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Posted: April 27, 2020

Virtual opportunities for LGBTQ2S+ students

Students from the LGBTQ2S+ community, who may be feeling vulnerable and disconnected from their peers and schools, now have more virtual opportunities to connect with each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the first time, B.C.’s Gay-Straight or Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) meet-ups will be held virtually rather than in person, where students can join their friends online or over the phone.

“We know that LGBTQ2S+ kids report higher rates of feeling isolated and for some students, their school community was the only place where they could be their authentic selves,” said Rob Fleming, Minister of Education. “That’s why now, more than ever, it’s so important for LGBTQ2S+ children and youth to stay connected and to know that they have safe, confidential outlets to virtually socialize with each other.”

A Population Health Journal study of B.C. students revealed that when a GSA group has been in a school for three years or more, there are lower rates of suicidal thoughts in both gay and straight kids. Other research shows that these clubs have a positive effect on LGBTQ2S+ students’ overall health, well-being and self-esteem, since GSAs promote feelings of belonging, acceptance and community.

“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,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “These virtual meet-ups are absolutely vital so LGBTQ2S+ students can connect with their peers when they need it most. It’s these important connections that inspire us, lift us up and will help us all get through this uncertain time.”

“We know that many LGBTQ2S+ youth experience discrimination in their own homes. These youth are at particular risk of mental-health problems and suicide, and they need targeted supports,” said Mitzi Dean, Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equity. “Helping students by ensuring virtual connections and resources are available will go a long way to getting through this time of physical isolation, which is not forever, but for many, may seem like it is.”

GSAs are student run and student led, but they require an educator to sponsor them. Since sponsors do not always have member students in their classes, and many kids go by preferred names, it has been a challenge to get the message out that GSAs can now meet virtually.

“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,” said Brad Beattie, executive director, ARC Foundation, a lead partner in the creation of SOGI 123. “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.”

Educators from 40 school districts, 14 independent schools and two First Nations recently took part in an ARC Foundation webinar to learn ways to protect students’ privacy and safety while holding virtual GSA meet-ups.

Virtual GSAs can provide a comfortable, supportive forum for students to share education information, or discuss LGBTQ2S+ issues, movies or books, and activities like playing networked video games or creating stuck-at-home music playlists.

To provide additional support for youth who are experiencing anxiety and social isolation, a free, virtual WE Well-being program was launched on April 17, for grades K-12 in English and French. It places a special emphasis on social-emotional learning and resiliency. Also available to parents and caregivers is the new EASE (Everyday Anxiety Strategies for Educators) at Home program with tips and strategies to create calming routines, help kids talk about difficult emotions and manage their anxiety.

These at-home materials complement the recent Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions announcement of $5 million to expand existing mental-health programs and launch new services to support British Columbians during the pandemic. Foundry centres are moving services online and over the phone, including unscheduled counselling, peer support services and physical health care, so young people and families in all corners of the province can get the help they need when they need it.

More information about hosting GSAs, including how students can control their display names on virtual platforms, and links to provincial resources for LGBTQ2S+ children and youth, are available online.

According to a 2018 McCreary Centre Society Study of B.C. adolescents: 11% of male and 22% of female B.C. high school students identify as gay, lesbian, bi or not exclusively heterosexual, and 0.5% of B.C. high school students identify as transgender, and two per cent identify as non-binary (neither male or female).

LGBTQ2S+ youth were seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to attempt suicide (28% compared to four per cent). And 54% of LGBTQ2S+ students experienced bullying, violence and homophobic slurs.

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