A contemporary issue in Canadian educational policy and practice that I would like to explore has to do with questions of dive

Callaghan, T.D. (2007). Contra/Diction: How Catholic doublespeak in Canadian Catholic secondary schools furthers homophobia. The Canadian On-Line Journal of Queer Studies in Education, 3(1).



Tonya Callaghan

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

 “I had learned in religion class to love thy neighbour and to treat everyone the way you want to be treated. It felt like my pastor, the school board, and [my principal] were all contradicting those teachings” (as cited in Grace & Wells, 2005, p. 6).   In these words, Marc Hall describes how his request to take his boyfriend to his high school prom in Ontario was refused.  This event encapsulates the contemporary issue in Canadian educational policy and practice that I would like to explore. Specifically, I am interested in examining the contradiction that underlies the Catholic institutionalization of homophobia in publicly funded secondary schools.

This incident is a good example of how students, school staff, and the public in Canadian society are becoming more aware of how human rights are being subtly and overtly violated in school settings, how these rights can be affirmed, and how some school boards that want to ignore advances in human rights legislation must now resort to using legal as well as textual authority in attempts to maintain traditional, homophobic values.

In this paper, I will explore the basis for and methods of Catholic homophobia in response to the actions of students like Marc Hall.  I will also propose how new educational policy and practice needs to be developed that provide protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation specifically for students and teachers in Catholic schools. Currently, many Catholic school districts in Canada are ignoring their legal, professional and ethical responsibilities to protect all students and to maintain a safe, caring, and inclusive learning environment.

David Vs. Goliath: The Marc Hall Case

On February 25, 2002, the principal of Monsignor John Pereyma, a publicly funded Catholic Secondary School in Oshawa, Ontario, refused permission to 17-year-old Marc Hall, a gay Catholic student in his senior year at the school who had requested to take his boyfriend to his high school prom (Grace & Wells, 2005).  As early as his grade 11 year, Marc prudently began to take steps to secure official approval to take his boyfriend to prom, but each of his attempts were met with several months of stalling tactics by his principal, Mr. Powers. When Mr. Powers finally said “No,” first to Marc himself and then later to Marc’s parents, he explained that interacting with a same-sex partner at the prom would constitute a form of sexual activity that was contrary to Catholicity (MacKinnon, 2002).

Marc’s story aired on the March 18th, 2002 edition of CTV National News and on March 19th, 2002, the Durham Catholic District School Board publicly supported Mr. Power’s decision in a press release that proclaimed its constitutional right to administer its schools in a manner consistent with Church teachings (Grace& Wells, 2005).  In so doing, the board was seeking to have institutional church rights regarding the provision of denominational education, which are guaranteed in Section 93 of the Constitution Act of 1867, override Section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (CanLII, N.D., a & b). The irony of this move is that Section 93 was put in place to protect the rights of the Catholic minority in the largely Protestant 19th century Canada.  Now, in 21st century Canada, after a century and a half of enjoying their own minority protection, Catholic school districts are trying to block the protection of another minority group.

The issue being forced by proactive and resilient queer youth like Marc Hall is one of institutional rights versus individual rights. Individual rights, and the responsibility of publicly funded institutions to respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, were upheld on May 10th, 2002, when Justice Robert MacKinnon granted Marc Hall an interlocutory injunction allowing him to attend his high school prom with his boyfriend.

Appealing The Authority of the Vatican

When they are not embroiled in legal battles in which they seek to have their institutional rights override individual rights, Catholic school districts appeal to the higher moral authority of the Vatican.  The Vatican’s 1968 statement that “[t]he Church … teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (as cited in Cochrane, 2004, p. 14) still has a powerful hold on Catholics.  This statement implies that sexuality is only acceptable between adult heterosexual married couples with procreation as the goal.  In examining the fact that this 1968 declaration has never been obviously modified or repudiated, Ross (2001) observes that “[r]ecent Vatican actions and statements have made it quite clear that the Church’s teaching on the moral status of homosexuality is not likely to change any time soon” (as cited in Cochrane, 2004, p. 16).

