Ontario has entered “don’t ask, don’t tell” territory. Gay students in its publicly funded Roman Catholic schools would be given the right – in law – to form gay-straight clubs or alliances. But not necessarily under that name.
The government has gone so timidly about doing the right thing that it has done the wrong thing. Its measure on gay-straight clubs is part of a new law on school bullying introduced on Wednesday. But its timidity is reminiscent of that of a bystander to bullying who – with a bit more moral courage – could put a stop to it.
The government argues that it is the support that matters, not the name. Up until now, Ontario’s Catholic schools have blocked attempts at gay-straight alliances, saying that “equity clubs” can battle intolerance of all kinds, and that teens are too young to identify their sexual preference.
But the new support from the Ontario government goes only halfway. It is similar to president Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law of 1993, now repealed, under which homosexuals were allowed in the U.S. military, as long as they didn’t breathe a whisper of it. That put gay and lesbian soldiers in a terrible position – vulnerable to expulsion, and still treated as if they needed to hide who they are.
To be made nameless is not a small thing. It is to be told that some shame is associated with who you are. The clubs can exist but, depending on how the Catholic schools react, perhaps only in the closet, a place of shame.
The Catholic schools have the right to their beliefs about homosexuality. But they are public schools and they do not have the right to insist on a second-class status for students who identify as homosexual, or who simply have questions about their identity, or who have gay or lesbian parents. They need to try a little harder to make religious belief and equality work together.
This is not an abstract issue. It is difficult to be gay in high school, and gay teens suffer from depression, and depression is a factor in suicide. If Ontario truly wishes to defend those vulnerable to bullying, it should do so wholeheartedly. The best answer is to promote acceptance, and require it from those who refuse to give it.