On May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, I received a social media message from a high school student at the Collège catholique Mer Bleue in Orléans, a suburb east of Ottawa. They brought my attention to the fact that their school’s administration refused to fly the Pride flag, despite several students requesting it, which–on its own–did not surprise me. Then, they wrote, “There are so many students against us that it gets hard and weighs heavily on our emotional state, always being told that we should be stoned like they did in the past and that we’ll burn in hell.”
In the following days, I received lots of similar messages from other Mer Bleue students, whose names will not be included given that they are minors. “I don’t feel safe at my school since some of the students who are homophobic tend to say threatening things towards the LGBTQ+ community,” writes another student. “Also, since a lot of the teachers don’t act up against what these students are saying, it gets really scary.”
Now, I think it is important that I inform readers that I am a queer man, and I too attended French Catholic school as child. I have since abandoned Catholicism in favour of agnosticism because I have personally found organized religion alienating. All that to say, my subconscious biases might colour this story to some degree, but after receiving these messages, I felt it necessary to publish this piece because it is representative of a much larger, systemic issue.
Administration says the ask was too late
After speaking with the school’s superintendent, Jason Dupuis, I was told that the school did not have enough time to plan for the flag raising because its student-organized GSA group approached the principal the day-of. Speaking for the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, Dupuis says he hopes the school will better prepare itself next year so that the Pride flag can be raised on time. With regards to the bullying, he says he will have to follow up.
To better grasp what can be done to protect LGBTQ+ students, I spoke with Lyra Evans, a transgender trustee for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. She says it is disappointing to hear that schools still refuse to fly the Pride flag. “I would really hope that, we, as a society, have come to be accepting of LGBT people,” says Evans. “Not being willing to put up a flag that shows your support for LGBT people could easily be construed as backwards.”
“If what the administration says is true, it should go up.”
She also mentions that the International Transgender Day of Remembrance is coming up on November 20, “if they have time, in six months.” Adding, “If what the administration says is true, it should go up. That’s just how I see it, though.”
When asked what educators can do for their queer students, she recommends including LGBTQ+ narratives in everyday lessons in order to normalize it for children “because, if you treat it like something taboo, if you treat it like something different, kids are going to pick up on that.”
“I often hear, ‘Well, kids are too young to learn about LGBT relationships. You can’t teach a third grader about queer relationships,’” says Evans. “I tend to counter with, ‘Those are the same children we’ve been raising on Disney characters, who fall in love and live happily ever after in straight relationships. You don’t think that they are going to be able to understand two men or two women?’”
Queerness and Christianity
Some students say passages from the Bible have been used to justify their mistreatment, so I reached out to Generous Space Ministries. In 1985, Generous Space Ministries was founded as an ex-gay ministry by the name of New Beginnings. That is to say, they practiced conversion therapy, which is opposed by the Canadian Psychological Association as well as the World Health Organization. In 2002, when its current executive director, Wendy Gritter, took over, she began to listen to members of the LGBTQ+ community, gradually leading the organization’s transition toward what it has become today.
Eric Van Giessen, the operations manager at Generous Space Ministries, says the organization starts by acknowledging that Christian and Queer identities do, in fact, intersect. “We focus in on those people and ask ourselves, ‘how do we support and care for you as LGBTQ people who are doing the work of navigating how spirituality and Christianity is going to function in your life?’ And sometimes, that means doing a deconstruction of their own world view, understanding of faith or interpretation of scripture, all of those sorts of things,” says Van Giessen. “Other times, it’s confronting the shame and the self-hatred that people have developed over time, being connected to communities that have used scripture or Christian theology in violent ways.”
“There are quite a number of churches and Christian organizations that have turned to us.”
Generous Space Ministries does this by hosting gatherings across the country, which Van Giessen describes as “small-group peer support” for LGBTQ+ people that are attached to Christian families or church communities, in order to share their stories and speak to one another. They also run community education retreats, offer pastoral care and consult with Christian organizations who are looking to engage in conversations around gender and sexuality.
“There are quite a number of churches and Christian organizations that have turned to us for resources or support when they’re navigating these conversations… Sometimes, someone in their congregation, who is LGBTQ, is now wanting to step into a position of leadership within the Church,” says Van Giessen. “Through our consultations with Christian organizations and churches, we are attempting to participate in a broader conversation about what the Church is, what Christian community is, and how we might, as an organization, cultivate more communities that are doing better–and by that, in part, we mean not actively harming Queer people.”
Van Giessen also offers some insight into his personal interpretation of scripture, saying, “In terms of queerness as a concept, I think that Jesus was incredibly queer. There are tons of instances in scripture where Jesus is actively rupturing the people’s understanding, at that time, of ‘us versus them’ in favour of welcoming those at the margins into loving and accepting communities.”
“I think that Jesus was incredibly queer. There are tons of instances in scripture where Jesus is… in favour of welcoming those at the margins into loving and accepting communities.”
“I would imagine that there are some Catholic schools that are having more inclusive conversations on this topic,” says Van Giessen, before suggesting that educators at Mer Bleue contact other schools to take note of some best practices.
Evans says she is pleased to see that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s efforts seem to be having a positive impact on their LGBTQ+ students’ sense of belonging: “We are seeing more students coming to the Rainbow Youth Forum, which is a yearly event that we hold for LGBT students in high school to come together for workshops and to meet other people like them. The feedback we’ve gotten has been wildly positive.”
Her advice for queer students experiencing feelings of exclusion is to “seek support where you can find it.” She says, “It doesn’t always have to be family. The narrative is always very much, ‘Talk to your family. Your family will support you,’ and that simply isn’t the reality for some LGBT students. Talk to your friends. Talk to adults in your life who care. Find community wherever you can because you will be able to find it if you look.”
Morality is often far from objective
I think it is important to emphasize that morality is neither unique to Christianity, nor religion. That is not to say that religion cannot offer solace to a person, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but secular morality is equally valid. Religion is but one vehicle for imparting virtues and value systems. Popular Christian theologists’ arguments in favour of so-called “objective morality” fall flat to me because no human being can attain a Platonic Form of Objectivity, one that is idealistic and totally unbiased. That is to say, we all have baggage. My personal experience also tells me that Christian morality is often far from objective.
Human consciousness allows for a complex neural process–empathy. It is that which allows us to understand something as metaphysically abstract as morality. Over time, humans have compiled moral lessons in various forms, such as philosophical texts and religious scripture, and have correspondingly developed codes of ethics, resulting in laws, rights, freedoms and international treaties. One such treaty is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the Canadian government in 1991, which stipulates that “States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.”
When asked what they would tell their teachers and school administrators given the opportunity, one student writes, “I’d love to tell them to stop being cowards, honestly. If they hear a homophobic phrase, they should tell them off or maybe even send them to the office, detention, anything to make them stop.”