Former Calgary Catholic school students are opening up about how they say their schools’ treatment of sexual and gender diversity impacted them growing up.
“‘You can be this way, but don’t act on it. If you act on it, you’re a bad, sinful person,’” Jane MacNeil recalled of a conversation they said they had with a Calgary Catholic counsellor. Now 15, the former Catholic school student transferred to a public school two years ago.
It’s messaging the district denies.
Connor White, now a second-year university student, knew from a very young age he was gay.
“The first time I had an inkling as to my sexuality was in Grade 3,” White said.
But later, in a Calgary Catholic school religion class, the real confusion began — with the teacher responding to questions about homosexuality. White said he and other students were told “it’s just a phase.”
“‘Sometimes it happens,’” White said he was told. “‘It goes away usually. But if it does stick around, the best thing to do is to go to a seminary to channel your ungodly feelings and urges into something more godly so that you can better serve the world.’”
Other former students shared similar experiences. Tamara Rose graduated in 2000. She identifies as pansexual, meaning she can be attracted to people regardless of their sex or gender identity.
“I totally believed them when they told me it was a choice,” Rose said. “You have that Catholic guilt – there’s something wrong with you, right?”
For some, the message they said they were given over years in Calgary Catholic schools left them with an inner conflict that hung over them into adulthood.
“It causes this big rift in how you view yourself,” White said.
Now 21, White didn’t come out until he was almost 19. Even then, it’s been a slow process.
“Some of my family may see [this story on the news] but I haven’t really come out to most of my family directly.”
For others, the consequences were immediate. James Demers, born female, came out at 12 years old.
He says a disclosure to a teacher he trusted landed him on the streets.
“I told a teacher I trusted; she told my principal; my principal called my parents. It was a whole dramatic nightmare that didn’t go well. And I was out on my own by 15,” Demers said.
While there weren’t gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in those days, he was lucky enough to find people to offer support.
“Community is what made the difference.”
He graduated in 2007 and is now an educator for Calgary’s OUTReels Diversity Education Program, helping kids and teachers grow supportive LGBTQ communities.
While he’s never been invited to speak at a Calgary Catholic school, he said the number of Catholic teachers “sneaking into [his] sessions” has increased dramatically.
The Calgary Catholic School District was unable to comment specifically about how same-sex relationships are discussed or incorporated into the curriculum. It says it respects the privacy and dignity of the students.
“As Catholics, we believe that every individual is sacred and created by God,” explained Jennifer Woo, the director of instructional services for religion and family life at the Calgary Catholic School District. “Really foundational to all the teachings is that everyone belongs in our community and everyone has dignity and worth.”
The province is in the process of rewriting sexual education guidelines. Changes are expected to include a greater emphasis on gender diversity and sexual orientation.
It will also include greater emphasis on the fundamentals of reading, writing and math, climate change, as well as the role of First Nations and francophones in Alberta and Canadian history.
You can read about the proposed changes for grades K-12 here.
The changes are welcome news to former Catholic students.
“If you believe in empathy and love, this is the right direction to go,” Demers said. “And if you’re there for the best interest of the kids, this is the right direction to go. If Catholicism is ultimately about compassion, this should be a non-issue. And if it’s not, then just be honest about that.”
The $64-million review for all grades was announced two years ago. It is expected to be completed by 2022.
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