The problem for social justice activists attempting to effect change in Catholic schools is that Catholic school districts tend to design policy that closely mirrors encyclicals and other declarative statements from the Vatican.  In addition, the Catholic Church’s institutional efforts to “privatize queer” (Grace & Wells, 2005, p.1) means that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified, and queer (LGBTQ) people in the school, who might also share an interest in social justice activism related to sexual orientation, may feel compelled to keep their queer sexual identity hidden in this repressive Catholic environment.  Added to this self-protective need to be closeted is the conservative, and commonly believed, statistic that places LGBTQ people at ten per cent of the population, meaning that the numbers of interested parties would likely be low.  Clearly, it is not easy for the social justice activist wanting to effect change in a Catholic school to identify potential allies.

If Ross (2001) is right that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the moral status of homosexuality is not likely to change any time soon, then it follows that policy makers at the Catholic school district level will also be glacially slow on this matter.  When only a few individual and occasional voices speak out against a Catholic school district’s failure to ensure a safe and caring environment for all people in the school, the district can easily ignore these concerns.

Even if a few individuals do manage to raise the issue, it is difficult for individual teachers or administrators to know how to proceed in light of contradictory statements coming from the Vatican regarding homosexuality. For example, Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, described homosexuals as having a “strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” (Ratzinger, 1986), however, on the topic of harassment of homosexual persons, he has also said, “[i]t is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs” (Ratzinger, 1986).  Here, Ratzinger states on the one hand that homosexuals are essentially morally evil, yet on the other hand that they should not be harmed.

Interestingly, however, Catholic spokespersons seem more concerned with condemning homosexuals themselves than the harassment of homosexuals. Perhaps this is due to the difficulty in reconciling the contradiction inherent in the idea that the essentially evil homosexual should not be harmed.  If the Pope can make statements that suggest the Church should challenge all forms of homophobia, then so too must Catholic school administration throughout Canada.  I wonder how Catholic school teachers and administrators might react if they knew that their failure to maintain a safe and caring school environment was contrary to the teachings of the Holy Father himself?

The Catholic Response To Sensitive Issues

In 2004, when I was teaching at a Catholic high school in Alberta, a promising drama student attending the school committed suicide after suffering several months of bullying due to his sexual orientation, as was confided to me by his friends after his death.  Disheartened by how our school had so clearly failed this student, I attempted to discuss with my principal the duty required of all members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), a union which outlines the rights and responsibilities of teachers, to create a safe and caring school environment for all students.  I was told that the Catholic school district does not necessarily adhere to every aspect of the ATA. Further, I was told that our board was developing their own “Catholic response” to sensitive issues, such as sexual orientation, in Catholic schools. The subtext of this “Catholic response” does not bode well for LGBTQ people.  My principal relayed this information to me in a manner that suggested it was perfectly normal to have a selective membership in the ATA and that I should rest easy in the knowledge that the good people “downtown” (at the district level) were already developing Catholic solutions to this “modern world problem.”

What is needed is a collective Catholic voice of educational stakeholders concerned with questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion within a Catholic educational context. Given the Catholic school district’s institutionalized power hierarchy that can trace its policies directly to the Vatican, articulation of that dissident voice is not likely to be found from within the Catholic school district itselfCatholic school administrators’ tactics seem to be to delay, distract, deflect, and deny.  The Catholic school administrators that I have encountered use allusive language, avoid taking a personal stand, and ignore current laws and union regulations.

