Editor's note: This story mentions suicde. (For immediate crisis support, go here.)
Squamish has a rainbow sidewalk downtown, and the Pride flag is raised annually above muni hall, but how supported are local queer youth?
Community support matters.
A recent B.C. study found that lesbian gay and bisexual youths’ suicidal thoughts decline with community support.
The University of British Columbia school of nursing research, based on data from the 2013 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, found that the more supportive places or environments within a community, the less likely sexual minority youth — particularly lesbian and bisexual girls — were to have suicidal thoughts or attempts, or to self-harm than their counterparts in communities with such supports.
According to the study, “in Canada, suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among youth aged 15–24 years, representing one of the leading causes of youth fatality."
Supportive environments include Pride events, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, Anti-Bullying Day and PFLAG meetings supporting parents, families and friends of LGBTQI2S+ youth, bars and coffee shops, art activities and groups, advocacy organizations, social meet-ups and adolescent and young adult health supports, among others.
“All of these things together send a message in a community and demonstrate there are places where [LGBTQI2S+] youth are welcome and they’re safe,” UBC lead researcher Elizabeth Saewyc told Glacier Media.
“You’re part of the community. You matter. Let’s celebrate you. We support you.”
Squamish's Sheila David-Itittakoose says one thing that would make lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer —or questioning— intersex, and two-spirit (LGBTQI2S+) youth in Squamish feel more safe and welcome is seeing more stickers on the windows of businesses showing that the establishment is a safe space for them.
Squamish Public Library staff, for example, have created an inclusive welcome sign for the front entrance that acknowledges the library is an inclusive space for everyone.
"I really like it when I go into places and I see those LGBT-safe stickers, 'cause I know for a fact that nobody in here is going to judge me. I can just be myself," they said.
David-Itittakoose identifies as non-binary — two-spirited — and prefers the pronoun 'they,' thus we are using that pronoun here.
David-Itittakoose, 18, grew up in Squamish and says they found acceptance within their family when they came out at age 13.
"I was lucky enough to come from a very accepting family but did have a lot of struggles with people not understanding. People telling me to go back into the closet, with people telling me I was too young to decide.
"I am comfortable with it, but very nitpicky about who I tell and what I say."
David-Itittakoose said that there are many other youth in town who don't have it as good.
What is also lacking in Squamish is a safe space for queer youth to gather, David-Itittakoose said.
"To feel safe, whatever they identify as, whatever they are."
A new youth hub that promises to be inclusive is coming, slated for the ground floor of the soon-to-be-under-construction Buckley Affordable Housing Project by the District and BC Housing.
Squamish was selected as one of eight communities to open a new $1.6-million Foundry Centre, which will offer a space of youth's own and services for youth mental health and wellness.
"It is a really fantastic model," said Cydney Lyons, the new manager of youth services at Sea to Sky Community Services. "The intention is to one, break down those barriers to access mental health and clinical services for youth, but also offer a place that is accepting, that is fun to hang out in that doesn't feel institutional and just makes everything really easy to access, but comfortable as well. It can also be a sort of hang out."
(There will be a town hall for community input about the Foundry Centre on Sept. 11 and 12.)
The centre is slated to open in 2021.
David-Itittakoose's would also like to see more open discussion of LGBTQI2S+ realities and issues in the public school system.
Throughout school, all the records identified David-Itittakoose as 'girl' and 'she.'
"I don't care, but I know a lot of people who do care, and I just think we should integrate people's gender identities into our school system," they said.
David-Itittakoose's advice for other youth struggling today is to own their identity, whatever it is.
"Being LGBT is learning to overcome stuff. The world throws a lot on our shoulders and just being strong and knowing who you are and owning it can be the most powerful weapon against any sort of discrimination, any sort of bad situation people have," they said.
The points made by David-Itittakoose are echoed in other surveys of youth done in Squamish.
The 2019 District of Squamish What We Heard report gathered feedback from Squamish youth who also said there is a lack of facilities for them in town.
It also found there are not enough resources for youth in crisis or accessible health clinics (mental health services, substance abuse programs, drop-in clinics, etc).
A need for more readily available LGBTQI2S+ programs and services was also identified.
