4 min

Making Ottawa safe for trans youth

Trans Youth Ottawa works to get education into high schools

Growing up queer can be a difficult experience, but coming of age as a trans high school student can be unimaginable. But trans activists are working to make it easier.

Pink Triangle Services has recently taken Trans Youth Ottawa (TYO) under its umbrella, and group leader Cat, her preferred name, is gaining support in her quest to get trans education into Ottawa-area schools.

The amalgamation, which took effect in late 2005, provided TYO with secure funding and ensured that trans youth in need of guidance have somewhere to turn.

“The cost of rental and pamphlets were two of our main expenditures,” Cat says.

With TYO’s fiscal needs secured, Cat is working with other members of the gay community, like Centretown Health Centre GLBTQ youth counsellor Ernie Gibb, to get information into high schools.

Cat says not many trans-identified high school students are out.

“There are some, but it is much more of a struggle for them. A lot of factors go against them,” she says.

Many trans students suffer through unbearable depression or simply drop out, she explains, and many trans students feel that they are unable to transition in high school and are subsequently deprived of the high school experience because there’s no support structure for them.

While there has been progress made on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues in the past decade, Cat says with trans issues it’s an uphill battle.

“Transsexual and transgender are still dirty words in the public school system. None of the counsellors know how to deal with it,” she says.

Ernie Gibb has assembled a small group of dedicated counsellors and teachers to change that.

The GLBPTQ Youth Service Providers network brought together key frontline people from the Youth Services Bureau, other health and resource centres, people from the city and people from the Sexual Health Centre’s outreach and harm reduction program. Formed in 2002, their mission is to advocate for inclusive services for youth.

Their successes to date include a one-day forum for teachers held in May, 2004. Teachers, guidance counsellors and support staff from 22 area high schools and alternative schools came.

They learned about trans issues and how to work better with the student population to make schools safer. The school board gave the program a good evaluation.

Gibb says that while the workshops are good, the broader system of things doesn’t change.

Though some school staff are now comfortable dealing with gay, lesbian and bisexual issues, the same isn’t true of trans issues and their fundamental challenge of society’s rules about gender expression.

And while some schools have worked to accommodate trans students, it’s easy for them to get overwhelmed by the complexity of trans issues.

“There’s a larger learning curve,” Gibb says. “There’s more background information people need. I think the level of discomfort with trans issues is because it is less known. Through the media it has been sensationalized.

“Doing a one-hour workshop puts the issues on the radar but it’s truly up to them to pick it up and run with it,” Gibb says. “The goal is for people to learn and if people aren’t safe, and aren’t in an environment where they can learn, then the schools are going to fail.”

Gibb won’t say which schools are being cooperative, but he says a group like TYO is essential for trans youth.

TYO group member Jade Pinchette says she suffered transphobia in high school and even received death threats. Pinchette credits the youth group with helping her through some rough times.

“TYO is a place where you can get out your problems with people who understand your situation,” Pinchette says.

TYO’s members range in age from mid-teens to late 20s, with the average age being around 20. The majority of members identify as trans, although the group also reaches out to individuals who are questioning.

“For some people the process of coming out can be very long and go through many phases,” Cat notes. “The questioning phase can be very long and arduous. We have had people at meetings who haven’t fully identified that way or haven’t fully come out; they’re just at the very beginning of that journey. TYO is definitely open to that sort of exploration in our safe space.”

TYO plays a vital role, says Gibb. The biggest issue trans youth face is knowing where they can go for help.

“Most trans youth want to know where they can go, that it’s going to be confidential, where they’re not going to be laughed at, where they’re going to be treated with respect.

“They can be very vulnerable, especially when you begin to talk about these issues. They may feel like there’s something wrong with them, that they’re not normal. So I think the question of who they can trust is dominant. But there are some trans youth who are beginning to identify this.”

As the TYO express continues to pick up riders, Catl praises Ottawa as a great city with open-minded people.

“Ottawa is exemplary in terms of a huge trans alliance scene,” she notes. “There’s lots of discussion in gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight communities about trans issues, more so on the GLB side, but there’s a huge amount of trans ally work being done here compared to most other cities. There’s a lot of momentum there.”

The Shanghai Restaurant is proud to call itself a TYO ally.

“The owners of Shanghai have been nothing but overwhelmingly positive. They’ve assisted with the community in so many ways. They’ve allowed us to use their space without paying for it and they’ve offered their time, assistance and effort. They just keep inviting us back. It’s a wonderful relationship we have with them.”

Through all the adversity, turmoil and success, Cat remains dedicated to her mission of understanding. Her personal goal is to get trans and queer pamphlets into every high school in Ottawa.

And Gibb is committed to ensuring that questioning youth can find themselves.

“I think youth dealing with transgender issues need to have access to a wide variety of information so they can look at all the options and decide what the right choice is for them.”