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Topics: Justice | Opinion

Catholic school board’s removal of queer hotline part of bigger problem

It's no coincidence that Catholic schools keep popping up in the news for condoning or perpetrating homophobic and transphobic behaviour


Earlier this week, news about a school administrator’s action poured gasoline on an already-raging fire. The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) removed a link to an LGBTQ2 telecounselling service from its website under dubious pretenses, stirring up a swift and powerful rebuke of the board from LGBTQ2 activists and supporters.

It was the climax of a series of events sparked by an inflammatory article published in the Italian-Canadian daily Corriere Canadese, titled “TCDSB website hosts Pornographic site defended by trustees.” The author, Joe Volpe, spent 500 words railing against the inclusion of a link to LGBT Youthline, a free support service for queer youth, in the TCDSB’s official list of online mental health resources. “Briefly,” writes Volpe, “[LGBT Youthline] is a smut site which, under cover of defending ‘diversity and human rights,’ as demanded by the Human Rights Commission, promotes the purchase and sale of porno paraphernalia for sexual activities typically reserved for ‘red light districts’ under the cover of darkness.”

A quick glance at LGBT Youthline’s candy-coloured website reveals that the only thing it promotes is the mental and physical wellbeing of young LGBTQ2 people. Through the site, kids can access safe and anonymous counselling and a plethora of potentially life-saving information and resources, including vital sexual education, faith-based resources and resources for queer Indigenous youth.

Although Volpe does not specify precisely which aspects of the site offend him, a couple of screenshots of LGBT Youthline’s list of third-party resources are included in the piece. A link to a safer sex guide for trans women and another to the sex and relationships section of Autostraddle (a publication for queer women) are singled out in red, with only a caption serving as an explanation for why the pictures are included: “But there is so much more on this website freely available…” It seems that this is the “porno paraphernalia” Volpe detests – access to sexual education that is difficult to find elsewhere and a series of harmless personal essays by and for queer women.

Then, late last week, LGBT Youthline received an email from the TCDSB’s chief of mental health strategy and staff well-being stating that the board had removed Youthline from their website’s mental health resources page, citing unspecified “inappropriate material.”

LGBT Youthline put out a statement earlier this week condemning the removal of the link and urging the TCDSB to both reinstate it, place Youthline posters and materials in their schools, and put out a statement of accountability for harm caused. Amidst online backlash, the Toronto Star reported that the TCDSB is “reviewing” its decision. A day later, TCDSB trustee Norm Di Pasquale tweeted that the link had been replaced on the website and that he would be bringing forward a motion to “provide more supports for our LGBTQ students.”

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Although this incident might strike some observers as a surprising but ultimately small skirmish over an internet link, the TCDSB’s conduct is emblematic of a deeper and far more sinister problem. Late last year, Broadview published my investigation into systemic homophobia and transphobia in publicly-funded Catholic schools. I spent over a year interviewing Catholic students, staff, and administration about anti-LGBTQ2 discrimination in their schools’ hallways. That story yielded results that point overwhelmingly to an insidious culture of homophobia and transphobia that has become inextricable from Catholic school systems themselves.

The TCDSB did far more than merely delete a link off its website last week. The school board took an unhinged article more seriously than the safety and mental wellbeing of its LGBTQ2 students. In doing so, it displayed yet another symptom of the disease infecting the institution – a systemic disregard for the lives of some of its most marginalized students.

As I documented in my story, the movement to revoke the public funding of Catholic schools is growing. As it stands, Catholic schools in Ontario receive, on average, more funding than secular schools. According to the Every Teacher Project, a wide-ranging study looking at the state of LGBTQ2 inclusion in Canadian schools, Catholic school educators are more likely to have knowledge of LGBTQ2 students engaging in self-harm. Catholic school students also, on average, have less access to LBGTQ2-friendly resources and programming than their secular counterparts.

Jan Buterman, a former Catholic school teacher, sued an Alberta Catholic school board that fired him after he came out as trans in 2008. Buterman lost the suit in 2017. A year before, St. Albert Today reported that the school board had spent at least $367,000 in its legal battle against him. And last May, the Waterloo (Ont.) Catholic School Board made headlines after a trustee spoke against flying a rainbow flag outside schools during Pride Month. The trustee explained in a meeting that the flag shouldn’t be flown at a Catholic institution because “pride is the deadliest of the deadly sins.”

It’s no coincidence that Catholic schools continue to pop up in the news for condoning or perpetrating blatantly homophobic and transphobic behaviour. The embers of this blaze go back to “traditional” Catholic values that explicitly condemn queer folks for being themselves. These conflicts between so-called religious observance and social equity don’t stem from the stubbornness of individual school boards, nor are they the result of so-called “urban social terrorists” peddling “porno paraphernalia,” to quote Volpe.

It’s clear that this tension comes from Catholic school systems’ inability to recognize the fundamental rights of its queer and trans students. Catholic boards are staring down an ultimatum that is becoming increasingly impossible to avoid: meet the basic expectations of the times or die a slow, bitter, and obstinate death.


KC Hoard is a writer in Toronto.

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