The statistics are staggering; nearly 40% of homeless youth in Canada identify as LGBTQ, despite only 5-10% of the general population identifying as LGBTQ. This number is a reflection of the many young people who have been kicked out of their homes, often due to their family’s rejection of their sexuality and/or gender identity.
Lorraine Gale, coordinator of the Out and Proud Program at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, understands this reality first-hand. Having developed the Out and Proud Affirmation Guidelines that provide an equity framework for gender and sexual diversity throughout the child welfare system, Gale says there’s still work left to be done when it comes to creating safe and inclusive spaces for youth in/from care. “We need to create the kind of environment where it’s [encouraged] to experiment with how we express our gender and think about our own identities,” says Gale. “Until we can shift the mindset and system, we need the support and programs to help our child welfare organizations do that. We don’t want to admit there’s bias out there – but there is.”
“There are often not a lot of opportunities for LGBTQ youth to go out and find safe spaces.”
Camryn, a former young person in care, current LGBTQ advocate, and Foundation scholarship recipient who identifies as transgender and uses “they/them” pronouns, has personal experience with these challenges. Entering care at the age of 13 due to abuse at home, they moved throughout multiple foster and group homes, before transitioning to independent living. “In terms of sexual orientation, I had that figured out when I was pretty young; my struggle was more with gender identity,” says Camryn. “I think it’s more difficult to come out when you have to come out to a new family or set of staff every three weeks; at that point it [feels like it’s] not worth it to come out, which I think caused my gender dysphoria to get a lot worse and led to some self-harm behaviours.”
Despite finally revealing to a foster parent that they thought they might be transgender, Camryn says their foster parent’s reaction was transphobic and only amplified traditional societal biases. “I’ve heard things like ‘you look better as a girl anyways’ and ‘[being transgender] doesn’t exist’,” Camryn says. “There are often not a lot of opportunities for LGBTQ youth to go out and find safe spaces.”
To help combat this lack of safe space, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto launched the annual Pride BBQ, funded through Children’s Aid Foundation. Designed to celebrate LGBTQ children, youth, foster and adoptive families, as well as allies, the event also provides an opportunity for youth who might be exploring their sexual and gender identities to meet others they can connect with. “It’s really not just a BBQ,” says Gale. “It’s an event where we can be openly celebratory and demonstrate what sexual and gender inclusion looks like.”
“How many people, who we might not even realize are LGBTQ, are we losing to suicide because they’ve been made to feel so ashamed of who they are?”
The BBQ also provides an opportunity to recognize young people, along with staff, volunteers, and foster parents, who are advocating for LGBTQ inclusion and education throughout their communities. Camryn was the recipient of this year’s Krin Zook PRIDE Youth Leadership Award for their outstanding advocacy, particularly through Ryerson University where they’re also currently studying Criminology. Recently, Camryn became the first ever transgender executive of the Ryerson Students’ Union, and has organized over 20 events for Ryerson’s LGBTQ community.
“Being able to access post-secondary education meant a lot of freedom for me,” says Camryn, who hopes to one day pursue a law career in criminal defense. “It was the first time I was able to access freedom, independence, and really come out as a transgender person by changing my name and beginning hormone therapy.” Adding that access to resources and activism spaces through school has been incredibly important, Camryn says that their Foundation scholarship has meant financial freedom and the ability to pursue interests and services — including counselling — that, otherwise, would simply not be available.
Acknowledging the probable over-representation of LGBTQ youth in care, Gale affirms that increased education throughout the child welfare community, and general public, is key to becoming a better ally. “There’s a growing willingness to accept [LGBTQ] education, but too often people stop there,” says Gale. “They don’t think ‘what do I have to change in my daily behaviour to create that inclusive, equitable environment for young people to explore their gender and sexual identity with support and affirmation? How do we ensure that the policy is consistent?'”
Gale adds that beyond creating more inclusive spaces, we also need to expand resources for LGBTQ youth who are exploring their identities in care. “Think about that youth in care,” says Gale. “They’re 13, their family has already rejected them, and then they’re in a foster home, and the foster home just doesn’t get it.” Adding that statistically speaking, “a lack of strong parental support for transgender youth will increase a suicide attempt within a year by 14 times” Gale emphasizes that programming and funding to support these young people simply doesn’t exist in many areas. “How many people, who might not even realize are LGBTQ, are we losing to suicide because they’ve been made to feel so ashamed of who they are?” Says Gale: “Young people’s lives are on the line.”