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Ontario English Catholic Teachers

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He Started the GSA, She Runs It!

Sherry Marentette won’t take credit for starting St. Thomas of Villanova’s robust Gay Straight Alliance. That was done largely by former student Eli Marentette (no relation). But her passion for the students in the club is warmly evident. The GSA, which she oversees along with Yolanda Mejalli (another teacher), provides a judgment- and label-free zone that helps kids feel comfortable and free in the company of friends and allies.

I got involved with the Gay Straight Alliance in my tenth year at St. Thomas of Villanova and was immediately blown away by the kids and by the environment here. Towards the end of my first year helping, I was asked if I’d take over the club and of course, I said yes.

The GSA meets at lunchtime in both my classroom and Ms. Mejalli’s on a weekly basis. It’s a safe space for all, no questions asked. It’s just a happy place to eat and hang out.

What surprised me the most in my role as an ally was how loud the kids were — in a good way! Kids who are usually quiet and reserved really come alive at the GSA meetings. They feel comfortable and free around friends and allies. It’s a judgment- and label-free zone. We don’t ask anyone what label they wear, they just get to be themselves. I’ve had students who have met me because I help out with the club and they say, ‘Miss, I have you next semester,’ and they already feel safer. That has been incredibly powerful for us.

Our school has put on a number of events and workshops to open up conversation on bullying and safe spaces in the school. The initiatives are proactive and all student-led, which I think is really important. We put on an anti-bullying workshop, which received a lot of support. We also hosted a rainbow day where everyone came to school in bright, coloured tops. You really notice people when they are out of uniform and wearing a lot of colour — we had huge participation. We also recently set up a GSA table for the Grade 8 Parent Open House. Parents and future students can see there is a safe place here. This year I’m part of a small committee that is planning the first annual WeShine event, which is a conference for all of the GSAs in our board.

We also participate in the Run for Rocky. It’s a run that raises money for local GSA clubs. Rocky Campagna was a successful young man who was gay and who suffered from depression. His family wanted to do something positive to honour his memory and passion for helping others who lack support and are treated unjustly. They have made a real impact and they are pleased to see support for LGBTQ youth growing in our school communities.

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The school has an active Social Justice Club that works alongside the GSA. Together we’re moving the dial forward, creating a positive, safe environment in the school and the community. When someone feels bullied or treated like an outcast, the best thing we can do is provide a place where students feel supported and welcomed. I feel blessed to know that I am part of something so meaningful.

LGBTQ student Eli Marentette co-founded St. Thomas of Villanova’s GSA, supported by his teachers and his school’s vice-principal. Here’s his take on why GSAs — and the support they receive from Catholic teachers — matter.

In Grades 9 and 10 I was a straight female. If you put things in terms of gender stereotypes, I was a bit more masculine — there were some hints. But my friends and teachers were always super supportive and never asked questions about who I was.

When I was in Grade 11, I started the GSA at Villanova with my best friend Logan, who identifies as gay, and it became a huge support for me. So were all the teachers and administrators who helped to run it. Having a safe, inclusive space at school was so important to me during a time when I was figuring out who I was — a trans male — and how I wanted to express that.

Individual teachers made a difference by supporting me outside of the GSA, too. My drama teacher, for example, always made efforts to make sure that I was comfortable — and that everyone was comfortable — in her class as we explored different roles and identities. My CommTech teacher helped us put together an anti-bullying presentation that focused on LGBTQ issues because he knew it was important and wanted to help make it happen. And my religion teacher, who I just spoke with recently, wanted to talk to me about transitioning — what pronoun did I use, what name did I prefer. She said she wanted to make sure she was respecting me. She didn’t want to cross any boundaries. If I wasn’t comfortable with something she said, she wanted me to please let her know.

She told me that she was really proud of me. It’s moments like those that make me say with confidence that there is space for everyone in Catholic schools.

Everyone at school is facing their own struggles. What teachers can do is provide a space of acceptance and a space of love to let their students be the most authentic version of themselves that they can be. I know from my own experience that this is what Catholic teachers do.

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