By Jodi A. Shaw
Mayor Rob Ford may have been conspicuously absent from Toronto’s Pride Parade last weekend, but 16-year old Leanne Iskander more than made up for it as parade co-Grand Marshal (along with Michael Bach of Pride at Work Canada).
Iskander made headlines in March when she was prohibited from forming a Gay-Straight Alliance at St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga. Not one to be stymied, she instead created a province-wide organization, Catholic Students for GSAs, and then, when told that she and other members could not promote it with posters featuring rainbows, cooked up a batch of rainbow-on-the-inside cupcakes instead.
Since then, Leanne, her cupcakes, and her message have been all over the Internet. She’s quickly become a well-known activist, youth leader, and strong, positive role model for LGBT youth. She’s also become one incredibly busy person, so I appreciated her taking the time to have an e-mail chat with me recently.
Leanne says she attends a Catholic school “because my parents chose to send me there. I think a surprising number of students in Catholic schools aren’t actually Catholic, and going to a Catholic school wasn’t exactly their first choice. For me, I wouldn’t want to switch out of my school now because I feel like that would be giving up.”
The first step in confronting her school’s refusal was to find out the reason behind it. It turned out “our school board, as well as the Halton Catholic school board, banned the formation of LGBT-specific clubs or groups, despite the fact that GSAs are strongly recommended by the Ministry of Education.”
Which wasn’t exactly surprising. “I don’t think there’s really anything in a Catholic school for LGBT students, or at least not before now. There were no GSAs or anything like that, our school had never had an anti-homophobia event or workshop before, LGBT issues were never even mentioned in the curriculum, ever.” But that was about to change.
“After we took it to the media, proposing it again, and got a lawyer, Catholic schools decided to allow LGBT-specific groups in the form of anti-bullying groups.” Which is close. Close. “They still do not allow us to use the term gay-straight alliance,” Leanne notes.
“I don’t think our school is really as hostile to queer people as it is ignorant. I really didn’t realize how much our school was lacking until I realized how much Public schools had for LGBT teens. Our school doesn’t have any of that.”
High school is a tough place. It’s cliquey, it’s complicated, and it’s full of confused teenagers trying to figure out who they are and where they’re headed in life. So to have the confidence, at 16, to stand up for herself, her identity, and her rights, makes Leanne an extraordinary person in my books. But she’s very modest about what she’s doing.
“I don’t think I’ve done much more than anyone else would have had they been put in the same situation. I do stand up for my rights. With the GSA, I knew that there were students in our school that needed it and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. There is no excuse for denying at-risk students the support they need. Administration and the board don’t intimidate me, because I realize that on this topic, I know a lot more than they do. I don’t think that me being 16 or being a student makes me any less of a person than they are.”
But while her school has made changes, probably thanks to the media attention it received, it still has a long way to go. The way I see it, forcing a GSA to hide its identity and purpose behind the guise of an anti-bullying group is itself bullying. It’s bad enough that so many LGBT teens are in the closet; let’s not put their support groups there too.
“They’re only allowing anti-bullying groups because they had to offer some sort of support as mandated by the ministry. If we as students are asking for a certain type of support, then we should get that. We obviously need it, seeing as we’re asking for it. Banning groups with the name gay-straight alliance (or Rainbow Alliance – this name was also rejected by admin.) sends a clear message of intolerance to queer students.
“I think the board threw us a carrot with the anti-bullying groups – they want us to give up. They’ve tried to intimidate us before. It is bullying on their behalf.”
Gay or straight, Leanne and friends are just trying to be themselves, honestly and without censorship. Their brand of confidence — the confidence to say “This is who I am, I’m not afraid to say it, and I’m going to stand up for it” — is the sort of thing that might reduce the rates of depression and suicide in youths. If, that is, it’s given a chance to spread.
“Being 16, I think the board assumes that they can deny us our rights as they please. We are Canadian citizens, and we have the same rights in a Catholic school as we do anywhere else in Canada. If other students can form groups as they like and call it the name of their choosing, then we should be able to as well. Nothing about our group breaks school policy in any way.
“It’s pure discrimination.”