Inclusion and belonging: Words that don't often come to mind for LGBTQ people in the church.
But this space was different.
I recently gave a keynote talk and spoken word workshop at the Toronto Catholic District School Board's Inclusion and Belonging Retreat last week. It was a beautiful space where high school students could come as they are, encourage one another, share their struggles and know they weren't alone.
This retreat opened up inclusive spaces for Toronto students involved in gay-straight alliances (GSAs), a place where LGBTQ and straight students come together as allies. It's pretty incredible this student-led space existed, let alone for the second time this year with more than 170 students.
A space like that would have changed my life.
But it wasn't always like this for students in the Toronto Catholic school board. It wasn't until 2012 where the Ontario government passed Bill 13 (the Accepting Schools Act), which allowed students to create groups based on issues related to gender, race, sexuality and disability. This included GSAs in Catholic school boards.
Several Toronto trustees tried to ban GSAs in Catholic schools last year, arguing these groups promoted a "positive view of homosexual activity, which undermines Catholic teaching on chastity and marriage." The Toronto Catholic board, however, rejected the trustees' motion.
Being LGBTQ and Christian do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Despite the hostilities and fears towards GSAs and LGBTQ students in Catholic school boards, these spaces are so crucial for the mental health, well-being and self-worth of these youth.
LGBTQ students in Catholic boards also face the added dimension of shame and self-hatred from entrenched homophobia in the church. As a gay Christian, I'm all too familiar with these experiences.
According to Egale Canada, 33 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth have attempted suicide in comparison to seven per cent of youth in general. Forty-seven per cent of trans youth have thought about suicide over the past year. It has been estimated that 25 to 40 per cent of homeless youth identity as LGBTQ.
The positive impact of GSAs has also been documented. A recent UBC study showed the probabilities of homophobic discrimination and suicidal thoughts were reduced by more than half for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in schools where a GSA has existed for three years or more.
When I went to a Catholic high school more than a decade ago, I could have never imagined having a GSA at my school. Homophobia was alive and well, and those who were out or suspected of being gay were often marginalized, mistreated and shamed.
I wish I had the courage to speak up and be visible.
But I wasn't ready and it took many more years to accept and come to terms with being gay and Christian. These students, however, are living in a different time where they can exist, be visible and share their stories. It was encouraging to see change happening right before my eyes and imagining how different my life would have been with a GSA at my high school.
It was great to connect and have an opportunity to speak to several of the students at the retreat. Some students said they could relate to my story and felt encouraged they weren't alone in their experiences. Others simply hugged me. Some shared struggles of homophobia in their schools, personal difficulties and asked if it got better after high school.
I was blown away by their courage and stories, as well as their desires and dreams to fight for change. They believe change is possible both personally and within their school communities.
The students gave me courage to keep fighting and believing LGBTQ people could feel safe and belong in Christian communities. The fact that someone like me - someone like them - could share their story still amazes me.
Toronto and Waterloo are the first Ontario Catholic school boards to have GSA retreats. These conversations are happening and people are hungry for dialogue and change.
Right now, there is much debate in Alberta on Bill 10, which would allow school boards to rejects students' requests to create a GSA. A recent Leger Poll of more than 1,000 Albertans showed that 52 per cent of Catholics support GSAs in schools, while 18 per cent are opposed to it. There are no GSAs in Catholic school boards in Alberta.
It won't be an easy road ahead, but to see students know they belonged -- even if it was just one day -- is worth the fight.