Thursday, May 31, 2012

Go ahead and call it gay, and tell the Catholics to give the money back

The province of Ontario-- where I was born and raised, and where I lived for the first 20 or so years of my life-- has been spending a lot of time lately talking about bullying in schools, for which I'm grateful. I was bullied as a kid. It's a horrible experience I wouldn't wish on anyone, and it has shaped who I am as an adult. Schools have gradually been getting tougher when it comes to bullying, and now the provincial government is stepping in and means to pass anti-bullying legislation, called the Accepting Schools act, or Bill 13.

As always, the devil is in the details. Included in this bill is a requirement that students be allowed to form Gay-Straight Alliance (or GSA) clubs, or a similar anti-homophobia club that may include the word "gay" in the name. You can't say "gay" without getting religious and "pro-family" groups getting pissed off, and they've latched on to this particular provision of the bill, calling it some gross violation of their religious beliefs. The Catholics are kicking up the most fuss, and because of way the education system in Ontario is set up, the government has something of an obligation to actually listen to and consider their opinions on the matter. Unfortunately.

Here's something people outside of Ontario might not know: Catholic schools in the province receive public funding, just like ordinary public schools do.

This is actually written into the Canadian constitution, and it was kind of a big deal back in 1867. Provisions had already been made to allow Protestant schools in primarily-French-speaking, Catholic Québec, because heaven forbid the poor Anglicans send their children to schools run by papists. Not content to let Québec be special, Ontario's Catholics demanded the same. This article from the Toronto Star goes into a bit more detail about the history involved. This religious school nonsense could have been done away with under Trudeau and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but they passed the buck by including Section 29, which basically says, "Yeah, we know that giving public funding to religious schools violates the whole freedom of religion thing we were talking about a few paragraphs up, but we'd rather not deal with it." Other provinces-- including Québec-- have since done away with separate religious schooling, but not Ontario. Ontario even expanded on the funding for Catholic schools in the mid-eighties, allowing it to be available for all five years of high school, instead of only until grade 10.

This is relevant today because Catholics are kicking up a fuss about their religious freedom to keep hating the gays in their publicly-funded schools:
Q: So you’re saying you do not want the GSAs but you want clubs revolve around the formula called respecting differences. What would the difference between a GSA and a respecting difference club focussing on gay issues?
A: We want to fully support students to ensure and protect the safety of all the students. We have ["respecting difference" clubs] in our schools right now and several that go by different names.
Q: You’re not answering my question. What’s the difference between a GSA and the kind of club you’re suggesting?
A: Respecting difference clubs would focus on Catholic values. That means the care of the whole student: mind, body and spirit.
[Bolding original.]

I attended a Catholic high school from 2000 until 2005. At the time, I didn't think it was an especially gay-hostile environment, but I wasn't gay, so obviously my heterosexual privilege clouded my experience. The church's position on homosexual activity was made clear throughout my time there, however-- or at least as clear as their whole hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner stance could possibly be. I remember reading from my grade 9 textbook for the religion class they made me take, and it discussed the issue of homosexuality. It went on about how God still loved gay people, but homosexuality was a sin, and gays were expected to not act on their desire to love someone of the same sex. This is what I learned at age fourteen. To me, it was confusing; I can't imagine how a gay student might have felt upon reading that in a textbook.

I'm not Catholic, nor was I raised in that faith. I attended a Catholic high school school (but a public elementary school) because they had more money, and in my town, it was generally understood that it was better than the local public high school. While many of my family members are Catholic, I had something of a rebellious attitude towards my religion classes in school, not being Catholic, myself. I latched on to the idea that, in spite of what I was being told in school or reading in the bible, being gay wasn't a bad thing, and gay people shouldn't face discrimination. At the time, I tried to find ways to justify homosexuality within Christianity. In grade 10, I had to write an essay on some aspect of social justice for my religion class, and I wrote about the gays. My essay was so long I had to fight with the stapler to attach the pages together before handing it in. It was full of references to bible verses that addressed homosexuality, and alternate interpretations of those verses. In spite of all the research I did, and in spite of the fact that I had gone well above and beyond the minimum requirements for the assignment (by a good 10 pages or so), I think I got a lower grade on that essay than I had earned on anything else that year. My teacher thought my sources were biased, or something to that effect.

In grade 12 religion class, students were given a marriage project. I had some friends in one class that had far more boys than girls, and this presented a problem when students paired up. Girls with a spare period were asked to visit the class to be paired with one of the extra boys for the project. I have to wonder if the suggestion to pair the boys with each other was made and rejected, or if it was just not considered. Either way, the message sent was clear: there would be no deviation from heteronormativity, not in that classroom, and not in that school.

While I didn't witness any bullying of a student who was thought to be gay, my Catholic high school was not a gay-friendly environment. I did my part to try and improve that. I organized a Day of Silence, and it was, for the most part, pretty well-received. I don't know if anyone organized one after I left high school; I hope someone did. In spite of the lack of outright hostility I witnessed towards the gay student community, there was no support, either. Gay students were very much in the closet at my school. In more subtle ways, the school demonstrated that homosexuality was not welcome, and what I remember most are the ways this was expressed in the classroom.

That is not the sort of education I want my tax dollars spent on.

I thought that it was a universal truth that bullying is bad, the same way that it is generally accepted that kittens are cute, and that Buckley's tastes awful. Catholic school boards in Ontario, however, are opposing anti-bullying legislation because of its implicit stipulation that homophobic bullying should not be tolerated. Just the idea that students might be allowed to form a club, and call it a Gay-Straight Alliance, is seen as an attack on their religious freedom.

I propose a solution: if Catholic schools in Ontario want to continue teaching their students to hate, they should do it on their own dime. Strip Catholic schools of their public funding. This has the added benefit of saving the Ontario government some money, which they're in desperate need of.

An alternative solution would be to call these clubs Takei-Straight Alliances, and while that appeases the nerd in me, I'm not willing to give Ontario Catholics an inch on this matter. Shut up, stop teaching homophobia in classrooms, and let students have their gay clubs if they want, or else give the public our money back. There should be zero tolerance for bullying, and Ontario's Catholic school boards ought to be the first to learn that lesson.

Me, in 2005, looking as loud as possible in a school uniform for that year's Day of Silence.

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