Sea to Sky Community Services
With the Squamish Youth Centre closing this past spring, due to the state of the dilapidated building, at almost the same time as COVID became a reality, Lyons said the organization had to make some challenging pivots to keep offering services to youth in town.
At first, many services were offered digitally, and now the organization is looking at in-person services, with COVID precautions in place.
The best way to find out about Sea to Sky Community youth programming, go to their Instagram account at @squamishyouthworker.
District weighs in
Asked how Squamish is doing in supporting LGBTQI2S+ youth, acting mayor Jenna Stoner said there are many individuals, organizations, the school district, and businesses in town who are stepping up to advocate for LGBTQI2S+ culture and community "with the shared goal of building a safe and inclusive space for all."
"In addition to working with community partners to cultivate safe and inclusive spaces for all, we — as a municipal government — are always working towards ensuring that our programming, services, and policies are as inclusive as possible. We also recognize that this is an ever-evolving goal," said Stoner.
Specifically, Stoner pointed to the District's Youth Strategy, which she said provides a framework for the District and partner agencies to optimize the mental and physical well-being of all youth, and to expand opportunities for LGBTQI2S+ programs and services.
She also noted Squamish Children’s Charter outlines freedom of self-expression, equality and inclusivity as fundamental rights.
Squamish Council passed a resolution on July 21 to apply a social equity lens throughout the organization to further support a diverse, inclusive and equitable District workforce, and to ensure all residents can access, participate in, and benefit from District’s facilities, infrastructure, programs and services.
Squamish Pride president Tabitha McIntyre said in an email that the organization finds it exciting to see that there are a few LGBTQI2S+ safe spaces popping up, such as Safe'n Sound's monthly Sounding Rooms monthly discussions, as well as the school's diversity clubs.
"There has been a drive toward education, with locals engaging with new terminologies and ideas," they said.
"Visibility is key; feeling accepted and not alone.... Having Pride events can be a lifeline for folks, helping them on their journey of self-discovery and acceptance. That's why we here at Pride Squamish volunteer our time and energy to make an event where everyone is welcome, whether you identify as LGBTQI2S+ or not. Standing together as a community is what's important."
McIntyre noted that the UBC study only looked at folks who identify as LGB; not trans, intersex, asexual, or two-spirited people.
"Although we are all in one 'queer' umberella, our life journey's can be very different."
McIntyre said that support for trans, intersex, asexual, two-spirited people is lacking globally.
"And is certainly an area that everywhere, not just Squamish, can improve. Pride Squamish believe Squamish as a whole is on the right trajectory to becoming more inclusive and diverse — folk becoming more aware of trans issues, and fighting against the lack of trans rights worldwide."
Stoner noted that Squamish Pride's first-ever celebration event last year, "marked an important milestone for us as a community that embraces and supports diversity and inclusion."
For Pride 2020, the Pride Squamish is going digital as COVID-19 has put the brakes on hosting larger, in-person, events.
The following events are scheduled:
1. Flag Raising above the municipal hall.
Partnering with the District of Squamish, Pride Squamish will be raising the pride flag above municipal hall again this year on Aug. 31. (Time TBA). "This is a wonderful demonstration of Squamish's diversity and tolerance," McIntyre said.
2. Paint the Town Red: Decoration Competition
Pride Squamish invites all local businesses and families to decorate their homes and business with pride colours, flags, glitter anything and everything. The competition will run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5, 5 p.m.; folks should take a picture of their pride decor and post their entries on the Discussion Section Of the Facebook Event.
3. Drag Story Telling
Last year Peach Coblha hosted a Drag Storytelling for kids attending Pride Squamish 2019.
A Digital Drag Storytelling with Miss Diva is planned for 10 a.m. on Sept. 5.
Find out more on the Squamish Pride Facebook page.
If youth are looking for resources to help them today, they can reach out to the Sea to Sky Community Services Youth Services team or attend a program for direction and guidance finding the support they need.
If youth are interested in making a difference and taking a leadership role for other youth in the community, they can contact youth services co-ordinator Caitlin Anderson email@example.com to find out more information regarding upcoming youth engagement sessions and committees.
~With files from Jeremy Hainsworth/Glacier Media