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A safe place: Hamilton Catholic high school raises Pride flag

Father Jarek Pachocki brought Ted Lasso’s message of acceptance – 'We don't NOT care' – to Bishop Ryan’s ceremony.

June 1 was a day of many premiere experiences at Hamilton’s Bishop Ryan (BR) Catholic Secondary School.

It was the first time Celtic FREE (Fostering Respect, Equality and Experience), a BR student-driven group, celebrated Pride by hosting other 2SLGBTQI+ positive space alliances from sibling schools Cardinal Newman, Cathedral, and St. Jean de Brebeuf.

While it was the second time the Pride flag was raised in the school’s history, it was the first time people could be present in person. To double the love, BR’s locale makes it such that two flag poles are available to flaunt their stuff, so it was raised twice.

For most of the 100 or so students who braved the record-setting heat to come outside and watch the rainbow colours flank their school just under Canada’s red-and-white, it was a first. Many of them are just wrapping up their first year of high school this month.

Teacher librarian Andrea Luci, left, with two of the Cathedral students she accompanied to the flag raising, Sal and Lisa. Sal is proudly draped in the Intersex flag.

One of Celtic FREE’s student leaders in their final year, Aiden Perry, hoisted the flag at what is seen as the back of the school, but as principal Michael Lawlor was happy to point out, this is a spot with high visibility. Dozens of buses and hundreds of cars drive right past this flag pole each and every day as they deliver and receive their precious human cargo.

As we stood in a circle listening to scripture readings and prayers emphasizing God’s love for everyone, some louder voices with a negative message prevailed from a passing car. Teachers and VPs were on it immediately. Students who had heard the taunting sounds expressed appreciation knowing there was a swift reaction.

Before teacher Chad Pilon rocked out a closing hymn on his guitar with choruses of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” most participants were introduced to Ted Lasso for the first time.

As Father Jarek Pachocki stepped up to the mic in his cleric’s shirt and collar, I felt jealous I hadn’t dressed for the weather like he did, in his khaki shorts and sandals. When Jarek queried the crowd as to whether anyone watched Lasso, the popular show streamed on Apple TV, only a couple of hands went up.

The show has been flagged as “entercation” – entertainment that educates – particularly on mental health, LGBTQ inclusion, and toxic masculinity. Jarek, also an entercater, set up the story of Ted Lasso, the American football coach from Kansas, who moved to England to coach a would-be Premier League football (known as soccer on this side of the pond) team there. The hilarity was self-evident.

When one of the players chooses the locker room to come out as gay to his teammates, he hears what many friends often think is a supportive response, “It’s OK. We don’t care!”

Ted follows with one of his long, yet always right-on-the-money stories, ending with his pithy, Kansan sagacity, “We don’t NOT care.”

Click here for a video of the Pride flag-raising

Back inside the BR library, the students rotated between three concurrent sessions. Charles Lu, a Newman graduate and fashion designer, and I were guest speakers, while BR student Aidan Perry led a Pride banner craft. Christina Scarpetta, Celtic FREE teacher-advisor, made it a super-organized, student-led event.

I have attended Pride flag-raisings for close to two decades now and each one has moved me for myriad reasons. This year, in the face of multiple jurisdictions both near and far, banning even the most banal of supportive measures to 2SLGBTQI+ people in their midst, marking Pride 2023, in ways big and small, matters.

After a student stood beside me for a selfie, I heard her say, “I feel so safe here.” I was glad she wasn’t returning to the school where we’d already heard there had been an incident of Pride flag vandalism at lunch that day. That school’s teacher-advisor made a commitment to the students to facilitate a meeting with the principal when they returned so he could hear how this act made them feel and what would help going forward.

In the same way Father Jarek echoed Ted Lasso saying, “We see you,” and “We don’t NOT care,” the students can now say, “we are seen and we know you care.”

Now comes the work the flag points us to, to make sure every student can say, “I feel so safe here.”

Then they can get on to the business of learning and becoming who they are called to be.

The group from Brébeuf (SJB) poses with Father Jarek Pachocki before the flag-raising ceremony.

Deirdre Pike is a queer and practicing Catholic who lives in Hamilton’s Strathcona neighbourhood with her partner Renée Wetselaar and feline kids, Shazoo and Ella. Her columns will appear regularly in HAMILTON CITY Magazine.