After putting the brakes on a drag event that was set to take place at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School in February, the Rainbow District School Board says it is gathering more information on the proposed show.
The show in question is called the Courage Across Canada Tour, and features Icesis Couture, winner of Canada’s Drag Race, along with other drag performers. It is presented by the International Day of Pink.
The tour will be visiting 10 communities, sharing drag and stories at local schools by day, and celebrating with free performances at local venues by night.
The Sudbury stop is on Feb. 10, with a show set to take place at Zig’s that evening.
The Courage Tour was also supposed to put on a show at Lo-Ellen on Feb. 10, but as of this point, the Rainbow board says the performance does not have its approval.
An online petition started by a Lo-Ellen student that demands that the Rainbow board reinstate the event had nearly 1,200 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
Sudbury.com reached out to the board for an interview on the situation and instead received an emailed written statement.
The board said the request to host the Courage Tour came to the board’s attention on Jan. 17.
“It was not forwarded for review and, therefore, was never approved before the actual planning for the event began,” said the statement.
Presentations must be considered before approval, the statement continues, which can include reviewing the proposed message and content and soliciting feedback from previous hosts of the proposed presentation.
“This may also include having appropriate resources in place for students who may need follow-up support. We have many requests to host a variety of presentations or events in many areas each year. Events must have an educational focus and be appropriate for educational settings,” the statement reads.
The board said it has not had the opportunity to review the Courage Tour for its educational component.
“As you can appreciate, we need to know more about the purpose, message, and content of this proposed presentation,” said the board’s statement.
The board said it continues to gather the information it needs to make a decision, something it anticipates is what parents expect, the board stated.
“At this time, we are gathering more information. Our students and families expect us to ensure presentations in educational settings are appropriately reviewed for their educational value. In this instance, our usual process must be followed before a decision is made. We appreciate the feedback that we have received.
“Our students and families are as committed to equity and inclusive education as we are and that certainly affirms the importance of our work in this area.”
Sudbury.com spoke with Ra’Jah Mohamed, the 16-year-old Grade 11 student who’s behind the petition.
He said the event was planned by a staff member at the school, although Mohamed, who’s the president of the Lo-Ellen’s student council, was also involved in the organization.
Mohamed said the event was proposed last fall “and supposedly approved in October. That’s the message we were all under the impression of, that it was approved.”
Given this situation, he said it was disappointing to learn the event was cancelled less than a month before it was supposed to take place.
“It felt like a slap in the face,” Mohamed said.
He said he’s now working with the school board to get the Courage Tour’s Lo-Ellen performance reinstated.
“But now, working with them, I'm gaining hope,” Mohamed said. “I'm very happy they're willing to work with us, they're willing to come to that goal with us. So I'm very happy by the outcome now, and that they're reconsidering, and that we’re able to work together.”
Mohamed said the show is important because there’s not a very big queer community at Lo-Ellen, although he does add the school has a gay-straight alliance.
“The queer students here, they really need queer representation,” he said.
Sudbury.com also spoke to Patrick Barnholden, who retired from Lo-Ellen this past June after teaching there for 20 years.
Barnholden, the winner of the Stonewall Award for 2SLGBTQIA+ Action, organized the first Gay-Straight Alliance in Northern Ontario at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School in 2006.
He also organized the board’s first Dare to Stand Out Conference in 2009, which evolved into Free to Be Me, a two-day, board-wide conference for students that explores LGTBQ2S issues.
Barnholden said the educational value of events such as the Courage drag show is to “expose students to more of what's out there in the real world.”
He said the show’s cancellation is “absolutely unfortunate.”
Barnholden said a former principal of Lo-Ellen used to say that parents send the most precious thing in the world to them to school every day — their kids.
“Primarily, they expect us to keep their kids safe, right?” he said. “Because of the actions of the board around this, I am sure there are lots of kids in our schools today who are feeling less safe. The board needs to fix this.”
The statement from the Rainbow board highlighted the board’s support of LGTBQ2S students, including its Free to be Me Conference, which takes place this year on March 30 (for grades 7-8) and April 27 (grades 9-12).
It also takes part in community events such as the Classroom Closet conference, which takes place Feb. 17.
“We were among the first school boards to have Gay-Straight Alliances in all of our secondary schools,” said the school board statement.
“Part of our work in equity is to build strong allies as we create inclusive school communities where everyone can be their authentic selves.
“We are very proud of our work in equity and inclusive education and will continue to foster welcoming and accepting environments for all of our students.”
The Rainbow board’s actions surrounding the Courage drag tour come at a time when drag performers have faced protests.
“You're looking at places like Florida and Texas, which is like the epicentre of where that stuff is happening now, with the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida and stuff like this,” said Barnholden.
“A central area of the attack on queer people in general is this attack on drag.”
Earlier this month, a protest was planned in Sault Ste. Marie after the Sault library announced that a pair of local drag performers would be hosting a drag story time for kids.
The situation at Lo-Ellen is "incredibly unfortunate, because, you know, you want to be on the right side of history on this stuff,” Barnholden said. “Some of our students do drag, right? They need to feel that's OK.”
Heidi Ulrichsen is Sudbury.com’s associate content editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.