Those living in Waterloo Region, Ontario as I currently do, will have heard this week’s controversy over a flag that the Waterloo Catholic District School Board intends to fly during the month of June. You can read about it in this Kitchener Post article, and in this Waterloo Region Record article. I am a sometime volunteer and former board member of SPECTRUM, but I have to respectfully disagree with Cait Glasson’s comments on this issue.
I am angry.
In fact, the more I look at this flag, the angrier I get. It makes it difficult for me to respond in a measured way. And this is about so much more than just this flag. It is also about the numerous micro-aggressions (and worse) that the Catholic school system has committed against LGBTQ2+ students, educators, and staff for generations. This flag issue brings all of this to the surface for me and, though it’s difficult for me to separate the issues, I’m going to try to articulate my feelings here.
In previous years, the WCDSB has leaned on the “flag protocol” as an excuse to get around flying the Pride flag. Though the WCDSB’s vision claims they are working towards “a place for all” their actions in this area say the exact opposite. Students from at least two WCDSB schools have circulated petitions and made public statements requesting the board to fly the internationally recognized rainbow Pride flag at their schools. It would be an extremely simple thing to agree to the request and show solidarity and support for LGBTQ2+ students, educators, and staff in these schools. It is, in fact, basically the least that could be done to attempt to demonstrate LGBTQ2+ inclusion. So, why then go to the trouble and expense of designing and printing a new flag that not only does not satisfy the requests made by students, but actually offends even more people?
It might be helpful here to explain why the rainbow Pride flag is so important. A few years ago, I wrote a piece about the history of the flag for OK2BME. I’m going to obnoxiously quote myself.
“The flag was originally created in 1978 by artist and activist, Gilbert Baker…. Baker was asked to create a symbol of pride for the gay community by the influential Harvey Milk. The original Pride Flag created by Baker flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978. The flag originally included eight coloured stripes, each of which was assigned a meaning: hot pink (sex), red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), turquoise (magic/art), indigo (serenity), and violet (spirit)… Though Baker originally assigned meanings to each colour, over time, the colours have come to represent diverse people who come together to form something beautiful (the rainbow). The symbol is the most common one to represent LGBTQ+ people across the world.”
People from Rainbow communities across the globe have come to recognize this symbol as reflecting safe spaces for them to be themselves. Declining to fly the Rainbow flag is a statement that these schools are not safe places for LGBTQ2+ students, educators, and staff to be themselves. There is far more evidence that this is the case as well. For example, you might take a look at the results of the OutLook Study that surveyed LGBTQ2+ high school students in Waterloo Region, or the national climate study “Every Class in Every School” conducted by Egale. I’d also like to note the courage of the students who have spoken out publicly and created these petitions. These are not easy things for any young person to do, but for LGBTQ2+ students to be out in Catholic schools is extremely brave, especially in the face of the kinds of abuse reported in those surveys above.
To me, the decision to create and fly this “We Are All Wonderfully Made” flag reads – at best – as an attempt to placate the people who have requested the Pride flag be flown.
The matter was only made worse for me when Trustee Greg Reitzel made the comment that “Pride is the deadliest of the deadly sins.” This not the statement of someone who is trying to foster a sense of inclusion. It reads to me as hate speech. The so-called “Seven Deadly Sins” do not originate in the bible. They come from theologians in the fourth century, and equating the sin of pride with LGBTQ2+ Pride is hateful.
LGBTQ2+ people celebrate Pride as a self-affirmation in the face of decades of hate and violence, and it’s not easy to come by. Some people, myself included, have had to work hard to find Pride in ourselves. Reitzel saying in one breath “we care about everybody” and then in the next equating Pride with sin is hard to reconcile. The world has improved immensely for LGBTQ2+ people even since I was in high school 20 years ago. BUT, things are far from where they need to be. Some LGBTQ2+ people experience unbelievable trauma when they try to come out. The two biggest protective factors for young LGBTQ2+ people are a supportive family home life, and a supportive school environment.
According to the Ontario Municipal & School Boards Elections website, “A trustee’s role is to maintain focus on student achievement, well-being and equity and to participate in making decisions that benefit the board’s entire jurisdiction while representing the interests of their constituents.” Someone tell me how Reitzel is representing the interests of his LGBTQ2+ constituents and focusing on student well-being and equity.
Don’t even get me started on why Catholic schools receive public funding at all, but if they do, they need to uphold the equality rights established in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The WCDSB trustees and administration are not fostering an environment of inclusion. Those few students who are brave enough to be out or members of GSAs are a minority. There are many others who do not feel safe doing so. They are not being represented and not being encouraged to be themselves. And when those few brave students who are out do make requests, they are being ignored.
For me, it boils down to this: It harms no one to fly a rainbow flag as requested, and it would do so much good. The WCDSB has the resources and capacity to do so. The only reason not to do it is homo-, bi-, transphobia which is what other members of the school community are being taught to support by this decision, and by the words of people like Reitzel.