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,



Stock photo of men and women sitting at table

Workplace violence is a major hazard in our schools.

teacher smiling at camera standing outside

When both of her parents died within months of each other, Barnett decided to dig deeper for her passion.