Hope In Catholic Youth Activism

Hope in the human rights advocacy of LGBTQ youth in Catholic schools is found in the example of students like Marc Hall, and other activist queer youth who continue to challenge their Catholic school districts’ belief in its institutional right and moral authority to discriminate against their students on the basis of sexual orientation.  On November 27, 2004, the fourth annual conference was held by Agape, a focus group on sex, sexual and gender differences in education and culture in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta.  At this conference, a gay student from a Catholic school in Edmonton spoke about his success establishing the first Gay-Straight Student Alliance in a Catholic school in the whole of Alberta.  There are many other Catholic queer youth who have the courage to speak out against the homophobia that permeates their school by creating pockets of resistance and hope for queer students who are trying to get an education there.

Despite media reports to the contrary, Marc Hall was a reluctant activist.  His activism was provoked by the Catholic Church and school that had so clearly let him down and it was buoyed by supporters from the general public who saw his fight as a cause that could be advanced by Section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Grace & Wells, 2005).  Whether Catholic students are publicly challenging their school district or more quietly working towards ways to make their school a more inclusive environment, they could use support and assistance from Catholic teachers who could mediate on their behalf with reluctant or resistant administrators.

It is often difficult for LGBTQ youth activists to counter the arguments of wary administrators who tend to employ stalling strategies as a first wave of opposition to queer youth initiatives in schools.  In her narrative case study of the high school experience of a lesbian student named Jen, Michelle Tsutsumi (2004) recounts the troubles Jen encountered with her assistant principal who did not want her to put up posters advertising an upcoming Gay Pride Parade.  At first, the assistant principal told her she had to take them down because they were not formally approved by the office, despite the fact that there were other posters up around the school that clearly did not have any official approval from the office.  The assistant principal also objected to an image on the poster of two men hugging.

In response, Jen changed the poster so that it no longer had the image of the men hugging on it and took it to the office for approval.  She was turned down again, but this time on the grounds that the posters were not official posters of the Gay Pride Parade.  By the time Jen was finally able to secure some official posters for the event and submit them to the office for approval, there was only one day left before the parade.  Clearly, the administration could not say “No” this time as Jen had done everything they had asked of her.  Their stalling tactic appears to have worked for them, however, since they only had to put up with the Gay Pride Parade posters on the walls around the school for one day.

The Key Role of Administration

While this situation did not take place in a Catholic school, it does underscore the important role played by school administration in matters concerning LGBTQ students and staff.  In many cases, the degree to which a school can provide a safe and caring environment for all its students, regardless of sexual orientation, depends in large part on the willingness and sensitivity of individual school principals.  While both Calgary and Edmonton public school boards include “sexual orientation” in their policies on discrimination and harassment between staff members, neither Calgary Catholic nor Edmonton Catholic do (Sinnema, 2004).  In any case, even though “sexual orientation” may be included in the public board’s policies, the day-to-day decision-making is left to the administration at the school level to mete out.

As members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), principals, vice- principals, and assistant principals are bound by the Code of Professional Conduct, but whether or not they are aware of its innovative and pioneering principles is another matter altogether. Protections for LGBTQ persons were put in place as a result of the Delwin Vriend case, which came about when King’s University College, a Christian college in Edmonton, Alberta, dismissed one of its teachers, Mr. Vriend, in 1991 on the grounds that his homosexuality violated its religious policy.  The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled 1998 that “sexual orientation” is a protected category of person that should be considered analogous to other personal characteristics protected in Section 15(1) of the federal Charter and that it should also be included in Alberta’s human rights legislation (Lahey, 1999).

Some Catholic school administrators might have heard of the Delwin Vriend case but few I have talked with are aware of the ripple effect this decision had on ATA Code of Professional Conduct in three key areas.  First, in 1999, the ATA decided to protect LGBTQ students against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; second, in 2000, the ATA added protection for teachers; and third, in 2003, it became the first teachers’ association in Canada to protect against discrimination for students on the basis of gender identity (Sinnema, 2004).

