GSAs, Youth and Politics

When she was in Grade 10, my daughter came home late from school one day.

She informed me, proudly, that she was now a cofounder of the first GSA in Fort McMurray. And then she had to explain to me what a GSA was and why she felt the need to help found one, as I didn’t have a clue as to what she was talking about.

GSAs – or Gay Straight Alliances – are fundamentally a student club, not much different from the variety of other clubs my kid has been involved in over the years, from the chess club to the robotics club to the drama club. The GSA is designed to promote and celebrate diversity and develop inclusive and welcoming school environments for all students, including those who happen to be LGBTQ.

The more research I did on GSAs the more I began to understand why my daughter, who is a keen believer in equality and fair treatment, would wish to found one, and the more I began to understand that these groups of students provide safe, welcoming and accepting spaces for youth who may not find this in other places in their lives.

Recently Jason Kenney, the newly elected leader of the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta, suggested that when a student joins a GSA the parents of the student should be notified, without the consent or perhaps even the knowledge of the student. His exception to this would be if the parents are “abusive”, although how one determines if a parent is abusive in this regard seems undetermined.

There are several problems with Mr. Kenney’s approach, and it suggests he has never spoken to youth who have founded or participated in a GSA to better understand why this concept will not work for them. Far more frightening, he seems to fail to recognize that it will put youth already at risk into even more potential peril.

Laying aside the fact that schools have never taken on the role of informing parents of their children’s after-school club involvement (as my daughter is in Grad 12 I can attest the school has never told me she had joined a club, and the only way I knew was when she told me), consider only this: youth join clubs to spend time in a safe place with other youth with similar interests.

In my daughter’s GSA they have watched Disney movies and baked unicorn cupcakes. It was not some form of “sex club” – it was simply a safe connection point for youth of all sexual orientations, and a way to help them to form stronger peer relationships that would be of benefit not only within the confines of the club meeting, but in the hallways, libraries, lunchrooms and classrooms. It was a way for youth who might feel “different” to develop a sense of belonging, of community and of connection.

The statistics on GSAs are quite clear: they save lives. And in the case of my own daughter and her friends, the GSA has provided a safe place free of judgement where they can connect with others.

When I asked my daughter, who is now about to graduate and on the cusp of adulthood, about the concept of informing parents when their child has joined a GSA she was appalled. The very reason many youth join, she said, is because they are not yet ready to explore the topic with their parents. Their parents may not be “abusive”, but they also may not be supportive, and she shared with me that many youth still fear their parents will abandon them, turn them out of their homes or try to convince them they are not LGBTQ because the parents are not ready to accept this news. Youth join GSAs to find strength with their peers, both LGBTQ and straight allies, and to help to build their own confidence and self-esteem so that they can share this news eventually – if they wish to – with their parents and families.

What Jason Kenney is suggesting will do the exact opposite of what GSAs were created to do; his approach would deter youth from joining as they will in effect be “outed” to their parents perhaps long before they are ready for this to occur, and it strips youth of their fundamental right to privacy.

And yes, our children have a right to privacy, particularly as they likely understand their own family dynamics far better than anyone else ever could. If they wish to join any club – chess, robotics, drama, GSA – without the school informing their parents, should they not be able to do so? Or are we going to extend this expectation of parental notification to all student involvement?

And if the only club we are going to require parents be informed about is GSAs, then doesn’t that speak far more to our own preoccupation with the sexual orientation of our children and others than anything else, and our own discomfort not only with homosexuality but with sexuality in general?

The truth is that if we are truly interested in putting the safety and security of our youth first, then we will unequivocally support GSAs as safe, peer-supported spaces for young adults to connect and gather without fear. As soon as one introduces the parental notification element, the faith youth have in these groups will diminish, and we will remove yet another support system for youth at risk in our society.

Jason Kenney’s proposal cannot and should not be ignored. His willingness to expose young adults at risk in this way indicates he is not well versed in the issue and has likely spent little time with LGBTQ youth or those who participate in GSAs. Whether or not a young adult is LGBTQ or not should not be the issue; what is the issue is ensuring ALL youth have the opportunity to connect with other youth in safe environments. Until Mr. Kenney can commit to that goal, he is not someone who should be trusted with the future of the youth of our province.

It is profoundly disappointing that this issue is still surfacing, and that youth still need to fight for peer-driven support groups. It is even more deeply disappointing that any politician in 2017 is promoting a policy that has the potential to cause the future of our province – our youth – to turn away from the very kind of support they desperately need. 

I’ll leave the final words to my daughter, who cofounded a GSA because she saw the need first hand and knew it would benefit others.

“Adults always make everything about them,” she says. “This isn’t about adults. This is about kids. This is about us.”

Wise words indeed. In this instance, Jason Kenney, it might be prudent to realize it’s not at all about you.


