LGBTQ youth face many challenges in our community. Coming out is always a process; no one comes out to everyone at once. First you come out to yourself, then maybe your friends or your family and finally, when you’re ready, the world. However, Thorncliffe’s tight-knit community makes it difficult for teens to do this. Youth want to find a space where they can be accepted, but they don’t know where to look—it seems as soon as one person knows, everybody knows.
It’s no surprise, then, that youth search within our school to find a safe space. Garneau alumnus Aisha Wahig sought support from the guidance office. She was disappointed by the advice that she received. “When I told my guidance counselor that I was queer she told me, ‘You should go check out Church and Wellesley! You should out yourself!'” said Aisha. “She didn’t even consider the fact that I was Muslim, that I was poor—that I wasn’t ready to come out yet.”
Aisha was facing a unique set of challenges that guidance failed to take into account. And there are many people in her situation: unaccepted by historically homophobic Muslim culture, economically unable to take the risk of being kicked out, and still coming to terms with herself. The culturally ignorant advice from guidance did little to help. Of course she couldn’t go to Church and Wellesley and hit up gay bars—she had to be home by 4!
Having tried her luck with guidance, Aisha turned to Garneau’s QSA. The Queer Straight Alliance has been an extraordinary resource within the school: it aims to educate students on LGBTQ issues and bring them together. One student says that QSA has changed her life. “The GSA-QSA is the only place where I can be myself,” she said. “I can stand in front of the room and say, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m gay!’ and no one will react badly.” It’s helped her realize that despite all of her hardships, “being gay is just fabulous.”A club like QSA is able to make a difference in many students’ lives, but it’s not always enough. Every student is different, and a safe space can only do so much—LGBTQ students need a community. They may feel accepted within the walls of room 339, but it’s not always the same elsewhere in the building.
This isn’t something that we can demand from the administration. This is something that students need to create themselves. We have to ask ourselves why this hasn’t happened. Is it possible that students feel too threatened, even with QSA and regular social equity workshops?
The answer is yes. For every teen who is finding acceptance, there are many more who still don’t feel safe enough to come out. “Being in a conservative high school [like Garneau] that reflects my cultural beliefs has made me feel inhuman, guilty, and unwanted, ” said one student, who preferred to remain anonymous. Problems with home life compound difficulties at school. “My family would regret my existence,” he said. “They would hate me. Homosexuality to them is disgusting and unnatural.”
Cultural and religious values pose a huge barrier for many queer youth—faith, for example, plays a huge part in many people’s lives. Queer youth face internal religious pressures in addition to external ones from friends and family. Questioning teens worry that their sexuality comes at the expense of their religion: confidence in their sexuality represents a necessary loss of faith. It takes time to realize that there are accepting people in every religion. They may be difficult to find, but they exist.
Finding places to feel accepted is never easy—for anyone, really. Being LGBTQ at Garneau is a terrifying prospect for some. Even within Garneau’s relatively small community, every experience is radically different. Some students struggle with guidance to find the answers, others seek refuge in QSA, and many others keep their secret to themselves.
Teens just want a safe, comfortable environment to talk—to be told they’re not crazy for thinking differently than everyone else. For some queer youth, it’s as easy as calling up a friend or sitting down with a favourite teacher. For many students at Garneau, however, this is an impossible dream.
Writers Khadija Aziz and Connor Adair contributed to this piece.