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.