COVID-19: B.C. GSAs seek to connect with LGBT students online amid challenges

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      The closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic has had some unintentional impacts upon students.

      For some students, the closures have taken away their only means of escape from troubled or abusive homes.

      In other cases, students have lost their opportunity to be themselves, free from discrimination at home.

      For some LGBT youth, being among friends or at school may feel more welcoming and accepting than with family members who are homophobic or transphobic.

      “These youth are at particular risk of mental-health problems and suicide, and they need targeted supports," B.C. Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equity Mitzi Dean said in a news release.

      A 2018 McCreary Centre Society study of B.C. teenagers found that 22 percent of female and 11 percent of male high-school students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or not exclusively heterosexual; 0.5 percent identify as transgender; and two percent identify as non-binary. 

      About one half of LGBT students (54 percent) experienced bullying, violence, or homophobic slurs while LGBT youth were seven times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide (or 27 percent versus 4 percent).

      “I have heard heartbreaking stories about the challenges that many people in the LGBTQ2S+ community face, and for many, those feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression may be amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic,” B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy added.

      However, UBC studies found in 2013 and 2014 that schools with Gay-Straight or Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), also known as Queer Straight Alliances or Rainbow Clubs, have lower levels of alcohol abuse, suicide, and discrimination than ones without them.

      Meet-ups for B.C.’s GSAs are being held online or by phone so students can connect through remote means.

      Although students run and lead GSAs, they must have an educator to sponsor them.

      However, as many students go by preferred names, informing students about these virtual meetings has been challenging.

      “We want to encourage students to reach out to their teacher or a trusted person at their school to find out ways they can join virtual GSA meet-ups, or even create a new GSA,” ARC Foundation executive director Brad Beattie. The ARC Foundation was a lead partner in the creation of the provincial SOGI 123 (sexual orientation and gender identity) resource. “With the COVID-19 situation, we are working to re-focus our efforts and increase our outreach to ensure educators know about all the resources available for LGBTQ2S+ students, including mental health and other community-based support.”

      On April 8, an ARC Foundation webinar taught B.C. educators from 40 school districts, 14 independent schools, and two First Nations about how to protect students’ privacy and safety while holding virtual GSA meet-ups.

      Information about hosting GSAs, including how students can control their display names on virtual platforms and links to provincial LGBT youth resources, is available at the SOGI 123 website.

      For anyone from Kindergarten to Grade 12 who is experiencing anxiety and social isolation, the free, virtual WE Well-being program offers social-emotional learning and resiliency while the new Everyday Anxiety Strategies for Educators (EASE) at Home program provides parents and caregivers with routines that help youth manage anxiety. In addition, Foundry centres have moved services online and by phone, including counselling, peer-support services, and physical health care.

      Resources for LGBT students include:

      • ERASE (Expect Respect and a Safe Education);
      • provincial crises lines and online support for youth at the Youth in B.C. website;
      • Kids Help Phone, the national call, text, and online support for youth (1 800 668-6868);
      • Trans Lifeline an online trans-led organization and hotline that connects trans people with resources;
      • a list of peer support groups throughout B.C. for LGBT students and their families.

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