“They called me the devil incarnate”: Meet the Toronto teacher advocating for Pride flags in Catholic schools
Paolo De Buono is determined to make Catholic school boards more welcoming to LGBTQ students. It’s going to take more than one out-of-control meeting to discourage him
On Tuesday evening, a York Catholic District School Board meeting grew heated over a debate about whether to raise the Pride flag in schools in June. Parents opposing the suggestion chanted homophobic slogans and shouted angrily, dispersing only when police were called. It was the third meeting in a row where board members requested police intervention to deal with attendees. Paolo De Buono, a teacher at the Toronto Catholic District School Board and a resident of York Region, has spent the past four years trying to get Catholic school boards in Ontario to be more inclusive. Here, he weighs in on what happened at this week’s meeting, the rising tide of LGBTQ hate and how we can make our schools safer.
You’re a teacher with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. What brought you to a board meeting for York Region’s Catholic schools?
My children were students in that school board as recently as last year. But, more broadly speaking, I’ve been promoting 2SLGBTQI inclusion in Catholic school boards for years. I’ve tried to spread awareness about the homophobic messages in Fully Alive, a series of sex-ed textbooks that are still used in many Catholic schools. I’ve also started gender-sexuality alliances and led teacher workshops focused on books dealing with 2SLGBTQI issues. I had intended to speak at this most recent meeting to encourage the board to fly the Pride flag in June for Pride month, but I was told at the last minute that I couldn’t. It seems to me that flying the flag is a really easy way to show support for queer students. It’s a symbol of celebration.
Related: Historical photos of Toronto Pride parades over the years
School board meetings are known for being pretty dry affairs. I understand this one was different.
Early on in the meeting, one young speaker, a recent YCDSB high school graduate, claimed that, when students suffer “confusion” about their gender identities or sexual orientations, their “souls are in jeopardy.” That got other like-minded audience members riled up, and they began chanting things like “Groomer!” and continued to shout in the lobby after they were asked to leave. All the while, students inside were trying to share why it was important for the board to celebrate Pride. Some of them were crying. When I went out into the lobby, people who recognized me from my advocacy work started yelling, “Shame!” and calling me “the devil incarnate.”
Is this kind of attitude typical of the YCDSB?
It’s ironic, because 10 years ago, the board was one of the first in Ontario to comply with the Accepting Schools Act, which requires school boards to prevent and address inappropriate behaviour or bullying among students. They were proud of that back then. When I first started advocating for more inclusion in Catholic boards, I was holding up York as a positive example. But they’ve fallen behind.
At a previous board meeting in March, attendees were angry about the presence of rainbow “safe space” stickers in schools. But those stickers aren’t new: they’ve been available to York Catholic teachers since 2013. Why are Pride flags and rainbow stickers suddenly a problem?
These reactions stem from the growing hate that we’re seeing online and broader attacks on 2SLGBTQI rights in the US, where lawmakers are trying to limit health care and ban books in the name of protecting children. Disruptive attendees at YCDSB meetings claim to be looking out for kids, but as trustee Jennifer Wigston pointed out this week, they’re not protecting children when they show up and yell. They’re bullying them.
Contrary to what some of your online trolls believe, you’re straight. Why have you chosen to champion queer and trans rights?
I practised law before I became a teacher, so I was attuned to the importance of human rights. When I started looking at the Catholic school board curriculum more closely, I noticed a disconnect. We talked about racism and other forms of oppression, but we never talked about homophobia or transphobia. It’s important to discuss these things in school because I have an obligation to protect my students from bullying. And I want to show them positive things too. During Black History Month, for example, we always discuss historical figures, and that now includes some queer Black heroes.
Curricula aren’t transformed overnight. How do you work within the status quo until that happens?
I teach as much of the Catholic curriculum as I can. I just won’t teach the few parts that conflict with my students’ innate human rights. For example, I don’t teach that there are only two genders or that students have to identify with the gender they were assigned when they were born. And I don’t teach that marriage or sexual intimacy are only for heterosexual couples.
How complicated is it for queer or trans teachers in Catholic schools who want to do the same type of advocacy work that you do?
Well, look at the hate I get. I think a lot of people are afraid to disclose their sexualities or gender identities because of the potential backlash they may face. Being openly queer can also have professional repercussions. When an educator applies to become a principal in the Catholic board, for example, they need to get a reference from a priest. Some parishes won’t offer them to people who are openly queer.
How do you remain optimistic in the face of all this pushback?
I feel hopeful when teachers in other Catholic schools or school boards come looking for advice on starting Gay-Straight Alliances, or when recent graduates tell me that certain classes or clubs affected them positively. Students give me the most hope of all. Like the ones on Tuesday night who stood up for their rights and explained why celebrating Pride was important to them. They got up there and they shined.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.