By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative

To bridge what could be a dangerous loss of connectivity for some of B.C.’s most vulnerable students, educators are helping LGBTQ+ students build virtual communities to increase their sense of belonging.

“Being able to connect with other people who are like you is really, really important,” said Eliot Newton, an educator with the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity. For those forced to stay home amid aggravating family dynamics, connecting with peers could be a lifeline.

“It can be the difference between feeling like you have the capacity to handle the situation and feeling like you don’t,” said Newton, who is trans, and who teaches workshops at schools and businesses.

The Province partnered with ARC Foundation to host webinars for educators across the province to learn how to support and protect LGBTQ+ students in online groups. Forty B.C. school districts, 14 independent schools and two First Nations participated.

For the first time ever, students will be able to participate virtually in B.C.’s Gay-Straight or Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) groups across the province. GSAs operate across North America, most often on school campuses, informally or organized, to offer a comfortable, non-judgemental space for youths to share school work, discuss common interests and concerns, and socialize.

“It’s like any other extracurricular club in most schools,” said Newton. As such, a teacher needs to supervise it. Considering the privacy concerns many youths have about sharing their gender identity or orientation, a virtual GSA needs extra discretion from the teacher.

What’s at stake
According to ARC Foundation, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are seven times more likely to face discrimination and five times more likely to consider suicide.

“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.

“I absolutely grew up in an environment where it wasn’t okay to be gay, or to be to be different in a variety of ways,” said Newton, who lived in the rural east coast and had a Baptist minister father.

Now in his 20s with rainbow-coloured hair, Newton has come a long way from his conservative roots. Occasionally, his appearance shocks, particularly when he shows up to give a school workshop.

“Sometimes I get flack for it from other adults,” said Newton. “They’re like, ‘You know, you don’t really look very professional,’ and I say, ‘I’m not here for you. I’m here for that kid who would give anything to (be free to) dye their hair.'”

According to 2015 study by the GLSEN Research Institute, having a gay-straight alliance group improved how students felt about their safety and increased their sense of belonging. Also in the study, more than 50 per cent of the students who were harassed didn’t report it because they didn’t think staff would do anything about it and only 24 per cent felt staff dealt with their concern effectively when they did tell someone. Conversely, having even one supportive staff person dramatically increased a student’s sense of safety, community and self-esteem.

The suicide rate for people who are living in precarious situations drops dramatically when a youth has even just one protective adult in their corner, said Newton. “If I hadn’t had the external influence of some of my teachers, especially at the high school level, I don’t know that I would have developed into the open and caring person I am.”

With continuing shelter-in-place orders, distance learning is here for a while.

“There’s no kid that’s going to come out of this fully ready for their next letter grade, and that’s fine,” said Newton, because the pandemic physical distancing orders and online learning are universal, everyone will be behind academically. “But you know what we can’t undo is trauma – months and months of trauma.”

Newton can be reached on Instagram @gender_bandit