For the many years she spent at a Christian private school in British Columbia, Phoenix tried to hide who she was. She wore baggy clothes, avoided activities she loved like singing, and kept her head down. But the school atmosphere was toxic, she said.
“One teacher in particular, I remember her saying that gay people are the reason that sexually transmitted diseases exist,” said Phoenix. “And Sodom and Gomorrah were full of gay people, and that’s why God destroyed them.”
(With their permission, we have changed the names of the youth in this story for privacy. We are using their preferred pronouns as well. Two youth use multiple pronouns, but for the sake of clarity in this article we are using one preferred pronoun each.)
Phoenix didn’t come out until she was 18. In addition to being gay and one of the few black kids in her community, Phoenix had learning disabilities.
The combination exposed her to name-calling and harassment, in and out of school. “On top of all this homophobic bullshit, it definitely helped catapult me into a lot of depression and mental illness,” Phoenix reflected.
Phoenix’s experience growing up gay in B.C. was extremely tough. Living in a small community and being “different” in so many ways may have compounded her challenges.
But Phoenix found solace in her devout Christian parents, who love her for who she is. Although more study is needed, preliminary research out of the United States and Canada links positive health outcomes for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirited (LGBTQ2S+) youth whose parents are supportive of their kids’ sexuality and gender identity.
On the flip side, kids who face backlash, or even just a lack of acknowledgement from their parents, are more likely to report depression, unprotected sex, and alcohol and drug misuse.
Overall, there are signs that things are improving for queer youth in B.C. The past 30 years have seen advances in helping LGBTQ2S+ people feel “free to be who they are.”
Those efforts include legalizing LGBTQ2S+ adoption and marriage and new workplace discrimination protections. Public schools have LGBTQ2S+ positive books and resources, and all but one of B.C.’s 60 public school districts and all its independent schools have anti-homophobia policies.
But Phoenix isn’t alone in feeling unwelcome in her community, and youth still report harassment and bullying. There’s more work to be done.
The 2014 Homeless and Street-Involved Youth Survey conducted by the McCreary Centre Society found almost 40 per cent of homeless youth surveyed across the province were LGBTQ2S+ — eight times their five per cent representation in the general population.
They’re also more likely to be assaulted, experience poor mental health, hurt themselves and consider suicide, the McCreary survey found.
Even efforts to celebrate sexual diversity, like rainbow-painted crosswalks adopted in some municipalities, can backfire.
Phoenix said as “one of the more flamboyant, openly queer people” in her community, she was the target of more harassment from people who opposed the rainbow crosswalk in town.
Still, University of British Columbia nursing professor Elizabeth Saewyc says things have improved for LGBTQ2S+ youth in B.C. since she started researching their well-being nearly 20 years ago.
Saewyc’s research has shown rates of self-harm and bullying have decreased. All but one of the province’s 60 school districts now have policies protecting LGBTQ2S+ youth from bullying and harassment — the Nisga’a School District is in the process of revising its policy handbook — and almost half of B.C.’s over 300 high schools have gay-straight alliances.
Last September, the province required all school districts and independent schools to have specific LGBTQ2S+ anti-bullying policies.
“Twenty years ago, that really wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” said Saewyc, who also serves as research director for the McCreary Centre Society and executive director of UBC’s Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre.
But the good news isn’t evenly distributed. For reasons Saewyc still doesn’t understand, the decrease in self-harm and bullying experienced by gay boys hasn’t happened for bisexual and lesbian girls. Nor is there enough research on trans youth to know how they’re doing.
And there are still spaces, both rural and urban, where it isn’t always safe to be LGBTQ2S+ in B.C.
Even in presumed liberal enclaves like Vancouver, updating the school board’s 10 year-old LGBTQ2S+ youth inclusion policy a few years ago brought homophobia and transphobia to the surface.
“There was a sudden controversy and a whole lot of hearings where people brought a lot of negative comments to a changing policy that was in line with human rights law,” Saewyc said. “Clearly there are places in the community that still have different perspectives or need further awareness about Canada’s human rights code.”
The problem with ‘passing’
Near the end of grade school, Phoenix opted for home schooling and enrolled in the musical theatre program at a public high school. Had she attended that school instead of her conservative private school, her experience might have been more positive.
But that wasn’t always the case for LGBTQ2S+ youth at B.C. public schools.
A lot has changed since the mid-2000s when art teacher Perry Rath helped start the school’s first gay-straight alliance, an LGBTQ2S+ safe space club now known as the Gender Sexuality Alliance at Smithers Secondary in Smithers, B.C.
During the group’s first meeting in the art room, students wanted the blinds drawn so no one knew they were part of the club.
“Kids weren’t comfortable coming out in that environment,” Rath said, when calls of “that’s so gay!” and “Don’t be a fag!” often rang through the halls. Teachers knew it was wrong, but were at a loss as to how to deter students.
The words doubtless hurt kids who passed as straight, but they stayed under the radar. Those who didn’t, Rath said, “probably felt that high school was pretty torturous.”
The GSA wasn’t just a place to seek solace with progressive peers, though. Members wanted to make a difference in the school’s atmosphere. Their response — “slurring tickets” handed to students who said something homophobic, explaining why their words were no longer acceptable.
It was a risky gambit. “You’d think someone would get that and rip it up and say, ‘that’s gay!’ anyway,” Rath said.
But surprisingly, it worked.
“I guess it was the right timing, the right kids, and a certain momentum began to build,” Rath recalled. After a while teachers started ticketing offenders, too.
Today, students still report occasional slurs muttered under the breath, but it’s a big change from a decade ago.