Catholic school administrators may be aware of these changes to the Code of Professional Conduct, but since they are in a Catholic school, they have the luxury of ignoring it.  Catholic school personnel can avail themselves of a handy loophole that absolves them of their duties and responsibilities in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity of students and staff. This is the “we are developing our own Catholic response to these sensitive issues in our schools” position that I referred to earlier.  It is admirable that the ATA has written protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity into its Code of Professional Conduct, but how useful are these new measures if Catholic school boards can just side-step them?

Getting LGBTQ and allied teachers to organize around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within a Catholic educational context is not easy when there are obvious reprisals for such activism.  I have witnessed teachers who are viewed as too political or oppositional dealt with in subtle ways by administration.  Administration’s crafty discipline measures for handling contentious staff can take the form of sudden changes in a teaching assignment, relocation of the teacher to less desirable areas of the school, the cancellation of planned upgrades for computers or an event such as a field trip associated with the dissenting teacher, or, in some cases, even transfers to another school.  I have seen some teachers respond to this harassment by dropping their original opposition while others have simply resigned.  I suspect that many LGBTQ and allied teachers who have ideas about how to challenge the status quo in their schools will act alone, as I did, because they believe that no one else shares their same concerns or is willing to take the risk of speaking openly about them.

People who question homophobia and heterosexism in their Catholic school are often regarded as a fringe element attempting to promote a “homosexual agenda.”  In an interview for The Edmonton Journal, Bob Gagnon, a consultant with Edmonton Catholic’s religious education services, said “it wouldn’t be appropriate for teachers to use their job to promote their personal agenda” (Sinnema, 2004).  When questioned further, he did admit, “it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between promoting a personal agenda and simply living out personal convictions” (Sinnema, 2004).  At the same time that he says teachers should not use their job to promote their personal agenda, he also says that gay and lesbian teachers should feel welcome and safe in Catholic schools.  Referring to a Catholic ethos of caring that can be readily observed in the official posters and banners typically placed throughout Catholic schools, Gagnon stated, “[w]e treat all members of our learning community with dignity and respect and that would include our gay and lesbian students and teachers” (Sinnema, 2004). LGBTQ teachers and students, however, tell a different story.

Homophobic Catholic Doublespeak

Contradictory platitudes and indirect allusions to homosexuality seem to be the norm for Catholic spokespersons. In his publication, A resource for an inclusive community: A teacher’s guide for and about persons with same sex attractions, Bishop F.B. Henry (2001) explicitly affirms the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.  To remind us of precisely what this is, he quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (Henry, 2001, p. 4).  Giving voice and power to ‘tradition’ tidily removes Catholic clergy and school board administrators from being held accountable for homophobic beliefs, statements and actions.

Bishop Henry’s quotation from the Catechism goes on further to describe the “inclination” of homosexuality as “objectively disordered” (Henry, 2001, p. 5).  Henry presumably invokes the Catechism of the Catholic Church to lend authority to his own words, but interestingly, he deconstructs this authority by taking issue with it. He declares, “Although the Catechism does say that a homosexual orientation is ‘objectively disordered’, it is homosexual genital acts that are immoral” (Henry, 2001, p. 5). While Bishop Henry uses the Catechism of the Catholic Church to buttress and strengthen his own argument, he apparently feels he has the power, in his capacity as Bishop, to make a few adjustments to the Catechism itself. Another example of this particularly Catholic selective adherence to authority was referred to earlier in the way that Calgary Catholic schools seem to regard its membership in the Alberta Teachers’ Association as selective.

Bishop Henry’s point in rephrasing the words of the Catechism is to emphasize a distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual genital acts.  He says, “in general, sexual orientation is not freely chosen and is, therefore, not sinful” (Henry, 2001, p. 4), which translates to the common adage “it’s okay to be gay, just don’t act on it.”  He then goes on to contradict his own statement with a quotation from Cardinal Ratzinger that was meant to clarify the Church’s position: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” (as cited in Henry, 2001, p. 5).  Here, he seems to imply that it is clearly not acceptable to be gay, as the inclination towards homosexual tendencies is described as an “objective disorder” that leads to “intrinsic moral evil.”  The “objective disorder” is the “being;” the “intrinsic moral evil” is the “doing,” and neither phrase make being gay sound acceptable. Bishop Henry’s use of this quotation from a higher authority for the purpose of clarification only serves to weaken his position and highlight further contradictions.

