Gay-straight alliances flourish but one MLA wants more

Government won’t legislate protection for establishing clubs

Last year Alberta’s first Gay-Straight Student Alliance conference held in Edmonton in November 2012 saw roughly 60 people attend. This year the second conference held November 23 at the University of Calgary attracted over 150.

“GSAs are one of the fastest growing social movements today in our schools” Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services told the audience of mostly high-school students. An informal audience poll showed at least half were from outside Calgary. One group travelled from Saskatoon to take part in the day of workshops and networking.

Until recently Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) were relatively unknown. Alberta’s first was formed in 2000 by Darren Lund at Red Deer High School. The Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services estimates there are 40 active GSAs in primary and secondary schools in the province today.

A GSA is a club with homosexual transgendered and heterosexual members formed in order to discuss and promote sexual orientation and gay rights issues. In schools they often include several teachers acting as faculty advisors. Within a school setting the clubs also serve to provide a safe place for students to ask for help and work with allies to prevent bullying.

Since Premier Alison Redford took office the Alberta government has promoted gay rights issues far more than in the past with explicit support for GSAs in schools as part of its bullying prevention measures.

Sandra Jansen associate minister of Family and Community Safety says that because bullying often centres on sexuality her office focused specifically on addressing gay rights issues when developing the province’s bullying prevention resources.

“We wanted to have resources that were addressing sexual and gender minority bullying…. We decided at the same time to look at assisting students in starting gay-straight alliances. The idea behind that was to look for ways to promote welcoming caring safe inclusive learning environments. From the feedback we got from all of our stakeholders that’s a pretty important piece” she says.

Studies into bullying and LGBTQ issues agree. EGALE’s 2011 Final Report on Homophobia Biphobia and Transphobia in Canadian Schools reports that 21 per cent of LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted due to their sexual orientation 64 per cent feel unsafe at school and almost 10 per cent reported hearing homophobic comments from teachers.

“LGBTQ-inclusive safer schools policies and curriculum are not the entire solution” the report says. But “in schools that have made efforts to introduce LGBTQ-inclusive policies GSAs and even some LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum the climate is significantly more positive for sexual and gender minorities.”

Alberta Liberal MLA Kent Hehr says the Alberta government must give the LGBTQ community and GSAs stronger support and until at least two crucial things happen he considers the government’s new stance on gay rights just “lip service.”

First he wants the government to repeal Section 11 of the Human Rights Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act implemented in 2010. Section 11 requires schools to notify students’ parents in advance when courses or lessons deal “primarily and explicitly [with] human sexuality or sexual orientation.” In such cases parents can withdraw their child from participating in the class without loss of credit.

He also wants the government to legislate that if anyone in a school wants to form a GSA the school and parent body must allow it. Ontario and Manitoba have both recently enacted such laws.

“Governments shouldn’t wait for things to get better. They should do something today that makes things better now” says Hehr. “Often LGBT issues get clouded in adults’ religious views and some other things that may not be in the best interests of kids going through some very difficult times.”

Hehr claims that without legislation “you’re going to have certain schools and school boards in the province possibly try and persuade kids that this is not in their best interest.”

While the government remains silent on Section 11 it has made its position on mandating GSAs in schools clear. Jansen and Education Minister Jeff Johnson have both said the government supports GSAs but refuses to force their acceptance.

“Kent and I… will agree to disagree vehemently on this” says Jansen. “We don’t want this to be one of those things where we come out and say ‘you have to do this no matter what.’ This is student-led. We don’t have to come in with a heavy hand on this. I think this is going to be a wonderful organic process and we don’t need to come in there and put rules in place. I can say right now I don’t believe that there is going to be any group of students anywhere in this province that is going to have to fight to get a gay-straight alliance in their school. I don’t believe it’s going to happen” she says.