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Breaking New Ground: The First Middle School Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in the TDSB

Natasha Garda, Valerie Dugale

I recently completed my sixth year of teaching in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), working with students from grades 6 to 8. Westwood is a diverse inner city school where students represent various multicultural communities, low- to middle-income families, Canadian-born and newcomers to Canada. Although our student body represents various perspectives, when kids enter the school they are individuals with a multitude of needs. What young people have in common is they often assert their power when adults are not there, so the language in the hallways can be harsh, subtle, or biting. Of course, I don’t expect to walk amongst 350 11- to 14-year olds and be enveloped by a utopian space of love and acceptance. But it is our responsibility to ensure all students feel they have a voice in their school and that they are accepted for their diversity, challenges, and perspectives.

During these past six years I have also served on the boards of Pride Toronto and the 519 Church Street Community Centre as board chair. These organizations not only serve the needs of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans) community, they also celebrate the diversity in all of us. Every day they welcome everyone in to learn, engage, and encourage understanding because we are a unique citizenry that has a responsibility to embrace and show pride in the fact that we have differences. As a teacher, I am committed to ensuring that students who identify as LGBT are not experiencing isolation, feeling shame, or burdened with hesitation. School life must symbolize for all students what we expect from them on a global scale: Social change.

In 2010, a colleague and I attended the Unity Conference organized by the TDSB’s Gender-Based Violence Prevention Office. The conference was an opportunity to participate in workshops where high school students who belonged to or were interested in creating or joining trans-positive gay-straight alliances and other related groups in their schools spoke of their experiences. Many of the narratives were bleak. Students were often isolated by their peers or ridiculed for being open about their sexuality. It also seemed that students didn’t have the confidence to participate in social justice activities until well into high school. The LGBT students were creating an “underground club” by gravitating toward one another to feel acceptance and comfort outside of the mainstream school environment. This felt safe but only to a limit. Outside of the group dynamic, LGBT students continued to feel threatened and alone. While these groups represented the LGBT community in the larger world by being vibrant, active, and trailblazing, I felt that we were losing too many students before they reached a place where they were self-confident enough to stand proud.

Coming out of the conference, my immediate notion was to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance in my middle school, to begin the dialogue about sexuality and gender identity with younger students. I felt that this had to happen earlier than high school. I felt that if they had an opportunity to explore language and ask questions in middle school, they could tackle issues such as challenging gender stereotypes, and the discrimination that exists in addition to racism and sexism. If they could do this early enough, they might feel more at ease as they get older and become more able to pursue leadership roles in adolescence

With no other middle school GSAs in the TDSB, I recruited a small group of students who needed an opportunity to take on a challenge to develop their leadership skills and invited them to an anti-homophobia workshop with middle school students from around the city. We developed a short skit around anti-homophobia and presented it at a schoolwide assembly, with the official announcement that Westwood was starting the first middle school GSA in the TDSB.

Close to 20 students from grades 6, 7, and 8 showed up to our first meeting. A few were curious. A few were intrigued. About 12 were committed. They were never asked to share what motivated them to join. I believe they wanted to do something new and in some way all felt a sense of marginalization for who they were perceived to be and the choices they made. Their commitment was apparent from the start and they remained attentive with every initiative. With a solid group of students in place we established a mission statement and our first initiative.

 SHOW STUDENTS THAT ADULTS WILL SUPPORT THEM

Project: We Are United To Take Action Against Bullying, Homophobia, & Discrimination

The GSA created a front-lobby display of faces and quotes from teachers, the director of education, support staff, custodians, the superintendent, administration, our trustee, social worker, and office staff. The display has remained in the front lobby and every day establishes the purpose of our leadership.

 TEACH STUDENTS TO FIND ALLIES

Westwood’s GSA exists to provide a space for gay and straight allies. This works to create a school community that communicates openly and is supportive of difference.