Bishop Henry echoes Cardinal Ratzinger’s contention referred to earlier that it is “deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the subject of violent malice in speech or in action” and upholds that the “intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law” (Henry, 2001, p. 4).  But apparently this dignity should not extend to positive and affirming names for the homosexual person, such as lesbian or gay. Bishop Henry says that “[referring] to a person as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ …is not only to use politically charged language but to succumb to a reductionist way of speaking about someone else” (Henry, 2001, p. 6).  Even though Bishop Henry attempts to cloak his objection to the use of the terms lesbian and gay as an attempt to see the “whole” person, his actual agenda is clear: these terms should not be used because they are too politically charged and powerful.

Bishop Henry (2001) says, “[w]e should seek to be more precise in our language and work towards the day when we will be able to even avoid using the term ‘homosexual’ as a noun …[instead] we should seek to speak of [them] as ‘persons with same-sex attractions’”(p. 6). A homosexual should not be conceived of as a “noun” or a whole being, but rather as a person “afflicted” with the illness of “same-sex attractions.” This 19th century way of regarding homosexuals as people with illnesses who are not deserving of an affirming name hardly upholds the “intrinsic dignity of each person” (Henry, 2001, p. 5) that Bishop Henry purports to be espousing.  Here again, he contradicts his own edict.

The Reparative Therapy of “Courage”

Perhaps the most serious and worrisome inconsistency in Bishop Henry’s document can be found in the questions and answers section. Question # 11 asks, “Where can a homosexual person go for information and support?” (Henry, 2001, p.18).  In response, Bishop Henry suggests, “‘Courage’, [which] is an apostolate of the Roman Catholic Church whose purpose is to minister to those with same-sex attractions and their loved ones” (Henry, 2001, p.18).  Courage is a 12-Step group modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous that is intended to promote a chaste lifestyle among same-sex attracted Catholics (Gonzalez, 2004).  It was founded in 1980 by Cardinal Terence Cooke, the late archbishop of New York and continues to be sponsored in that archdiocese (Gonzalez, 2004).

In commenting on how Courage offers support and encouragement for people who wish to follow the Church’s teaching as it stands, John MacDonald, coordinator of family life and health care for the Edmonton Archdiocese, stated: “[w]e want to help [Catholics with same-sex attractions] manage their sexuality in a manner that is healthy and positive for them [and] encourage them to use correctly their creative sexual energy” (Gonzalez, 2004, p. 2).  With the full support of Canadian Archbishop Thomas Collins, MacDonald promotes Courage and is careful to emphasize that, “[w]e are not going out and trying to aggressively convert these people” (Gonzalez, 2004, p.2).

A closer look at Courage, however, reveals that a conversion agenda is clearly present. Courage has 90 chapters in the United States, 10 chapters in other countries, and its own regular newsletter. In one edition of the Courage Newsletter, Rev. John F. Harvey (1998, p. 1)) observes how, “[Catholics with same-sex attractions] have learned to live chastely, and some have even chosen to pursue marriage and raise a family”.  This same edition offers other testimonials applauding Catholics for their progress in the good fight to keep “gay propaganda” out of the schools because of its power to deceive young Catholics into believing that “living ‘gay’ is okay” (Harvey, 1998, p. 6).  This message is showcased in the Courage Newsletter and Courage is an organization that is endorsed by many Archbishops and Bishops, including Bishop F.B. Henry of Calgary.  All major Canadian and American mental health associations, however, denounce reparative therapies and warn of their possible harm (Grace, 2005).

