Tonya Callaghan gave a speech at the U of C on Jan. 29.
Michael Grondin/the Gauntlet

Holy homophobia

U of C researcher looks to end sexual discrimination in Catholic schools

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University of Calgary professor of education Tonya Callaghan is working to bring attention to the issue of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals in the Catholic school system.

Her research, the subject of a talk called “Holy Homophobia” held on Jan. 29 at the U of C, looks at the situation of LGBTQ students and teachers in Catholic schools.

Callaghan, who holds two degrees from the U of C, was a teacher in the Calgary Catholic school system when a student committed suicide after months of homophobic bullying. She was not satisfied with the system’s handling of the matter, which inspired her to quit her job and take up graduate studies at the U of C to focus on the problem. She has written a book called That’s so Gay! Homophobia in Canadian Catholic Schools on the subject.

“I personally was experiencing minute-by-minute homophobia. I saw a lot of negativity and non-positive ways of dealing with sexual diversity, but when a person ends up taking their own life because of that, I just thought maybe this is the time to re-evaluate what I’m doing and why I’m in the system,” said Callaghan.

Callaghan stressed that she is not attacking Catholic schools or the Catholic faith in any way but that she is simply trying to bring attention to what she sees as a human rights violation that does not follow the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically section 15, which stipulates racial, sexual and physical equality for all Canadians.

Callaghan does, however, believe that the religious aspect, especially the conservative influence of Catholic leaders, is what gives the system trouble handling LGBTQ issues.

“What’s different about the Catholic schools from other publicly-funded schools is that the bishops have quite a lot of say in what happens in those schools,” said Callaghan. “This homophobic belief and value is inculcated in the school through policy and curriculum which you’re not going to find so overtly in non-Catholic schools.”

Callaghan believes that one of the most important things that needs to be done is to start a public conversation about LGBTQ issues.

“I hope my research will shed light on these practices that are happening in Catholic schools,” said Callaghan. “The fact is that LGBTQ teachers are getting fired and that LGBTQ students are being denied basic rights.”

Once the public becomes more aware of this matter, Callaghan believes that pressure from Canadians will force Catholic school systems across the country to take a serious look at how they approach the subject, which they have not yet had to do.

“When I do present my research and people do hear about it, they are not happy. If [Catholic schools] have been getting a free pass then it’s likely to change sometime soon because as a culture we want to follow the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that explicitly protects against discrimination.”