I can still hear the homophobic slurs, so freely leaving their lips in the hallways and classrooms. Each word and phrase—coloured with Bible verses that condemned who I was—echoed in my gut, well before I had the courage to acknowledge and say that I was one of them.
This was 20 years ago when I went to a Catholic high school in Mississauga, Ont.. There, homophobic bullying and discrimination were the norm. This was fuelled by ingrained homophobia in the Catholic church, where 2SLGBTQ+ people were seen as wrong, shameful and hell bound.
As we enter Pride month, I think of my closeted high-school self. It would have been life-changing for me if my school had flown a rainbow flag. It would have helped me to imagine what was beautiful and possible as a queer Christian woman of colour. I would have believed that God loved me.
Although some progress has been made for queer and trans students in Catholic schools over the last two decades, the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB)’s trustees have reminded us that not much has changed in this publicly-funded religious institution.
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At a board meeting on May 29, trustees voted against flying the Pride flag at its Catholic Education Centre in June. In a vote of six to four, they chose to prioritize their own comfort over the safety and well-being of 2SLGBTQ+ students, who advocated flying the flag.
This decision came after months of fighting, including parents shouting anti-2SLGBTQ+ comments at recent board meetings.
My heart aches for the queer and trans students, educators and families, knowing all too well the religious climate they’re in. I still reflect on the harmful messages from my religious upbringing, which led me to believe that I was broken. I think about the self-hatred I felt as I stared in the mirror, ruminating on suicidal thoughts each day, thinking the world would be a better place without me in it.
According to advocacy group Egale Canada, 2SLGBTQ+ students at Catholic schools experience more homophobic and transphobic harassment than students at other schools. They are also less likely to report these incidents to school staff and see less 2SLGBTQ+ visibility in their schools. This leads many queer and trans students to feel unsafe at their schools and can put them more at risk for higher rates of depression, anxiety, houselessness and suicidality.
I wonder how my journey would have been different if I had seen a Pride flag. I would have known that it was possible to be queer and Christian, that I didn’t have to choose or silence these parts of myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent all those years trying to pray away the gay.
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This is what 2SLGBTQ+ students, educators and families could have felt if trustees voted to fly the Pride flag.
Doing so isn’t a small gesture, as we have seen in other Catholic boards. It’s life-changing—and lifesaving—for queer and trans students. This was an opportunity for the board to affirm and prioritize the safety and well-being of 2SLGBTQ+ communities. Despite hearing from the community, the trustees have shown that queer lives do not matter or belong in the board.
It’s still very difficult for many of us to be out, affirmed and respected, especially in Catholic and Christian communities. But we have always been here, whether or not our queerness has been acknowledged by our religious communities.
I believe in the power of this generation. Students at the YCDSB put forward the motion to raise the Pride flag. With more awareness and support, I know they will continue to fight, resist and advocate to create safer spaces for the next generation – including seeing a Pride flag one day.
Jenna Tenn-Yuk is a writer and speaker in Toronto.
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