't work."

She pointed to the example of Newfoundland and Labrador, which she sees as "way ahead" of Ontario and the rest of Canada in dealing specifically with anti-gay bullying. To do so, the Progessive Conservative government plans to train 5,000 teachers in how to help solve the problem.