A pair of Nanaimo Christian School students have been facing challenges creating a space for LGBTQ students, like themselves, that appropriately recognizes their identity.
Grade 12 student Anna Hill, 17, and Grade 10 student Maeci Parsonage, 15, said their suggested name for a Queer-Straight Alliance club was shot down by the independent school’s authorities last year.
According to Mike Suderman, school superintendent, the student-suggested name for the club was too exclusive and used polarizing language. In an e-mail, he wrote that the NCS-suggested name ‘Space for Belonging’ was intentionally chosen as it “unifies rather than divides.”
“We want each [student] to feel safe and supported and loved. An inclusive and neutral club name makes it easier for students who may be exploring their identity to be part of the group and not worry about others’ perceptions,” the superintendent wrote.
When asked specifically if the school recognized the club as a space for LGBTQ students, Suderman stated that it is a “supportive space for all students to meet, regardless of who they are.”
The Provincial Health Services Authority defines queer-straight alliances or gender and sexuality alliances as groups that provide “opportunities for students of all gender identities to comes together in a safe environment,” with a focus on raising awareness about the discriminatory challenges that LGBTQ people face based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
For Hill and Parsonage, having an appropriate name that reflects their community and signals “a safe space” to other students is equally important, and doesn’t mean that students are gay when they walk through the door.
“We just want people to feel safe and welcome because at this point, we don’t. We’re hidden, we’re kind of forgotten about,” Hill said. “Having a QSA at schools, especially religious schools, can help with suicidal ideations and mental health in students. I see it in my friends, knowing that they’re not accepted. It causes horrible mental health declines … We’re getting to the point where it’s going to be a crisis.”
Research published last year by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, analyzing teens aged 15-17, stated that when compared with cisgender-heterosexual adolescents, girls attracted to girls had triple the risk of attempting suicide, transgender adolescents had 7.6 times the risk, and youths questioning their sexual orientation had double the risk.
The executive director for BGC Central Vancouver Island, Karen Love, said her organization worked with children in the LGBTQ community when setting out to provide a peer-led support group for them.
“That was one of the things we had asked – if they wanted it to be named specifically for them and not a generic inclusive group. They just felt that it helped with their identity and they felt heard and they felt recognized,” she said. “It was very important to them.”
Love said BGC has found that mental-health challenges among youths in the group “are exponentially growing.”
In 2017, the Alberta legislature passed a bill stating that public and private school staff cannot prohibit nor discourage students from choosing ‘gay-straight alliance’ or ‘queer-straight alliance’ as club names. No such bill exists in B.C.; however, the B.C. Ministry of Education and Child Care’s sexual orientation and gender identity-inclusive policy stipulates that one of the goals to support diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions is to allow for visibility and recognition.
Although independent schools are required by the ministry to have anti-bullying policies in place, there is nothing in the Independent School Act regarding the schools and the formation or naming of school clubs. The ministry, however, does encourage independent schools to support SOGI initiatives.
Suderman wrote that Nanaimo Christian School doesn’t view its stance of the club’s name as homophobic, saying the school’s inclusive practices go far beyond the names chosen for clubs. He also stated the school has sought feedback from LGBTQ students to remove barriers, and said staff receive training in sexual orientation and gender inclusion.
“I think that the message from the school is they care, but not really,” said Juanita Parsonage, Maeci’s mother. “They care, they love our kids, they want to accept them and they belong. But only kind of.”
Anna’s mother, Rebecca Hill, said her hope is that NCS parents and staff can navigate the complexities but still offer an appropriate space and name for students as they “figure it out.”
“As a Christian parent, I see kids losing their faith because they feel they can’t find acceptance in the queer community and the faith community. And I’m not saying whether that’s true or false, but that’s a perception that creates a lot of turmoil,” she said.
Anna Hill said she doesn’t want to leave and sacrifice her independent school education because of the club and name refusal, but having a QSA at NCS would make her “not hate going to school every day.”
“I’ve gone to the school for 10 years, I have amazing relationships with the teachers there, with my friends there, and I don’t want them to think that we hate them,” she said. “We want them to understand that what they’re doing is wrong and they can change something and make people feel safe and comfortable going to the school and I think it would change a lot of things for people.”