6 min

Just pick up, damn it!

How badly do we need a help line for queer youth?

MARGINAL COMMUNITIES. Executive director Kyle Scanlon wants to reach a wider queer population. Credit: Kelly Clipperton

The poster hangs on the subway platform at both College and Wellesley stations, a stone’s throw from the heart of the gay village.

“Because ecstasy, bisexuality and suicide are subjects that don’t always come up at the dinner table,” says the bold, white text against the singular Bell payphone. The Kids Help Phone – Canada’s only 24/7 bilingual youth crisis line uses the same poster to promote itself in communities across the nation.

Yet the poster addresses some of the main issues facing queer youth in crisis today: those questioning their sexuality, contemplating death, or experimenting with the most popular designer drug in the gay clubland. Compared to other youth lines, The Kids Help Phone is a promotion machine. Kids know about it, and call it in droves.

Youth with a sharper eye might have seen info for the Toronto-based, province-wide Lesbian Gay Bi Youth Line (LGB Youth Line). The shoestring operation has been struggling to promote itself for nearly eight years.

But with slick national operations like the Kids Help Phone, is a specialized queer line needed? And if it is, what’s the best way to get kids to use it?

Comparing the mammoth Kids Help Phone to the diminutive LGB Youth Line is much like comparing apples to oranges. The LGB Youth Line is a peer-support service run by young volunteers; there’s about 65 people involved, including part-time volunteers, a board and an executive director. The volunteers get 40 hours of training.

The Kids Help Phone offers about 130 professional counsellors.

The LGB Youth Line gets an estimated 300 and 400 calls a month. The Kids Help Phone gets nearly 30,000. The LGB Youth Line has an operational budget of about $125,000 through fundraising and city grants (Ontario pulled its funding a few years ago); the Kids Help Line spent almost $5-million in 2000, raised from corporate sponsors.

Unlike the 24-hour Kids Help Phone, the LGB Youth Line offers limited hours (Sunday to Friday 4pm to 9:30pm) and a cut-off time of 20 minutes per call.

For LGB Youth Line executive director Kyle Scanlon, who took over this summer, it’s not merely a matter of making more lesbian, gay and bi youth aware of the line. A top priority for him is widening the line’s reach. That means attracting other queer communities, including transsexual, transgendered, two spirited and intersexed youth.

“The original direction of the line didn’t necessarily include gender identity issues,” says Scanlon. “It was much more focussed on gay, lesbian and bi issues. There may even have been a point in the early discussions where they didn’t know if they should include bi issues.”

Scanlon wants to erase the community’s perception of the line as being lax on issues of diversity, racism and gender-identity. But doing so is a Herculean task for such a strained advertising budget.

One way to reach these other groups is through strategic focus groups, says Scanlon, to “find out what words and images speak to [a particular] community best so we can use those words that are respectful and inclusive of their identities.”

But money is a problem.

“We just don’t have the money to design 18 different ads, but we certainly think about it, and try to come up with some strategies,” says Scanlon.

Karyn McMahon, Kids Help Phone’s marketing and communications manager, says they too can only afford to produce one postered message per year. The difference is there’s a lot more of the posters out there and they’re provocative enough to attract attention across different demographic sectors.

So for now, it’s one message for the LGB Youth Line – you are not alone – aimed at reaching a diverse community within a community for the LGB Youth Line. Its posters are distributed to high schools and community centres in Ontario.

Scanlon is confident that his attempt to reach more diverse groups won’t mean excluding the groups that were the line’s founding purpose.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of focussing on one group at the expense of another,” says Scanlon. “But the queer community needs to include more people…. We wouldn’t be focussing on groups outside the queer community, but rather people who are in it already.”

Along with marketing issues, the line also faces perception problems. If it’s true that trans, intersex and two-spirited youth might not identify with a lesbian, gay and bi service, it’s probably also true that young people don’t even identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bi. Youth is a time of life when feelings of orientation and identity don’t fit so easily into one-word labels.

Youth who actually have defined their feelings as homo, bi, trans or two spirited might also reject those labels or feel uncomfortable with them. They may be reluctant to call the so-named line, preferring instead to ring up a general non-identifying line.

