If there’s an ideal time to get introspective about our accomplishments as a community, now seems to be it. Our leaders fought for and won the right to same-sex marriage and today it enjoys the support of the majority of Canadians. Trans folk are making slow but important strides at the provincial level. We’re even having discussions around a dedicated LGBT recreation centre and shelter in Toronto. And just around the corner is WorldPride, looking like a prize for getting our act together.
In this context it’s easy to overlook the importance of an organization like the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line, which this year celebrates 20 years of offering peer-to-peer support to Ontario’s LGBT youth. But its supporters will tell you that, sadly, the Youth Line is still very much relevant.
“I wish we lived in a world where the Youth Line didn’t have to exist,” says Lali Mohamed, 26, who from 2008 to 2011 sat on the Youth Line’s board of directors. “But as long as homophobia persists and rears its ugly head, I’m glad the Youth Line acts as an interjection.” The 6,000 calls and messages volunteers handle a year are proof of this.
The Youth Line is a toll-free helpline for youth in Ontario younger than 26. Volunteers, who identify as LGBT and are also 26 or younger, provide support, information and referrals over phone, online chat, emails and text messages.
The organization has 40 volunteers, all of whom underwent 40 hours of training to prepare for the reality of working the lines. Training involves understanding the basics of operating the lines and attending an anti-oppression workshop, as well as gaining knowledge of sexual health issues.Volunteers also shadow experienced staff and go to monthly group debriefings and booster training sessions.
“The training was really intense,” says John Paul Catungal, 29, who volunteered with the Youth Line from 2008 to 2013. He adds that part of that training is getting a good grasp on self-care, which he describes as “knowing what your limit is.”
That means taking a step back if something has triggered you but doing so in a way that keeps the service user at ease. Because of the nature of some of these interactions, supervisors debrief volunteers after each of them.
“We place a lot of emphasis on making sure our volunteers are safe, anonymous, well-supported, well-debriefed,” says Gitanjali Lena, the Youth Line’s executive director.
Anonymity is a matter of security for both volunteers and service users. “Part of the anonymity is to respect the fact that some volunteers may not be out,” Catungal says.
The same goes for service users. “I don’t think youth feel comfortable calling in to a phone line,” Mohamed says. “I think they’re moved by desperation.”
For some, that desperation comes from a lack of resources. Youth living outside of large cities often face such difficulties as not being able to find a nearby sexual-health clinic or gay bar. Some of the hardest calls Catungal has taken are from youth whose families kicked them out of their homes and who were then unable to find a queer-friendly shelter. “That can get to you because you’re really not able to help.”
But, Catungal says, he got more happy calls than sad ones. It was common to receive calls about meeting that special someone or going on a first date. “They just wanted to share it with someone, and oftentimes they don’t have anyone else to share it with,” he says.
Still, when it was hard, it was really hard. Offering support to youth who experienced bullying in school was difficult, especially during the wave of bullying several years ago. “With the span of suicides, we were keenly aware of that happening in our community more so than ever before.”
The Youth Line, however, is not a crisis intervention service. “Our volunteers are carefully trained for when those kinds of calls need to be referred,” Lena says.
They handle a lot, but they could be doing more. “If we had more money, we would be able to reach more youth,” she says. “Specifically youth in rural areas, reserves and more remote areas.”
The Youth Line has an annual budget of $260,000. Staff salaries and a provincewide mandate mean these funds dry up fast. “We do definitely constantly struggle to maintain the funding that we need.”
So fundraising is a must, and this year they’re kicking it into high gear. This summer, Youth Line will launch the 20 for 20 campaign, the goal of which is to raise $20,000 in donations for its 20th anniversary. This online crowdsourcing campaign will run for a month. Before that, there’s the Fuck Winter Let’s Dance party at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel, on April 25. All profits will go to Youth Line programs.
“This is a really important banner year for us and a real watershed moment,” Lena says, explaining that they have a new strategic plan they’ll be sharing with the public soon.
Three of the principle goals of the plan are to strengthen and expand partnerships with provincial organizations, develop a role as advocates in terms of government policy, and improve the accessibility of services.
Lena’s convinced that with the Youth Line’s skilled board members and staff, these goals are achievable. “There’s nothing really stopping us.” Except for a lack of funds — a reality the organization has lived with over its 20-year history.
For his part, Mohamed hopes donations from the community will increase. “I would love to see Toronto’s and Ontario’s LGBTQ community really rally behind the Youth Line.” He, like many others throughout the years, believes the Youth Line deserves this support.
“For 20 years, the Youth Line has been supporting young people across the province. For 20 years, they have been saving lives. For 20 years, they have been affirming and celebrating and protecting queer and trans and questioning youth.”
Do they have your support?
It’s your call.