It starts innocently enough, as these things often do on social media. I have posted a response to a thread on a friend’s wall, where a discussion regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and potential long-term impacts on a sufferer is occurring. I post the following, based on both anecdotal and factual evidence showing the incidence of PTSD in our community following the wildfire in May:

And out of nowhere comes a response that leaves me somewhere between enraged and heartbroken, because the individual posting it clearly has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to an experience that impacted tens of thousands of people:

Perhaps most troublesome is that when I creep his profile (which I freely admit I often do – whatever is in the public eye is fair game, in my opinion) I discover he has listed his Bachelor of Psychology degree. I am now not only enraged and heartbroken, but aghast.

I have blacked out his name, because as easy as it would be to identify him I always believe we should focus on the words and actions of others and not on their persons; I have no desire to “release the hounds” on this individual, but I do find myself in desperate need of commenting on his premise that “watching insured material possession burn is not trauma”, and how he minimized the experience we endured.

Trauma, as defined in every resource I have found, is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”. Often, the definitions also include potential risk to life, and natural disasters are clearly indicated as a potential source of trauma.

I recall May 3 very clearly. And I recall one moment when I stood in a field, watching flames leap into the sky, and feared not only for my own survival but for the survival of members of my community. I recall finally reaching Edmonton that night after a journey of over eight hours, and watching anxiously as people I knew checked in on Facebook to indicate they were safe. I remember the phone calls – dozens of them – checking in with every person on my contact list to make sure they and their families had made it out. I remember thinking it would be a miracle if everyone survived the experience, and I remember the phone call from one of my closest friends telling me that two young adults had been killed during the evacuation on May 4.

I broke down in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Express after that phone call, sitting on a parking curb and crying; we had been denied the miracle. The narrative of all of us – every person – surviving had ended.

For days I continued to fear the worst, news of a friend or the spouse of a friend or a stranger who fell asleep after a long shift and didn’t wake up in time to escape; that this did not happen is truly a miracle in itself as I have lost track of the near misses that day, the pounding on doors to wake a sleeping neighbour.

I remember the drive away from Fort McMurray. At around 6:30pm I headed south, and as I drove I watched my city burn in my rear view mirror, flames and black smoke all I could see. I remember thinking I may never be able to return home again; I recall wondering if I would even have a home to return to.

I remember all the uncertainty of the early days, checking satellite photos and having my internet provider ping my modem, desperate to know if my house stood or had fallen; and I remember counting how many friends had already lost their homes, stopping when I reached the number 35 because I couldn’t handle any more.

I remember wandering Edmonton in a state of shock and disbelief; how could this happen to us, to me, to my community?

May 3 was not about “watching insured material possessions burn”. And even if it had been, no one looked at their house in flames and thought “well, there goes the toaster”. No, they thought about the family photos, the quilt grandma who passed away last year had knitted, the Christmas ornaments the kids made, the memories tucked into every corner; insurance would never replace those “things” or quell the pain their loss caused.

May 3 was about families who had minutes to escape, their back yards on fire as they leapt out their front doors; it was about people trapped in neighbourhoods abandoning their vehicles and, very literally, running for their lives. It was about watching everything you knew and cherished and held fast in peril; and it was about the deep fear you feel when you know life would never be the same again.

Trauma? Of course we experienced trauma. Some of those who lived through it may feel it was not traumatic, and I am both happy for them and deeply envious. But no one gets to tell someone else whether or not they experienced trauma, and nobody gets to minimize or diminish our experience or what it is taking for us to recover from it.

I must admit that when this individual posted his response I sort of lost it for a bit. I fired back with several posts, each more angry than the last, and my friend, sensing this was headed in a dangerous direction, put an end to it by blocking this individual from commenting further. But he managed to get in one last comment, and one in which he stated that an event that I personally knew had occurred during evacuation had not happened; at that moment I knew that this person spoke not from a place of knowledge and understanding, but from a place of ignorance and callousness. To summarize, he simply didn’t have a clue about what he was talking about.

But we do. We lived through the kind of experience few will ever encounter; and here we are today. And I am so very proud of all of us, because we got through it together and we continue to do so. We share a common bond, one that will last the test of time, and I suspect one day when meeting someone new the question will be: “were you here on May 3?”. Those that were will always be connected through an experience none of us would ever wish to repeat and that changed us forever, but that strengthened us at the same time it traumatized us.

Nobody who has not lived it will understand it; and some will seek to minimize it, most likely for their own reasons as acknowledging it somehow disturbs their own narrative. Fortunately, these people are a rarity, and we have instead been embraced by the vast majority who may not have lived the experience with us but who empathize and understand the impact it has had on every member of our community, from the youngest to the oldest.

And for this individual, the one callous enough to suggest we did not experience trauma? Just as with everyone I encounter, my wish for him is that he never experiences what we have and never has to learn what we have learned about trauma, survival, PTSD and the slow and painful recovery of an entire community.

And perhaps most of all the experience of the last ten months has taught me the power of forgiveness and of letting go; and with this post I do exactly that, moving on with what truly matters, which is my community and our collective future.

Keep your eyes on the prize of our recovered community, my friends, and do not be deterred or detoured by individuals like the one I encountered; our wisdom has grown in ways others may never comprehend, and if there is  any good to come of the experience, perhaps it is that.

I am so very, very proud of all of you, every single damn day.