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Elliot Leven

OP-ED:Time for a Gay-Straight Alliance at Gray Academy

By Elliot Leven, posted Jan 24, 2011

In December 2011, the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy (CHAT) of Toronto’s Wallenberg campus held the first meeting of the school’s new gay-straight alliance (GSA). The time has come for a GSA at Winnipeg’s Gray Academy.
GSAs are school clubs, with staff coordinators, which welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) and/or straight students to meet to discuss relevant issues in a safe, accepting and tolerant atmosphere. Students do not have to discuss their own sexual orientations, but the GSA is a “safe space” for gay or lesbian students who do choose to “come out”. GSAs are becoming more common at Canadian high schools, including some unlikely ones. For example, Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg now has a GSA. Indeed, Westgate student Rebekah Enns recently won the Annual Sybil Shack Human Rights Youth Award for founding the Westgate GSA.
The CHAT GSA was started by the school guidance counselor and the coordinator of student activities. They serve as staff advisors to the GSA.
GSAs may have a valuable role to play in reducing bullying and harassment in schools. They also have an educational role in promoting tolerance. A 2011 study done by University of Winnipeg Education Professor Catherine Taylor concluded that students from schools with GSAs are much more likely to agree that their school communities are supportive of gay and lesbian people, are much more likely to be open with some or all of their peers about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and are more likely to see their school climate as becoming less homophobic.
When I graduated from Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate (JWC) in 1979, the thought of a GSA would never have crossed my mind. I knew I was gay, but I was deeply closeted and had not yet discussed my sexual orientation with anyone. I suspected a few of my fellow students were gay or lesbian, but I dared not broach the subject with them. As my peers did not realize that I was gay, I was never personally harassed or bullied. However, the school environment was profoundly homophobic, and the word “gay” was commonly used as a synonym for all things negative.
I realize that many things have changed since 1979. Since my high school graduation, gay celebrities have thrived, Winnipeg has had an openly gay mayor, Manitoba’s government has two openly LGBT cabinet ministers, television and film have embraced LGBT themes, and Canadian laws have changed to allow such things as same-sex marriage. Reform Judaism has completely normalized LGBT life and Conservative Judaism has come a long way. The Internet has made accurate information about sexual orientation readily available.  It is much easier to be openly LGBT today that it was in 1979.
However, there are still many obstacles to overcome. In many parts of the world, it is very dangerous to be openly gay or lesbian.  Even in tolerant places like Canada, it is difficult to come out of the closet outside of the major cities.  There is still a widespread myth than gay men do not possess the proper degree of masculinity. That is why there are no openly gay athletes in professional sports. There are plenty of openly gay retired profession alathletes, but they did not feel safe coming out until after they retired. 
Even in 2012, “gay” is a bad word in youth culture, and young people still throw around insulting words like “fag”. I have no idea how many LGBT students attend Gray Academy, but I have no doubt that it is not easy for them to come out of the closet, even today.
I am pleased that the administration, staff and Board of Gray Academy are composed of progressive and tolerant individuals. That is something for the Jewish community to be proud of. However, Gray Academy still lacks a GSA.
Perhaps some day, one or more brave students at Gray will take the initiative to start a GSA. If that were to happen, I have no doubt that the staff and administration would be supportive. However, it may be years before any student is courageous enough to take that initiative.
Therefore, the time has come for Gray to follow the example set by CHAT and to use staff to initiate a GSA. Some planning will be required. The first day of school in the fall would be a good target. There is no downside. If there is no student interest, no harm will be done. If there is some student interest, the existence of a GSA can only serve to promote respect and tolerance among students and staff. 
I graduated almost 33 years ago. The time has come for a GSA at Gray.
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