US & Canada

Should these school clubs be kept secret from parents?

Lindsay Peace (R) and her son Ace (L) Image copyright Courtesy Lindsay Peace
Image caption Lindsay Peace (R) and her son Ace have been outspoken advocates for the protection of GSAs

Should parents be told if their children are members of gay-straight alliances - student-run peer support groups for LGBT students and allies in their school? In one Canadian province, that question has sparked fierce debate.

Gay-straight alliances - or GSAs - were first established in the US in the 1980s.

The student-run clubs are meant to be a place where LGBT and other students can socialise and offer peer support. Research on GSAs suggests they create a "safe space" for students at a greater risk of mental health issues and discrimination, and can reduce bullying and harassment in schools where they're established.

Some 30 years after the first one was founded by a history teacher and a student at Concord Academy in Massachusetts in 1988, thousands of GSAs exist in middle and high schools across North America.

Despite their proliferation, these peer support groups have also faced resistance.

One protracted battle over GSAs has been playing out in the Canadian province of Alberta - an issue debated in the provincial legislature, in the courts, and in the media.

The latest flare up began during the recent provincial election in the province.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption UCP leader Jason Kenney is to become Alberta premier on April 30

At issue was a policy proposed by United Conservative Party (UCP) leader Jason Kenney to undo some legal protections for the school clubs, notably one that bars school officials from telling parents if their child has joined such a group.

Critics of Kenney's plan say school staff could "out" LGBT students to parents who might not be supportive of, or might even be discriminatory of, their sexuality or gender identity - with potentially damaging consequence.

Kenney - whose UCP swept the election and who will soon be premier - argues his proposal is a compromise between supporting GSAs and respecting parental authority.

In his election night victory speech, he said that "parents know better than politicians what is best for their kids".

GSA lawsuits in the US

Alberta is not the only place GSAs have caused social friction.

In the United States, where the federal Equal Access Act guarantees that public school students have a right to form GSAs, the American Civil Liberties Union says the groups have prevailed in at least 17 federal lawsuits under the act between 1998 and 2015.

Most of the US lawsuits were over obstacles put in place by school officials opposed to the clubs, like making last minute changes to school rules to prevent a GSA from being established.

Concerns about the activities in GSAs has also cropped up in the US, with one California student battling his school telling the BBC in 2000: "This whole thing has stopped being about my club. It's become this debate about sex".

Albertan Dylan Chevalier, executive director of Sexual and Gender Acceptance Edmonton, says GSAs are about "having a place where you can be safe, relax, and take your walls down for half an hour".

Chevalier was the president of a GSA at his former high school, and he said the club hosted discussions and pizza parties, held bake sales to fund LGBT awareness campaigns and once organised a "drag and dance show".

Local skirmishes over the clubs have also been seen in the UK and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, which also protect a student's right to start a GSA.

University of Calgary's Darren Lund, who teaches social justice education, says that the issue has always had "the potential to be polarising".

He says there's been a rapid cultural shift towards a greater acceptance of LGBT issues in the last 15 years or so - one that makes some people feel "discomfort".

"And then politicians are quick to jump on that fear and use that fear to play into people's insecurities about these issues," he says.

What's the controversy in Alberta?

In 2014, legislation was first proposed to require all the province's public schools to establish a GSA on the request of a student.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Alberta's legislature building

The right-leaning provincial government at the time eventually passed a law - Bill 10 - establishing that protection. It received support from all the provincial political parties.

Some cheered the move, but it also led to protests.

Advocates argued the law didn't do enough to protect LGBT students. Others called it an infringement on freedom of religion and parental rights.

In 2015, the left-leaning NDP swept to power in Alberta and added more protections for GSAs.

It passed Bill 24, which required schools, both public and private, to have a policy in place to allow for it to comply "immediately" with a student's GSA request.

Further, school officials would not be allowed to disclose a student's involvement such a club.

"No students will be outed for joining a GSA or a QSA [queer-straight alliance] in the province - it's against the law," the provincial education minister said at the time.

Schools were put on notice - if they don't follow the law they risk having accreditation and funding stripped.

Image copyright NurPhoto/Getty Images
Image caption Albertans walk along an 'LGBT road crossing' in Calgary downtown

Lindsay Peace, who has a son who is transgender and who is an advocate for trans youth in the province, has been a vocal supporter of protecting GSAs.

"I think it's important for kids to know that they belong," she says "And sometimes it's the only place [where they do]."

And as for parents who want to know what their children are up to at school: "they should ask them", she says.

What are gay-straight alliances?

  • The student-run clubs are meant to be a place where LGBT and other students can socialise and offer peer support
  • The first gay-straight alliances were established in the US in the 1980s
  • There are 80 registered clubs in Alberta, and they were first established in the province almost 20 years ago
  • Thousands of GSAs exist in middle and high schools across North America

In Alberta, the second GSA law was contentious from the get-go.

"This legislation would create a void of care for our children, into which anyone can set up shop, without proper oversight or accountability," one parents rights group stated in an op-ed.

The Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) filed a court challenge on behalf of a coalition of parents and 26 faith-based independent schools, arguing bills 10 and 24 breach multiple constitutional rights, including by failing to protect a parent's right to educate based on his or her own conscience and religious beliefs.

It says the law further "undermines parental rights by prohibiting parents from knowing if their child is being exposed to sexual content through a GSA".

Court documents filed by the legal group warn that "the parents are alarmed and frightened at the climate of secrecy that the School Act has created around ideological sexual clubs and related activities".

JCCF president John Carpay summed up the tension up way: "The fuss is about making these clubs mandatory in schools where the parents disagree completely with the perspective or the belief system that is being advocated by these clubs".

"It's the difference between voluntary versus coercive."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are thousands of GSAs in schools across North America, including this Florida school

The fight continues

Kenney's proposed policy - to roll back some GSA protections but to keep Bill 10 in place - looks unlikely to satisfy either side.

Says Chevalier: "He's playing a game. He's pandering to the social conservative side of his base and playing a fast one [with everyone else]."

The JCCF is waiting for a court decision on whether an interim injunction it's seeking on Bill 24 will be granted.

Carpay told the BBC he's uncertain whether the schools his organisation represents will want to continue with the court challenge and fight the 2015 GSA protections that would remain in place if Kenney's government does roll back Bill 24.

Meanwhile, campaigners like Peace and Chevalier say they'll continue to fight for GSA protections in all Alberta schools.

Peace says she thinks it's students themselves who will end up creating more inclusive schools, regardless of how fierce the GSA fight might get between parents and politicians.

Calgary high school students are now organising a province-wide school walkout next month - a few days after Kenney is to take office - to protest his party's GSA plans.

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