KITCHENER — When a student sits across from you and tells you they feel like a nobody because of their sexual orientation, you’re compelled to act.
For Joan Grundy, vice-principal at St. Mary’s High School in Kitchener, standing up for youth who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender is her job.
“It’s a no-brainer to me as a Catholic educator to do this work … Catholic teaching calls you to live out the gospel with integrity,’’ Grundy said.
“Jesus modelled a life of love, understanding and compassion. It’s not just tolerating people, but celebrating them,’’ she said.
Even as controversy recently erupted over the suggestion of creating gay-straight alliances in local Catholic schools, St. Mary’s was way ahead of everyone else.
Bringing marginalized youth together started formally in the spring of 2011. Twenty-five students attended the first meeting. After a movie night, it became clear students wanted to create a group dedicated to sexual minority youth.
The group is essentially a gay-straight alliance in all but name.
“Sexual minority kids need to be given a voice and their issues given visibility,’’ said Grundy.
Last week, Waterloo Catholic District School Board Trustee Anthony Piscitelli put forward a motion asking trustees to consider creating gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools. Similar groups exist in local public high schools.
But he later withdrew his motion, which was set to be heard Monday this week, at the request of board chair Manuel da Silva who cited a violation of board bylaws.
Piscitelli said he won’t be bringing the matter back to the board. Instead, he will ask staff for reports on work being done in schools to assist sexual minority youth and continue with “quieter work” behind the scenes.
Piscitelli said he agreed to drop the issue from the board agenda when he realized he would win little support from his fellow trustees. The only other trustee who supported Piscitelli was Janek Jagiellowicz.
“It’s unfortunate the public debate didn’t happen,’’ he said.
But Piscitelli said “people in the system have their hearts in the right place.’’ He still believes gay-straight alliances are the best model for Catholic schools.
Jagiellowicz, who met with gay students in Cambridge to hear their stories, said despite the motion dying before discussion was even held, he doesn’t regret supporting Piscitelli.
“I go to church on Sunday and Jesus’ love is unconditional. Jesus embraced lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors. He embraced the marginalized,’’ Jagiellowicz said in an interview.
“He challenges us to do the same. My faith calls me to do that,’’ he said.
At St. Mary’s, 11 students have self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and regularly meet to support each other. Grundy and teacher B.J. York are staff members the youth rely on.
St. Mary’s is the only local Catholic school with a formal group dedicated to LGBT youth.
And now board administration is putting a strategy together to ensure all sexual minority youth feel safe in Catholic schools. A task force made up of board staff, consultants, teachers and pastoral care support will visit St. Mary’s later this month to hear the stories of gay students. Students from other high schools will also attend.
Grundy, along with York, will also speak at a conference in Toronto to members of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and a Catholic principals’ group.
Grundy said work to help the youth began when the board passed its equity and inclusion policy and later when the Ontario government told school boards to ensure all children were safe from bullying by introducing Bill 13.
In January, the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association created a document — Respecting Difference — addressing equity in schools, including how to deal with gay-straight alliance groups.
Catholic doctrine acknowledges gays and lesbians, but the faith disapproves of homosexual acts. The church tells all youth to refrain from being sexually active, choosing chastity.
St. Mary’s decided the group dedicated to sexual minority youth would be called PRISM — Pride and Respect for Individuals of a Sexual Minority. A prism reflects the colours of the rainbow when the sun shines on it, plus the colours reminded them of God’s light shining on them and celebrating who they are, Grundy said.
On May 17 the school will mark International Day Against Homophobia. Sexual minority youth will address their peers, and students and staff are encouraged to wear a purple shirt.
York said he was moved to help when he heard a former student and his mother speak to teachers during a professional development seminar about growing up gay.
The teen’s mother said she frantically worried each day when her son was late arriving home from school.
“If he was late five minutes, she wondered if he was still alive,’’ York said.
York said many of the sexual minority youth now come to him to talk about school life or the latest hockey game.
When they walk in the hallways, they hold their heads high, he said.
As a father of two boys, ages five and one, York said he wants to create a school environment in which every student feels included.
“We are just trying to support the kids here and now so they are safe,’’ York said.
“We aren’t saints or martyrs. We are just trying to do the work,’’ Grundy said.