A similar cultural shift in how kids talk to each other has happened in Sa-Hali Secondary School in Kamloops, where the re-education process has been more ad hoc.
“It’s become habit reduction,” said teacher Mike Koppes. Kids now more often voice gender slurs out of ignorance than out of homophobia, he says, and back down when called out by teachers. “And kids are calling it out more than they used to.”
As noted earlier, nearly all of B.C. school districts now have policies highlighting homophobia and transphobia as unacceptable.
Some district policies put sexual orientation and gender diversity on a long list of human rights protections that also include gender, sex, religion and race. Others, like the Vancouver school district’s, specifically address the safety and security of LGBTQ2S+ youth in schools.
While some policies are more complete than others, their mere existence seems to help. A McCreary Centre review of 12 North American studies on the presence of gay-straight alliances and LGBTQ2S+ positive policies in schools found they correlated with improved mental health, reduced substance abuse, and fewer suicide attempts for all students, regardless of their sexuality.
Gender-neutral bathrooms in schools have provoked controversy. But at Sa-Hali, there was no backlash when the school opted to make staff washrooms gender-neutral and open to students.
“There was no announcement, we just took the [gendered] sign off,” said teacher counsellor Joanne Simpson, adding the school got more blowback for putting a free pad- and tampon-vending machine in the halls.
The positive effects of gender and orientation-inclusive policies and gay-straight alliances can ripple out to the wider community, too. Rath knows one gay couple that moved to Smithers after discovering the high school had a GSA.
“[They] thought, ‘OK, there must be a queer-positive aspect in this community,’” said Rath. That may be strengthened this year, he adds. The school’s gay-straight alliance hopes to create a community-wide group, to support LGBTQ2S+ people outside its walls.
Safe, but still quiet
Unlike Phoenix, Andrew, 14, is still in school. A Grade 9 student, Andrew, who prefers male pronouns, hasn’t come out to everyone in the school. But he knows his “face full of makeup” is a clue to his sexuality.
“I’ve been very lucky to not have bad experiences in the school with people saying things,” he said. “But just walking down the street or going to the store, I’ll get looks.”
Having open-minded and supportive parents has helped Andrew establish a strong foundation of self-esteem, which allows him to have compassion for people who give him funny looks. He believes one reason people fear LGBTQ2S+ individuals is their invisibility in the school system.
“People say don’t judge a book by a cover, but it’s hard. You’re not going to be the one who stands up and talks to the boy in makeup, or the girl with the crazy high heels, or the kid wearing the giant black trench coat, because it’s just not what you’re used to,” he said.
“I feel like if it were more present in a classroom, that kids would be more open to the idea of different sexualities and genders.”
Safe Spaces tries to change that. A program run by Interior Community Services in Kamloops, Safe Spaces offers youth 12 to 26 a place to meet with other LGBTQ2S+ people to talk and hang out.
Safe Spaces’ location isn’t publicized to protect youths’ identities, so program co-ordinator Krista Gallant visits schools in the Interior to talk to students about LGBTQ2S+ issues. Gallant passes out her business card so students can contact her with questions they’re not comfortable asking in class.
“They don’t have to worry about outing themselves. They can just start the process and we can talk.” If youth aren’t comfortable coming to Safe Spaces, she says, she’ll hang out with them one-on-one or engage through email and text.
Like Andrew, Gallant agrees there isn’t enough LGBTQ2S+ content in the school curriculum. Even though most districts have non-discrimination policies, the curriculum remains mostly straight.
Not even sex education addresses LGBTQ2S+ issues. “There won’t even be a mention of other sexualities and other genders, so [students are] left going, ‘what about us?’” she said.
Trusted adults needed
Like any young person stumbling towards adulthood, LGBTQ2S+ youth need trusted adults in their lives. Youth workers like Gallant, and teachers like Rath, Simpson and Koppes help fill that role. But in smaller communities in particular, youth can feel deeply isolated.
Ashley knows what that feels like. They spent four and a half months homeless on Davie Street in downtown Vancouver in late 2014. Just 20 years old at the time, Ashley had come out as gay the year before and left home in the suburbs after a negative family reaction.
“When I originally came out as a gay male, I got the stereotypical lecture: ‘AIDS kills!’” said Ashley, now 23.
Thanks to a combination of high housing costs and bad roommates, Ashley moved at least four times in the year before becoming homeless. After almost five months on the streets, Ashley found transitional housing, then permanent housing in 2016.
Despite tensions, Ashley stayed in touch with family after leaving home. Then, last year, Ashley came out again, refining their label of choice to non-binary — meaning their gender is neither entirely male nor female — queer, two-spirited female.
“That’s when family kind of left me,” Ashley said.
Even though their school did have a gay-straight alliance and has since passed an LGBTQ2S+ policy, it was only after moving to Vancouver that Ashley found supportive adults. An ex-partner’s mother, a youth worker, and friends helped fill the family-sized hole that opened after they came out the second time.
Now Ashley plans to become a youth worker, and be that supportive adult for other queer youth.
“From my own personal experience, and talking amongst my friends, we know what’s needed: more support, and people who ‘get it.’” In particular, LGBTQ2S+ youth need LGBTQ2S+ adults who can “walk the walk with them.”
Phoenix wants a Safe Spaces equivalent in her community. “To have a building where you can come and hang out with others, do your arts and crafts, read, whatever. But just not feel that there’s a possibility that you would get harassed or hurt,” she said.
Rainbow crosswalks are a start. But if LGBTQ2S+ youth are really to feel free to be who they are in B.C. communities, nothing will speak louder than providing the support, space, and safety that are required for queer kids to actually be themselves.