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How We Care for, and Support, Queer Youth

Today is International Non-Binary People’s Day. In honour of this day, we thought that providing an understanding of who 2SLGBTQAI+ youth are, where they come from, and embracing their differences, is an important part of creating a welcoming environment where they can thrive. All of which starts with language and identity.

Non-binary: A collection, continuum, or spectrum of gender identities and expressions, often based on the rejection of the assumption that gender is strictly an either/or option of male/men or female/women, based on the sex assigned to a person at birth. Some non-binary individuals may also hold trans identities, but the terms non-binary and trans are distinct and should not be used interchangeably.

2S/Two-Spirit: An umbrella term used by many Indigenous communities on Turtle Island (what is referred to as North America) to describe people with diverse gender identities, gender expressions, gender roles, and sexual orientations. Two-Spirit people were included and respected in most Indigenous communities, sometimes considered sacred and highly revered. They often took on important roles as healers, mediators, and warriors. It is a term that should only be used by Indigenous people.

Lesbian: A woman who experiences romantic or sexual attraction primarily to other women.

Gay: Someone who is primarily attracted to those of the same gender; often used when referring to men.

Bisexual: Someone who is romantically, emotionally, or sexually attracted to more than one gender, or one’s own gender and other genders. A bi person may feel equally attracted to many genders, or may experience stronger attractions to one gender while still having feelings for others. This ratio of attraction may vary over time.

Transgender: Frequently abbreviated to trans, this is an umbrella term for a wide range of experiences and identities for people whose affirmed gender does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth. Being trans is something that can only be decided by an individual for themselves and does not depend on external criteria, such as surgery or hormone treatments.

Queer: An umbrella term used to refer to the spectrum of non-heterosexual and/or non-cisgender people. It also provides a convenient shorthand for the acronym 2SLGBTQAI+. It is important to note that this is a reclaimed term that was, and sometimes still is, used as a hate term, and thus some people feel uncomfortable with it.

Questioning: A term sometimes used by those in the process of exploring personal understandings of their own sexual orientation and/or gender identity, as well as those choosing not to use another, more specific label.

Asexual: Someone who does not experience sexual attraction to others. Sexual attraction is different from romantic attraction. Asexuality can be considered a spectrum, with some asexual people experiencing desire for varying types of physical intimacy. This desire may fluctuate over time or by person.

Intersex: General term used for a variety of features in which a person is born with, or develops, reproductive or sexual anatomy, genetic makeup, or hormonal levels that do not seem to fit the current, “typical” definitions of male or female. Intersex has replaced the term hermaphrodite, which is widely considered to be outdated, inaccurate, and offensive. An intersex person may or may not also be part of the trans community; however, the terms intersex and trans are distinct and should not be used interchangeably.

Cisgender: A gender identity that society considers to “match” the biological sex assigned to someone at birth.

Why Trans Advocacy Is Important

There is a great deal of misinformation in the world when it comes to the lived experience of trans youth. Most of these trans youth experience barriers that may not even occur to non-trans folks. The challenges they face range from day-to-day issues to incredibly serious discrimination and abuse. For instance, imagine trying to use a public washroom as a trans person when only binary “men’s” and “women’s” options are available. Trans youth can face transphobia when looking for housing and mistrust can accompany that phobia, so trans youth may lose out to other applicants.

Receiving an income assistance cheque, filling out a job application, and getting a driver’s license, all require your legal name, so trans youth are constantly being reminded about the person and the life that they no longer identify with. The cost of legally changing your name and identity is often out of reach for many trans youth.

Being misgendered and not having pronouns respected is also a regular experience for trans people, and can lead to feelings of alienation and rejection. Trans youth often end up on the street because they are literally rejected by their families.

Statistics on the trans rates of suicide or trans rates of homicide show that it really is a matter of life and death to understand and accept trans people. For instance, in a Canadian survey of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, age 14–25, 64% of participants reported that they had seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months1. For these reasons, and so many more, it’s imperative that the general population strive to understand and respect the experiences of trans people.

How We Support 2SLGBTQAI+ Youth at Covenant House

Every young person who comes to Covenant House Vancouver does so for complex and highly personal reasons, which is why we’ve adopted a one-size-fits-one style of personalized care.

That said, some populations are overrepresented, both on the streets of Vancouver, and in our care. The 2SLGBTQAI+ community is one of those groups — these youth have often been rejected by their communities simply because they’ve taken the courageous step to show up in the world exactly as they are.

The trauma from this kind of rejection, coupled with the unique challenges of being precariously housed or without a home, leaves youth in this community vulnerable and in need of specific supports. Through a variety of therapeutic and extra-curricular services and activities, we strive to show 2SLGBTQAI+ youth that they are safe and loved.

The Rainbow Advisory Committee (RAC)
The Rainbow Advisory Committee is comprised of 2SLGBTQAI+ staff from various roles and departments at Covenant House Vancouver. The committee acts as an advisory group to management and exists to ensure that youth from the 2SLGBTQAI+ population are being served well by the agency, and provided with the care and support they need to heal from their unique traumas. The group was formed in 2018 as a response to the increasing overrepresentation of 2SLGBTQAI+ youth, both on the streets and in our care.

Mental Health Care and Community-Specific Art Therapy
Art therapy is one of the cornerstones of mental health care at Covenant House Vancouver. It’s been shown to reduce the impacts of trauma and help young people process complex experiences. The vast majority of youth we serve at CHV have experienced significant trauma, and 2SLGBTQAI+ youth have often suffered very unique and particular forms of trauma because they have been ostracized by those closest to them. By offering specific art therapy sessions (both group and individual), we provide young people with the tools they need to manage their own mental health. Art therapy also creates an opportunity for youth to form deep-rooted and healing relationships and a renewed sense of community.

Partnership with QMUNITY
Partnership with other agencies is an important component of the work we do at CHV. We understand that sharing resources across the city is one way to better serve youth. One of our strongest partnerships, especially for 2SLGBTQAI+ youth, is with QMUNITY, a drop-in resource centre that provides specific services for this population. In addition to providing referrals for our young people to utilize QMUNITY’s resources, we’ll also be hosting a series of employment and employee rights workshops, specifically for 2SLGBTQAI+ youth, in our new Drake St. Building.

Participation in Pride
In 2022, we participated in the Vancouver Pride Parade as a way to signal to all 2SLGBTQAI+ youth that we are committed to vocal and visible allyship. Our van was decorated entirely by youth art from art therapy sessions in the month leading up to the event. We also hosted a booth that celebrated the strengths and accomplishments of queer youth at Covenant House, instead of focusing on the challenges they face. The event was an incredibly joyous and empowering celebration, and one that we will return to every other year moving forward.

Making Space to be Seen, Heard, and Celebrated
Being seen, heard, and celebrated for exactly who you are is something many 2SLGBTQAI+ youth have never experienced. To foster community and a general sense of acceptance, we offer events, workshops, outings, and services across our programs, specifically for this community. Creativity, play, and fun are also a big part of these offerings — a reminder that, despite hardship, queer youth deserve to celebrate who they are and find their own unique expressions of joy.

Events include:

  • Queer art therapy sessions
  • 2SLGBTQAI+ volunteers, particularly for outings in the community and fitness classes
  • A subscription to OUT TV in our lounges, to promote visibility
  • 2SLGBTQAI+ nights at our Drop-In Centre that include spa treatments, boardgame tournaments, and other fun activities
  • Drag Art Therapy Sessions hosted in the Crisis Program

If you listen to the 2SLGBTQAI+ community, they will tell you what they need to thrive in this world.