Imagine sitting in a room with 70 people and realizing they deal with the same struggles you do everyday.
Students from Hope Secondary School, including Isabella Dagnino, Leo Clark and Patrick Fazarri, experienced this while attending the third annual C.A.L.L. Out Vancouver Youth Leadership Conference from March 19 to 22. The four-day retreat was sponsored by Vancouver Coastal Health for 50 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (LGBTQ) youth from across British Columbia.
The conference was originally developed to be a space where youth can be who they are without the intolerance that many of them are subjected to at school. One way that students expressed themselves was through clothing.
“Many people make attending events such as these their opportunity to wear things that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable wearing at school in terms of gender expression,” said Kyle Shaughnessy, who organized the event and has been to Hope Secondary on two occasions, once to address the students and the second to address community members. Shaughnessy also stressed that not trying to fix anyone was crucial to the conference’s atmosphere. He explained, “don’t try to fix somebody as if, there is something wrong with them. It’s a really negative-based thing to assume and that a) it’s your job to do anything and b) that there’s something wrong with them.”
For a lot of the youth, the retreat has become more than just an expressive setting for them.
“Something that I think a lot of us face when we’re not in spaces such as this conference is that we get hit with a lot of people’s, more often than not, wrong assumptions about us,” Shaughnessy said.
For many attendees, it has become a safe forum, a place where they’re able to discuss issues surrounding the LGBTQ community and more importantly, what it means to be who they are there.
During the four days, youth, along with 20 adult volunteers, participated in five different workshops. The power and diversity workshop gave the youth a chance to talk about what they enjoy the most about their “Queer Community.” One of the most common answers from the students was the sense of belonging that they felt, which came from the shared experiences they had with people in their community.
When asked what he most enjoyed about the four days, Fazzari said, “the fact that everyone is capable of bonding with each other right away and you get to learn the perspectives of others in a healthy environment.” Fazzari is the co-president of Hope Secondary’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and the other students who attended from Hope are all members of the lunchtime club.
At the beginning of 2012, the GSA was created by a small group of students who were feeling bullied because of their sexual orientation. These students felt having an inclusive club would help them get away from the prejudice that they were being faced with daily.
“It exists to be a safe place for LGBTQ kids and allies to get together and prove that there is such a thing as a confidential space for people to come out,” said Fazzari, adding that many of the members felt alienated by their classmates and the GSA provided an inclusive refuge for them.
Since it’s creation, the GSA has made a difference in the atmosphere at the local high school. Together, they have successfully helped add LGBTQ-friendly language to the school district’s anti-bullying policy, helped in Anti-Bullying Day and have collaborated with the Tea Club to hold social events. They also plan to reach out to others who identify as LGBTQ in Hope, as a way to create a more prevalent “Queer Community” in the town.
One of the club’s most valuable assets is their allies, who are often peers, teachers, family and community members. Half of the GSA are considered allies too.
“Allies are the most important people to have around during difficult times for queer youth. You know that they’re always there to love and support you, even in your worst moments,” explained Fazzari. “The best feeling is knowing that there’s always someone, whether it’s in your school or around the community, who will accept you for who you are because really, we’re all allies in whatever struggle we’re going through. The common denominator here is that no matter what we’re all humans and we all deserve to be loved.”