Scanlon says the issue of what the best name for the line is might come up at the Tue, Dec 4 annual general meeting.

Yet a wider target group and more sophisticated marketing has to be coupled with an accessible service. Over-promoting the line without expanding the service, for example, may create a bottleneck effect of callers versus peer support volunteers. That’s a chance Scanlon is willing to take.

“We’d rather have people knowing the line exists and phoning and getting a busy signal but finally getting through, rather than not knowing at all and never phoning.”

Realistically, however, a flood of calls is the least the LGB Youth Line’s concerns. Ryan Lapidus, executive director of the line from October 1995 to August 1997, remembers the school outreach program to be largely ineffective.

“Maybe it was building a general awareness, and maybe it was changing the atmosphere of those schools gradually – a little bit. But I don’t think it had a huge impact. Not at all,” says Lapidus. He recalls the only truly effective publicity tool the peer support organization ever had were the white pages.

“Most of our callers found out about the number through the phonebook, because they’d look up lesbian or gay and found the youth line. We were in every phonebook in Ontario.”

Scanlon says his outreach plan also includes getting the message out to patrons of gay bars, hostels, shelters and detox centres, as well as through radio appearances.

Free media opportunities, though prized, has its limits. The radio programs the line has used to promote itself have been mainly college or university stations with a small, college-aged audience: hardly a target group in need of the youth line’s services.

Ditto outreach in gay bars. They’re not an entire waste of time, but people who visit them or other queer-positive spaces often have better grip on their issues than those who wouldn’t know about or dare enter those places. And they’re not accessible to confused rural and suburban folks who have fewer options than urban youth.

Even a new, splashy media outlet like PrideVision can’t help to promote the line.

“PrideVision told us that if we had a PSA [Public Service Announcement] on video that they’d run it. But unfortunately we didn’t have the money to make one, and they didn’t have the money to make one for us,” says Scanlon.

But media coverage and advertising isn’t – and shouldn’t be – the only strategy for a non-profit organization like the LGB Youth Line. Holding events within the community it’s trying to target is just as crucial in order raise money and awareness.

When the popular Gay Day at Canada’s Wonderland benefited the LGB Youth Line, it put the organization on the lips of people within the community. The event is now defunct, and the last time the youth line held an event, according to Scanlon, “may have been an art auction” sometime last year.

There are Youth Community Awards in the works for Tue, Dec 4.

Then there’s attracting donors. With a cost per call of about $20 to $40, they’re essential.

In tough times, aren’t charities competing more and more for donations and attention? Scanlon doesn’t see it that way.

“You might think that we’re all protective of our little pots of money, but I think we’re all realizing how important it is to partner up to provide service,” he says.

Indeed, the LGB Youth Line lists the Kids Help Phone prominently on its website, and promotes the mainstream service on its outgoing voicemail. Scanlon hopes the Kids Help Phone sees them the same way.

Kids Help Phone does list the LGB Youth Line on its website, too, but to put it in perspective, the LGB Youth Line is only one of an astonishing 29,000 community and social services across the country its counselors refers its young callers to.

The line currently targets individuals and small businesses, but the Kids Help Phone has one critical thing going for them the LGB Youth Line does not: getting big corporations willing to splash its brand on their products.

The Kids Help Phone’s McMahon says the organization was one of the first charities to initiate “cause-related marketing,” teaming them up with big names such as Nestle, Kellogg’s and Black Diamond. While such an approach might only work for charity on a mainstream, national scale, it illustrates that real innovation in fundraising can reap big rewards: They raised more than $8-million last year.

The LGB Youth Line has no corporate backers, but Scanlon says that it could be a possibility in the future. He wants to pinpoint the organizations that will be receptive to the LGB Youth Line’s goals by scanning reports on which corporations gave to whom, and how much.

Thus, he’s looking at some of the same organizations that have given to such charities as Casey House, AIDS Committee Of Toronto, Central Toronto Youth Services, and other youth organizations.

Of course, no matter who is footing the bill, it all comes down to the fact that a youth in crisis will call the line she thinks will help her best, the one she’s heard of and whose number comes to mind.



Sun – Fri. 4pm – 9:30pm.