 BULLYING AWARENESS WEEK

The GSA’s next significant initiative was to create a week of activities that encouraged a positive school climate (Secret Compliment Day), challenged gender stereotypes (paint your nails day), urged student activism (a personal Rick Mercer video encouraging Westwood students to make every week of the year Bullying Awareness Week), and engaged with the community (Quote Parade around the school). The parade boasted some thought-provoking signs:

“There should be no risks attached to being yourself ”
“Yeah, it’s pink. So what?” (held up by a boy)
“I will not treat others the way I have been treated” (a student who experienced being bullied)
“I will not be defined as normal. After all, what is normal?”
“That’s so gay is so yesterday”
“I will learn to understand others”

TEACH STUDENTS TO COMMIT TO ANTI-HOMOPHOBIA, ANTI-TRANS- PHOBIA, AND ANTI-DISCRIMINATION 365 DAYS OF THE YEAR

The GSA recognized and shared information about Pink Day, National Day Against Violence Towards Women, and Anti-Homophobia and Anti-Transphobia Day. For the latter they celebrated with EGALE at the Annual Breakfast at the Sutton Place Hotel. These activities ensured that an LGBT-positive anti-discrimination environment was fostered throughout the year.

TEACH STUDENTS TO BE MENTORS

The GSA initiated workshops in gender-based violence prevention for all students, mediated by department staff and audited by the members of the GSA. In turn, the GSA developed a one-hour workshop entitled “Challenging Gender Stereotypes” and invited grade 5 classes from elementary schools in the local community. This fall, Westwood’s GSA was invited to collaborate with a K–8 school in York Region to share their expertise with grade 7 and 8 students and provide suggestions on how the students can start their own GSA club.

TEACH STUDENTS TO INSPIRE

GSA members who were in their last year at Westwood made a presentation at the final schoolwide assembly, providing an overview of the year and encouraging membership for the upcoming school year. Each outgoing student was asked to identify an individual who would make a positive contribution to the club to ensure the continuation of the mission.

TEACH STUDENTS TO PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

The GSA had an almost new face in September as most of the members had moved on to secondary school. The Westwood GSA in 2012–2013 will continue to run their Challenging Gender Stereotypes workshop for grade 5 students, participate in Canada’s First National GSA Summit, and make their world as receptive and inclusive as West- wood GSA’s motto proclaims: Discrimination. Elimination.

Postscript: On May 13 and 14, 2012, 25 participants from across Ontario came to the first-ever ETFO Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Symposium for grade 7 and 8 teachers. The symposium was designed to provide the participants with an opportunity to learn about GSAs. Participants left with many new ideas and resources to establish GSAs in their schools. etfo.ca/Multimedia/PhotoGallery/ GSAsymposium

 Natasha Garda is a member of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto.

Natasha Garda Wins the 2012 Safe School Award for Pioneering GSAs in Elementary Schools

by Valerie Dugale

Canada’s national organization that advocates for safe schools presented its annual award of excellence to Natasha Garda for pioneering one of the first gay-straight alliances (GSA) in elementary schools.

Garda received the award from the Canadian Safe School Network (CSSN) and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) at the Network’s annual fundraising gala on November 20, 2012. The CSSN is a national, not-for-profit charitable organization with a mandate to reduce youth violence and make schools and communities safer.

“School communities need to do everything they can to stop bullying, and Natasha Garda is a role model for how educators can lead on that front,” said CSSN President Stu Auty. “GSAs are a way for all students and teachers, whether they are straight or gay, to help stop homophobia and the bullying behaviour that often oc- curs because of it.”

While GSAs have proliferated at the secondary school level, their establishment in middle schools is fairly new. Earlier this year Garda was asked to share her experience as the keynote speaker for a GSA symposium held by ETFO for teachers from across the province.

“The reality is that homophobia and other bullying behaviours occur in elementary schools. It is educators like Natasha who are finding age-appropriate ways to address these issues and promote safe, inclusive schools,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond.

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