In his early days of high school, Keith Baybayon was living through one of the most difficult periods of his life, shutting out his friends and family as he struggled to reconcile his sexual identity with his Catholic faith.
“I thought there was something genuinely wrong with me,” said Baybayon, who is bisexual and a student at Marshall McLuhan Catholic High School in Toronto. “It just took me a while to realize that this is the person I am, that I’m part of this community and that I should be proud.”
Baybayon, 16, found the strength to turn personal struggle into advocacy. Now a student trustee on the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), he campaigned for the Pride flag to be raised at the board’s schools for all of June to mark Pride month. The motion to do so was passed last month.
Breaking with tradition, at least eight Catholic school boards in some of Ontario’s most populous areas have voted to do the same, which advocates say will help LGBTQ students feel more welcome. But there’s also been pushback, with some ordained members of the Church denouncing the decision, arguing it goes too far.
Baybayon says Catholic schools raising the Pride flag might help other LGBTQ students escape the personal turmoil he endured.
“It just shows their solidarity to other students like me,” he said. “Ensuring that our voices are heard, sharing that we’re well-represented and that we’re actually loved.”
‘A big step in the right direction’
Pride flags will fly at schools in several regions, including Toronto, Durham, Niagara, Waterloo and Wellington. In Ottawa, the flag will fly outside of the Catholic school board’s main office, with a plan for it to be flown at schools in future years.
Some schools will fly the Pride flag for the entire month while others will do so just for the first week.
The Thunder Bay District Catholic School Board and the Conseil scolaire de district catholique des Aurores boréales began the trend, first flying the Pride flag outside their main office buildings in 2019. Ontario is one of three provinces that fully funds the Catholic school system with taxpayer money; the others are Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Pride month commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City, a seminal moment in the fight for equal rights for LGBTQ people. The rainbow flag was created a decade later as a symbol of the community’s pride. It is flown by others as a symbol of support.
Social media on Tuesday morning showed photos and video of the Pride flag going up at several schools across the province.
Terry Finucan, a retired teacher who worked for the TCDSB for more than 30 years, said he never thought he’d see it fly in front of a Catholic school.
“This is a big step in the right direction,” said Finucan, who taught at St. Louis Catholic Elementary School in Etobicoke. “The fact that they’re putting it in front of every office, every school building in the school board — that is a big deal.”
Finucan, who is gay, said he considered switching to the public school board because of his sexual identity around the year 2000, about 16 years before he retired. But he chose to stay in an effort to help support LGBTQ students who didn’t feel comfortable at Catholic school.
“There weren’t a lot of allies there,” he said.
While Finucan says there is more work to be done to ensure LGBTQ students feel accepted, he said flying the Pride flag is a crucial step. He plans on watching the flag go up at the school where he taught.
“Moving forward, those students that have felt discounted — have felt bullied, have felt not included — have something to look forward to: to stay within the community that they’re growing up in and feel included.”
Some parents protest decision
But support for raising the flag at Catholic schools in Ontario has not been universal. The school board meetings where the votes took place were often fraught, with some clergy and some community members voicing opposition.
Catholic teachings say members of the LGBTQ community must be treated with dignity and respect, but the Vatican says sexual relations between people of the same sex are a sin.
Marcel Damphousse, the Archbishop of Ottawa-Cornwall, said he’s received dozens of emails from members of the area’s Catholic community who are angry over the decision.
“The parents — if they send their children to a Catholic school — they have expectations of receiving a Catholic education, according to our Catholic values,” he said. “Those are the ones that are sending me emails right now saying, ‘We’ve been hijacked.'”
Protests against the decision to allows schools to fly the flag took place outside some Catholic school board offices on Tuesday.
Damphousse says schools must be inclusive and ensure all students feel welcome, but argues that the Pride flag can represent a “lifestyle” not condoned by the Church.
“For them to say, ‘Well, I want to live a life according to what the gay Pride flag and movement promotes and says,’ well, I’m sorry, but that’s not in line with our Catholic teaching.
“You can be in our Catholic school. That’s a choice you make to come to our school, but know that we have certain values that we live by and that’s what we’ll be teaching.”
But Brendan Browne, the TCDSB’s director of education, says raising the Pride flag is the right thing to do.
“If this is something that makes even one student feel safe and feel included, this is something we’re committed to doing,” Browne said.
“If it makes a difference for even one student, it’s something that we’re really proud of.”
Boards vote against Pride flag
Several school boards have chosen not to raise the flag. Officials from the Windsor-Essex and Hamilton Catholic district schools boards both say the Canadian flag represents all Canadians, including LGBTQ communities.
A lengthy debate at a meeting of the Halton Catholic District School Board near Toronto last month led to a majority of trustees voting against the motion.
“I was actually kind of happy that they said no because it forced [Halton] trustees to take a stance,” said Nicole Hotchkiss, a Grade 12 student at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic School in Oakville, Ont., who first put forward the proposal in April.
“But obviously there was that sort of sadness that came with it of knowing that many trustees don’t want to support queer students in the way that we want to be supported.”
Hotchkiss, who is non-binary, says LGBTQ students can feel like schools want to keep them “hidden” without visible symbols of support — and that this moment represents a broader generational struggle at Catholic school boards.
“That external reminder is sort of to say, ‘We are proud of you. We’re not afraid of people knowing you exist … and that you come to our Catholic schools,'” they said. “Our generation is going to make that positive change.”
‘The whole point is showing love to your neighbour’
Marcos Fonseca, a Grade 11 student at Michael Power High School in Etobicoke, says raising the flag puts the TCDSB “on the right side of history.”
For Fonseca, 16, who is bisexual, seeing it there will mean a personal “sigh of relief,” after years of inner turmoil and difficulties with self-acceptance.
“Throughout my whole life, I’ve had so much internal anguish, internal conflict,” he said. “That is incredibly wrong — for a person to think they are not normal, to think that they’re not loved, to think that they’re less of a human in the environment that they’re in.”
He said raising the flag doesn’t diminish Catholicism — it highlights another side of it.
“Having a Pride flag up … doesn’t take away from anyone’s Catholicism. I’m a Catholic and that doesn’t take away from my Catholicism.
“The point is the solidarity. We don’t have to agree with what everyone says and that’s Catholic teaching,” he said.
“But the whole point is respect. The whole point is showing love to your neighbour.”