A Richmond Hill High School student who has been fighting to have a club that deals with queer issues established in his school may see his vision realized after weeks of pleading his case to the principal.
"All we want is a place that we can meet up, talk and discuss issues that affect us," says Sean Kaw, a grade 12 student at Richmond Hill High School.
For the past year and a half the 17-year-old has been involved in spearheading efforts to have a gay/straight alliance (GSA) officially recognized at his school. GSAs — whose members may or may not be queer but are interested in queer issues — are becoming commonplace; there are at least 20 in and around Toronto.
"If somebody wants advice, being friends, we'll give them advice as how to handle things. It's not only a support group," says Kaw. "We just want to spread education and awareness to other students in the community."
Kaw, who came out to his parents about 10 months ago, says other students have mostly been supportive. But the school's administration has prevented the group from setting up meetings on school property, posting notices around the building or giving the students official status as a club.
"We haven't met this year because we haven't had any space to meet," says Kaw. "It's very hard because we can't make announcements. We can't meet because it's not easy to spread the word; kids have different classes at different times."
Ross Virgo, a spokesperson with the York Region School Board, says the school's principal Ivy Chan recognizes the issues that students are facing. The school was initially going to set up a broader Diversity Advocacy Group to address these issues. But Virgo says the principal has now allowed the students to apply for club membership, and may consider allowing the GSA on school premises.
"These are issues that go beyond sexual orientation — what it feels like to be marginalized, to be alone, to be ostracized, as well as one's personal identity," says Virgo. "Dr Chan has hired staff and undertaken training with the intent of looking at minority identity issues and creating an environment where people can talk about their feelings and issues, regardless of whether they're dealing with sexual orientation, cultural or religious issues."
GSA members say the advocacy group would not have been able to effectively address all the needs a GSA would, simply because resources for such an umbrella group would be stretched too thin. They suggest that the school was worried that a GSA would draw the ire of some parents.
"[Chan] said her concern was that if she let the GSA exist, it would be favouring one group over another," says Kaw. But a visit to the school's website reveals a variety of other identity-oriented groups including a Women In Leadership club, Jewish Culture club and Christian Youth Alive Fellowship.
Kaw is not the first to lead a GSA at Richmond Hill High School. Former student Molle D (who asked that her last name not be used for this story) started up the group more than three years ago while in grade nine. She also tried to get the group officially recognized.
"I started it up because of my debate coach. He used to work at another school and had a lot of ties with the debating team, many who were also members of their school's GSA. I became friends with them, and we just started talking about it."
She also had more personal reasons.
"A good friend of mine came out to me early in grade nine and came to me for help. He asked me, 'What should I do?' I came out because of him. I wanted to show that I supported him."
After coming out, Molle says she found herself pelted with bottles and used condoms.
"I went to my principal at the time, and he said, 'Talk to the police,'" and the police responded by saying, "Talk to your principal." She says a group like a GSA would make things easier for students by giving them a safe environment to talk.
At a meeting with parents last week, students presented their case to school administration, stating that the GSA was a necessity in their school. Several parents in attendance also voiced their approval of having the group officially recognized.
"Dr Chan was quite impressed with the students' presentation at the parent council meeting," says Virgo. "She was satisfied with staff and community support for the club and asked for this to be immediately looked into."
In 2002, Jeremy Dias, a high school student in Sault Ste Marie filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission because of his school's refusal to allow his gay club on school property. The commission ruled in his favour and he was eventually awarded $5,000 in damages by the Algoma District School Board. Dias used the settlement money to set up a scholarship for students wanting to pursue studies in queer or race issues.