Connaught students amplify Importance of GSAs
While politicians bicker, students take the lead on GSAs
GSAs, Gender and Sexuality Alliances (also known as Gay-Straight Alliance or Queer-Straight Alliance) are groups formed within schools that aim to act as a safe space for students where they can socialize and exist without having to worry about their being accepted. While these groups offer support for youth whose gender and/or sexual identity is diverse or in question, GSAs are open to all and do not seek to other anyone.
At Connaught Community School, several students expressed the need for a Junior GSA this past school year. Connaught’s pre-existing GSA was restricted to these students because of their age, but safe spaces to talk about identity are a necessity for all students.
Risa Payant is a parent to two children who attend Connaught. Her eldest, Gaia, was in grade four this past year and was a catalyst in the formation of the Junior GSA, along with several of their peers.
Payant feels strongly that her children feel free to express themselves beyond a construct of gender.
“Conversations around gender and sexual diversity have always been really forefront in our home for lots of reasons, partially because of my own identity and also just because of my circle of friends.“
“It’s frustrating to hear people say that a conversation on gender and sexual diversity isn’t appropriate for kids under a certain age. Issues of identity are at play from the day that kids are born, both in terms of how we navigate our own identity and what identities people place on us. To say that a discussion of gender and sexuality is not a part of how we socialize children is crazy.”
When Gaia was in grade 3, Payant began to notice her child’s rejection of gender assumptions or norms.
“For Gaia, I think, it’s really been more of an exploration around their own discomfort within that binary, not because they feel super uncomfortable identifying as a girl, but just generally they feel really uncomfortable with gendered language. That started to come out in school when they were in grade 3 and I remember them coming home and saying that they’d question teachers who would address the classroom like, ‘Okay girls and boys, go hang up your things’ and Gaia, who’s incredibly shy, would put up their hand and be like, ‘Hey actually you can’t say that—don’t say that if you don’t actually know how we identity.“
Payant also recalled an instance during a school holiday concert that same year,
“There was a song that referenced ‘all the girls and boys’ and [Gaia] asked if they could change it to ‘all the children’ or something more inclusive and the teachers wouldn’t let them so [Gaia] just sort of staged a protest at the holiday show by refusing to sing the song. I think that was our first inkling that this was maybe something that obviously Gaia was thinking about and that was important to them.”
The push for Gaia to join the school’s GSA came as a result of their friendship with a transgender classmate and their wanting to support her. However, this request was denied on account of the students’ age. Thankfully, two interns at the school recognized that there was a need for a space where younger students could socialize and talk, whether that be about issues surrounding gender and sexual diversity or simply common interests, and a Junior GSA was formed.
The students would meet to talk, play games and socialize, but the environment in which they were gathered allowed for vulnerability and heartfelt connections to be shared with students accepting one another free of prejudice. Payant said that the majority of Gaia’s class participated in the group and is very grateful for the young interns who took initiative and volunteered their time to offer this support for their students.
Payant was overwhelmed by how rewarding of an experience this was for Gaia; however, though she is proud of Gaia’s upward climb that led to them having a space where they can feel uninhibited, she is one among many who believe that there is much more to be done within the education system to protect these vulnerable populations of students.
Presently in Alberta, the newly elected UCP government lead by Jason Kenney has introduced Bill 8, which has been dubbed Bill H8, threatening the value of GSAs. Under the previous NDP government, Bill 24 was passed, prohibiting educational staff to inform parents if students joined or were involved in their school’s GSA, the reason for which being the safety of students. As well, the formation of GSAs was compulsory for administration upon student request. Students who face or witness homophobia or transphobia in their homes are the vulnerable population that benefit most from the support of GSAs. It is also common knowledge that youth who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+ are at greater risk for suicide. Under this new legislation, students must appeal to the school board should their request to start a GSA be declined. Additionally, the protection of students’ anonymity from parents has been repealed.
In Saskatchewan, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili has called for legislation that protects students’ rights to form or participate in GSAs. Saskatchewan Minister of Education, Gord Wyant, argued that the existing policy requiring students to report the denial of a request to form a GSA is sufficient and has stated that his office is yet to receive a testimonial of this nature. To date, Saskatchewan remains one of the sole provinces that lacks such legislation.
This past June, which is internationally recognized as Pride month for 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals, a Pride flag was stolen and burned at Stoughton Central School in Southeastern Saskatchewan two days after the flag-raising was held.
Payant explained that GSAs may offer clarity for students who are questioning their gender or sexual identity or else better understand those whose experience is more diverse than our own. “There has to be a foil somewhere for [children] to understand that [gender and sexual identity] is one piece of a huge puzzle of how their life might turn out.”