Because he believes that a homosexual orientation is not freely chosen, Bishop Henry asserts that it cannot be considered sinful since morality presumes the freedom to choose.  Apparently being gay is permissible according to Bishop Henry, yet a discrepancy arises when he suggests that “Catholics with same-sex attractions” (Henry, 2001, p. 2) should consult Courage for information and support when Courage does not advocate that it is acceptable to be gay.  When Bishop Henry stresses that any information given to LGBTQ students in the process of counselling must reflect the teaching of Courage as an apostolate of the Roman Catholic Church, he is denying that it is acceptable to be gay.

Another disturbing element in the Courage Newsletter (as cited in Harvey, 1998) is the announcement of My Brother’s Keeper, a Catholic youth leadership conference on homosexuality. The main purpose of this conference is to “…help Catholic Youth Leaders reach out, with the love of Jesus Christ and the wisdom of His Church, to young people struggling with homosexuality” (p. 10).  This is the direct antithesis of the Camp fYrefly Youth Leadership Retreat, a new, adult-facilitated and peer-led camp for youth ages 14 to 24 who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified and queer.

Camp fYrefly has been held in the summers of 2004 and 2005 in Edmonton, Alberta, and is sponsored by Out Is In, an arts-informed educational project at the University of Alberta that is funded by the Department of Justice Canada’s Community Mobilization Fund. Camp fYrefly focuses on building and nurturing the leadership potential of youth in their various home, school, and community environments.  As an Adult Facilitator at both the 2004 and 2005 camps, I witnessed a wide range of powerful, youth-focused and directed workshops that engage LGBTQ campers in a variety of activities including confronting bias and dealing with diversity, developing healthy dating and relationship skills, and fighting oppression through art. 

The Catholic youth leadership camp, My Brother’s Keeper, on the other hand, introduces queer Catholic youth to the homophobic Catholic Courage agenda of chastity, the virtues of self-mastery, and disinterested friendship (Henry, 2001).  Courage is well supported throughout North America and is gaining support around the world (Harvey, 1998). For example, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the infamous right-wing radio broadcaster who holds a Ph.D. in physiology from Columbia University as well as a postdoctoral certification and licensing in Marriage and Family Therapy, is heartily thanked by Courage for informing her listeners across North America about the ministry of Courage.

The existence of camps like My Brother’s Keeper and views, such as those expressed in the Courage Newsletter, that call for an end to a “homosexual agenda” (Harvey, 1998, p. 11) in Catholic schools, indicates that there is much work to be done to transform publicly funded Canadian Catholic schools into safe and caring environments for all people, including homosexuals. When Catholic schools in Canada are publicly funded, they have a duty to provide public education that aligns with the democratic principles representative of the inclusive cultural democracy that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects (Grace & Wells, 2005).


Even in the face of powerful opponents like the Catholic Church, “[s]ocial justice can be learned [and] can be taught” (Collins, 1998, p.6).  One way to begin social justice education in Catholic schools is by training pre-service teachers about LGBTQ issues so that they may be more open to student queries about sexuality in their own classrooms. Some may say that sexuality is not a topic for the classroom.  These people are likely confusing sexuality with sexual activity.  Sexuality is present in the classroom in the wedding or commitment rings that teachers or students may wear, in talk about boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, and partners, in discussions of pregnancy and family, in talk of holiday plans and in other tacit ways (Khayatt, 2000).  If classroom discussions of sexuality can be inclusive of minority sexualities, it would be an important step towards reducing homophobia and ensuring a safe environment for all students.

