I have never been prouder to be a member of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA). This week my union took a public stand in support of new legislation that decrees that students have the right to have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their schools, and, just as importantly, to actually call them Gay-Straight Alliances.
Previously, and under pressure, the Bishops of Ontario in conjunction with the Ontario Catholic Trustees Association allowed for ‘Respecting Differences’ Clubs to address general bullying, but forbade the use of the word ‘Gay’. Teachers were instructed to address their LGBTQ students as ‘persons of same-sex orientation’. (Now there’s a mouthful.) For many teachers, disowning the students’ right to name themselves as Gay felt like disowning the students themselves.
Naming matters. The issue of naming is biblical, ancient, fundamental. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and Saul becomes Paul, transformed in the experience of encountering the Divine. During the sacrament of Confirmation we invite the newly confirmed to choose a new name if they wish. We recognize their maturity, and their right to define themselves before God in the full dignity of their humanity.
History recognizes the importance of naming as well. “What’s my name?” Muhammed Ali cries. Those who name hold power, as every slave master knew when they bestowed names on their slaves’ children. To remove the right to name is to exercise control of the highest degree.
The new legislation also makes clear that the word ‘Gay’ refers to a person, created in the image of God. It cannot be used as an insult. The legislation supports teachers who refuse to allow their students to use statements like ‘that’s so gay’ as a put-down. GSAs proclaim that there are people here who will stand up against homophobia. They make it clear that our schools welcome and celebrate all their students in all their diversity.
GSAs will not provide an overnight cure for bullying and discrimination, but they allow us to publicly address the problem. Whatever the bishops may fear, they are not ‘hook up’ clubs, nor will they ‘convert’ our poor straight kids to a different kind of sexuality. Instead they provide support, solidarity and hospitality, just as Catholic schools should. LGBTQ students suffer discrimination and bullying far more frequently than any other group, extreme enough to lead to suicide in some cases. Like Christ, we must strive to walk with these, our most marginalized, and offer them dignity and recognition.
Surely the bishops recognize the affront against the dignity of life that has arisen in our refusal to name the sin of homophobia and address it in its specificity. GSAs provide one more tool we can employ to create Christian community and a discipleship of equals in the footsteps and example of Christ.