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Elliot Leven

Elliot Leven: Kudos to Gray Academy's Gay Straight Alliance for Award

By Elliot Leven, December 2, 2013

A new student group at Gray Academy has won a major human rights award. The Academy’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) will be presented with the Sybil Shack Human Rights Youth Award on December 10. The award is co-sponsored by the Manitoba Association of Rights and Liberties, the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

A GSA is a school group for gay and lesbian students and their straight allies. It typically has one or more staff coordinators. GSAs were originally formed to help promote tolerance and to combat homophobia in schools. There are now GSAs in many Manitoba public schools, at Gray Academy and at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate.

Of course GSA membership is voluntary. Lesbian and gay students are free to choose not to participate in their school’s GSA.

In the January 2012 Winnipeg Jewish Review, I wrote an op-ed piece calling for the creation of a GSA at Gray Academy.  I reminisced that, when I graduated from Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate (JWC) in 1979, none of us would have dreamed of a GSA in our school.  I and other gay and lesbian students (and teachers) of that era were firmly in the closet.  It did not occur to us to lobby for a school club in which we could be openly gay, and our friends could show their acceptance and support for us.

Times have changed. Students are coming out younger and younger every year.  As more of us come out, more straight people realize that they have lesbian and gay relatives, co-workers and neighbors. Young people in general are much more comfortable having gay friends that their parents or grandparents used to be.

During the same-sex marriage debates a few years ago, many opinion polls were taken.  All of the polls showed that younger people were much more likely to support equal marriage than older people.  That led equal-marriage activists to joke that the war for equality would be won one funeral at a time.

Despite the fact that young people on average are more accepting, it is still difficult to come out of the closet in school.  Many young people are excruciatingly self-conscious and obsessed with peer-approval. On average, they are more emotionally vulnerable than adults. Schools are very different from places where adults congregate.  Therefore, it makes sense that schools should have GSAs in place. 

I was delighted to learn a few months ago that Gray Academy created a GSA. It has been 34 years since I graduated from JWC and it is overdue. Kudos to the students, the staff and the Board.

I was even more delighted to learn that the new GSA has won the Sybil Shack award. The late Dr. Shack was a lifelong educator and human rights activist. Among other achievements, she was a national president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

In a Winnipeg Free Press article about the award, Vice-principal Lori Binder said that Gray Academy is a pluralistic community-based school. At conferences, the school has been cited for being a faith-based school with a positive approach to forming GSAs.  "We are a safe space for all students," Binder commented.

One final note.  The Manitoba Legislature recently passed Bill 18 – amendments to the Public Schools Act.  The most controversial aspect of the Bill was the requirement that all publicly-funded schools (which includes many, but not all, independent schools) allow students to form GSAs if they wish.  Some Christian fundamentalists and our own Rabbi Avrohom Altein spoke out against Bill 18.

Last school-year, a very brave gay student at Steinbach Collegiate (a public high school) founded a GSA at his school.  At first, his principal refused to allow him to put up posters for his GSA. After this fact hit the media, the principal relented. The media has not reported whether or not there is a GSA at the school this school-year.

The day will come when lesbian and gay Canadians face no more discrimination than left-handed people face in today’s society.  When that day comes, GSAs will likely fade away because they will no longer be needed. Until that happy day arrives, GSAs play an important role.

Congratulations to my alma mater and to its students for a well-deserved award!

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