Gay-Straight Alliances, Secrecy, and the Public Trust

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The word out of Alberta about Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (GSAs) hasn’t been good of late. According to the Calgary Herald, the Alberta Court of Appeal this week heard that in at least two instances, children were taken away from school by GSA sponsors and exposed to graphic sexual material.

According to Jay Cameron, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) and the appellant in this case, one child was taken to a GSA conference and reported that he “watched a demonstration on how to put a condom on a banana; he was given materials with a space ship shaped like a giant penis with a caption ‘explore your anus’; [and] he was given a 50-page flip book with step-by-step instructions on how to have sex, with what appears to be an older individual.”

The crucial problem being litigated here is the provision in Alberta government’s Bill 24 that prohibits the school from informing parents of their child’s involvement in a GSA. But of course there are more problems coming to light. What’s the main one?

The main problem is not, in fact, that some GSA sponsors might abuse, and apparently have abused, the trust students have placed in them. Such abuse—that might well end up in actual sexual abuse—is abhorrent, of course, and it is irresponsible not to think predators won’t take advantage of these situations. Have we so quickly forgotten hockey coach Graham James and gymnastics physician Larry Nasser?

The main problem is also not that children will see graphic sexual material, since the Internet puts it in front of them all the time—although a key difference here is that authority figures are putting it in front of them, which makes it much worse. A child might well understand that the Internet is full of unseemly and even disgusting things she should avoid. But how is she supposed to react when a teacher or other sponsor is the source? How much freedom does she have to turn away then?

Bad as these problems are, they can be remedied by the usual measures we take in public schooling. We make sure those in charge are people trained to perform this particular duty well. (We wouldn’t put a home economics teacher—no matter how sweet and no matter how good an educator—in charge of teaching kids to swim who wasn’t also a qualified lifeguard.)

And we make sure that what happens in the club or team or ensemble or troupe is thoroughly vetted in advance by stakeholding adults, including parents, so that the activity truly serves the mission of a public school serving the (whole) public.

Well, what is a GSA and what is it for? According to the website of the parent organization, GSA Network, a GSA club typically provides three services:

  • Social GSAs — Students meet and connect with other trans and queer students on campus
  • Support GSAs — Students work to create safe spaces and talk about the various issues they face in school or their broader community, such as discrimination from teachers or school administrators
  • Activist GSAs — Students take a leadership role to improve school climate through campaigns and events that raise awareness and change policies or practices in their schools.

In sum, GSAs aim to help sexually different youth, and their friends, view sexual differences right across the LGBTQ+ spectra as ethically and medically healthy and to push back against anything in the school that says otherwise.

Interestingly, however, now that GSAs are well established, they are aiming at more. Far more.

Again, according to the GSA Network website, “Our overall strategy for fighting for educational justice is to work . . . in coalition with other youth groups across identity lines to address broader issues of oppression. All of our work . . . prioritizes building alliances not only across sexual orientation and gender identity lines, but also across race, ethnicity, and class lines, and our resources and trainings are designed to facilitate coalition building.”

GSAs were originally touted as providing literally safe places against bullying, a classroom and a social group in which one could own one’s minority sexual identity without fear. They are now aiming to be an all-purpose activist group for progressive politics. What started as a protective measure for struggling kids who feared both peers and parents—a cause with which Christians surely ought to have sympathy—has blossomed into a full-fledged wing of identity politics including race, gender, sex, and class in full intersectional awareness.

That is a pretty big agenda. And it is far, far more expansive than the original—and still typical—justification for GSAs and, to return to our main point, their membership being kept secret from parents. How do we all feel about this kind of group under this kind of shield? That’s the new question.

It’s hard, actually, to think of a student group that wouldn’t logically be entitled to secrecy for fear of parental disapproval. Christian clubs for students trying to escape their parents’ atheism—or Islam? Chess clubs for students trying to escape their parents’ insistence on sports? Sports teams for students trying to escape parental pressure to focus entirely on good grades? It’s not like sexual minorities have the only worries in high school.

It would seem, therefore, that GSAs originally were responding to a genuine problem but in an extreme way that compromised parental rights and responsibilities. If a bona fide case could have been made that a child would have been endangered by his parents finding out he belonged to one, then common sense would affirm that his participation would have been kept secret.

But the burden of proof would have been on the GSA sponsors and school officials to demonstrate that that danger was real, and that burden would have been heavy indeed in order to outweigh the basic parental right to know what one’s children are doing in school. It seems by this logic to have been a serious mistake to grant all GSAs everywhere a blanket provision of secrecy.

Indeed, if, as the Calgary Herald also reports, Section 16.1(1) of the School Act requires only that the principal notify parents that a GSA has been founded, and has no obligation beyond that to notify, let alone consult with, parents regarding the activities of that group, nor its membership, then every school in the province–and every parents’ organization–should object to this legislation, not just the religious schools who have brought the suit.

Now that GSAs are drastically expanding their purview, however, this secrecy seems all the more to warrant searching review. Here’s hoping the Alberta Court of Appeal will notice not only the abuses of GSAs made possible by secrecy but will also notice, and help schools more appropriately respond to, the new agenda at the very heart of the new GSAs.

Does their child’s involvement in that agenda also warrant being kept secret from parents?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).