For Jane MacNeil, there’s a lot to admire in worms.
“They’re gender neutral, they have five to eight hearts to love you with, they’re all gay by extension of not having gender and they’re just nice to hold on your hand.”
MacNeil began coming out as lesbian shortly before starting junior high at St. Jean Brebeuf, a Catholic school in Calgary. MacNeil was referred to a school counselor.
“He’d go, ‘It’s like this: it’s OK to be left-handed, as long as you write with your right hand.’”
It was the start of the 2016 school year and Education Minister David Eggen had just released an open letter affirming students’ right to form gay-straight alliances.
“I was like, ‘Ya! This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me! I don’t know if there’s any other gay people here but I can make a safe space for us,’” MacNeil said.
MacNeil’s mom approached the school’s principal about starting a GSA and while there was initial support for the idea, MacNeil said roadblocks quickly began cropping up –- among them was the group’s name.
MacNeil wanted to call the group “GSA.”
“We voted on the name at least three times,” MacNeil recalled. “I think if I had just called mine ‘Skittles’ or something, maybe it would be running, but I was determined.”
Six Catholic system teachers speaking to Global News on the condition of anonymity said that challenge continues – even a year after GSAs were protected by law.
“I’ve heard of different clubs out there in the Calgary Catholic system called spectrum, or saga, or sassy, or rainbow club or different things… but never GSA,” one teacher said.
Global News agreed to not identify the teachers speaking out due to concerns over professional reprisal.
MacNeil said in the end, the club was closely supervised by the principal.
“I remember him sitting at the back of the room, looking at me,” MacNeil said.
“I never felt safe, even in the safe space I was making.”
The Calgary Catholic School District said staff supervision is standard procedure. It wouldn’t say if any groups in the district are called “GSA,” but said students are responsible for choosing their own unique titles.
“Of course we follow the School Act and we do have policies and procedures in place which can be reviewed and supported by the ministry,” said Jennifer Woo, the director of instructional services for religion and family life at the Calgary Catholic School District.
Education Minister David Eggen said reports that schools are violating provincial legislation are dealt with on a complaints basis.
“The law is crystal clear: students can have a GSA if they choose to do so, stay in confidence if they choose to do so and call it a GSA if they choose that name,” Eggen said.
Four months after they set out to create a GSA, MacNeil switched to a public school and is now an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ students.
But the 15-year-old said the Catholic district’s handling of the GSA sent a clear message that took a toll.
“I was so sick,” MacNeil told students while speaking at a Calgary GSA convention in November 2017. “I was sick from trying to make myself have a safe space, from trying not to cry in religion class, from trying to be as I was.”
MacNeil said they still believe in God but struggles to find comfort in a Catholic church that was once home.
“I am devout, just in my own way.”