Closeted LGBTQ teachers in Catholic schools are only too aware of being excluded, and of the importance of language and self-expression.  As Giroux (1996) so aptly stated, “[language is] part of a broader struggle over signs and social practices [and] cannot be abstracted from the power of those institutional forces that use it as part of a systematic effort to silence, exclude, and dictate the voices of subordinate groups.” (p. 49).  If transformation of Catholic school districts from within is not a viable option, then perhaps it is time to start taking action on the radical notion put forth by Grace & Wells (2005) that “…institutional churches have no business in the [publicly funded] classrooms of the nation.” (p. 15).  Indeed, many human rights watchers in Canada have started to suggest that the very existence of the separate school system, with its antiquated notion of religion as being either Catholic or Protestant, is itself a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially considering the plurality of cultures and religions that now flourish in Canada (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2005).

Educational stakeholders could start appreciating the magnitude of oppression endured by LGBTQ teachers and students in Catholic schools if affected parties had an outlet to express their experiences.  One way to redress this would be to use the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) section of the Alberta Teachers’ Association website to establish a forum for queer and allied Catholic teachers and students to share their stories and establish a form of “institutional memory,” which is currently not available because of the pressure to remain silent, and also because of the numbers of teachers who leave the profession, taking their stories of oppression with them. A 1-800-number could also be established for those worried about a paper trail or employers following their Internet use.

There is a need to keep a record of statistics on the types of discrimination committed against LGBTQ persons, whether overtly or covertly, in Catholic schools across the province. A strong message needs to be sent from the ATA to Catholic boards in the province that they cannot have a selective membership in the union and that they cannot ignore federal laws, such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. ATA diversity workshops need to be made mandatory across the province. The Alberta Teachers’ Association should develop a system whereby Catholic boards and districts that are found to be fostering homophobic and heterosexist environments can be fined for a violation of the ATA’s Code of Professional Conduct.

As it stands in Canada today, only individuals who have the inclination, time, and money may take school boards to court for committing various forms of institutionalized homophobia, such as refusing same-sex dates at high school proms (the Marc Hall case), or faculty dismissal on the grounds of sexual orientation (the Delwin Vriend case). If the ATA developed a system to enforce its pioneering policies referred to earlier, then LGBTQ students and teachers would enjoy true protection.  Until then, the ATA’s Code of Professional Conduct is just a “gentleman’s agreement.”

The time has come for the Government of Alberta Ministry of Education to develop its own policies of inclusion and provide province-wide leadership in this area. Bart Johnson, a spokesman for Alberta Education, has said that such a policy would be redundant as the Alberta human rights legislation already protects gays and lesbians from unfair dismissal (Sinnema, 2004).  LGBTQ teachers may be officially protected from being fired, but we are not protected from the homophobia and heterosexism that cause so many of us to leave the profession within the first five years of employment, nor are we protected from subtle discipline measures employed by administration when we question the homophobia and heterosexism that pervade our place of employment.

Even though legislation is in place to protect LGBTQ teachers from being fired in Alberta on the basis of their sexual orientation, as one lesbian teacher in the Catholic system, I did not feel that this legislation would actually protect me.  I was sure that lawyers for the Catholic board I worked for would use the clause in our contract that requires teachers to uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith against me in a wrongful dismissal battle.  I had reason to fear this, as I know of cases where the board invoked this clause to fire heterosexuals who made the mistake of co-habiting out of wedlock, for example.  I have been told by my ATA local that it is standard practice for Catholic boards in Alberta to appeal to local community standards when determining if the Catholic doctrine clause could be used to fire a teacher.

As a publicly funded institution, Catholic boards should not have this kind of power.  New policies need to be developed by both the ATA and Alberta Education to redress this blatant abuse of power by publicly funded Catholic schools.  Catholic language problematizes and denies homosexuality in ways that are no longer confined to physical assault and emotional abuse, but are also expressed in other homophobic actions, such as legal battles and workplace harassment.  Homophobic speech, teachings, and actions need to be confronted by advocating for change to policy in teacher associations and in ministries of education, along with other forms of activism.


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Canadian Online Journal of Queer Studies in Education/ Le journal canadien pour les tudes queer en ducation . ISSN: 1710-7598