Mentorship for LGBTQ2 youth can be a matter of life and death

Marley Bowen and Chris Studer, executive directors of Get Real, talk about the non-profit organization’s focus on combating racism, bullying and LGBTQ2 discrimination in schools and workplaces.

B Adair wants to be the mentor he never had growing up in the rural town of Hadisty, Alta.

A lack of queer education and representation meant learning about his identity as a transgender man on his own while fighting depression and suicidal thoughts his entire life.

“Transitioning saved my life,” he says. “Once I became comfortable with my own identity and started learning everything I possibly could, I wanted to share that knowledge.”

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Adair, 36, now works as a diversity and inclusion consultant — receiving emails, Facebook messages and phone calls from all over the province — from struggling kids or parents hoping to better understand their children.

“Being a mentor for others has been incredible,” says Adair, adding that he’s inspired by the kids he meets through his work.

The importance of mentorship and representation is paramount for LGBTQ2 youth. Considering queer and trans youth face higher rates of depression, suicide and substance abuse — alongside unique everyday challenges — a role model could mean the difference between life and death, advocates say.

Older generations have been paving the way for younger LGBTQ2 people trying to navigate the world, advocating for more queer-inclusive education or creating safe spaces themselves.

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For Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, connecting with other queer Black women has been instrumental in her “coming in” experience. Growing up, her friend’s mom took her to Toronto’s Dyke March, which allowed her to “see (herself) in the future.”

“Seeing Black lesbians from Jamaica or Latinx feminists … it opened up a window for me,” says Owusu-Akyeeah.

As the executive director at the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, she prioritizes inclusivity when working with queer and trans youth, especially because queer spaces can oftentimes be very white, she says.

“It’s important to recognize that Black, Indigenous and people of colour are navigating racism (and) colonialism on top of homophobia and transphobia,” she says.

Through her work, she aims to fill in the educational gaps she lacked in school for future generations.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ2 youth have experienced higher rates of depression and some people have had to hide their sexual or gender identity around unsupportive family members, according to a recent KLB survey.

It’s for those reasons, along with the need for greater supports in rural communities, that Seth Compton, a transgender man living in North Bay, Ont., found it imperative to create a safe space for LGBTQ2 youth.

He fought for his peer support and mentorship space, OUTLoud North Bay, to remain open in order to support the 100 kids who are registered members.

“I think a lot of the kids appreciate the fact that I have lived experience,” says Compton, adding that kids come to him to talk about gender identity, gender-affirmation surgery or mental health.

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Recently, one of the kids called him at 2 a.m., and he was contemplating taking his own life. Compton sat up at the edge of his bed, reassuring him he had a support system and that life is worth living.

“I’m thankful he called me at 2 a.m. because he’s still here,” Compton says.

He adds that many kids come in feeling anxious, and being able to watch them grow and become more confident in their identity often moves him to tears.

“I cry a lot,” he says.

Two of his children often come into the space as allies, having learned from their parents, and are now able to share that knowledge with other kids.

Beyond grassroots organizations, Shakir Rahim, a board member of the AIDS Committee of Toronto and a mentor through the Enchante Network, says being able to take up space as a South Asian queer man is important so that people can see themselves reflected in board governance.

“My race is a significant part of what I feel I bring to the table when mentoring the queer community,” he says. “Being able to model that and demonstrate you can be on a board of directors … is really important for me.”

He adds that it’s in these spaces that racialized people are often not represented.

“Representation is not only important because it lends confidence in these organizations,” says Rahim. “But it’s also tremendously important to ensure that diverse racial perspectives are being heard.”

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Taking up space online through representation and advocacy is just as crucial.

Kairyn Potts, a Two-Spirit Nakota Sioux from Treaty 6 territory and a member of the Native Youth Advisory Council in Ontario, educates people through his platform on TikTok.

The videos he uploads allow him to teach people about his culture and identity through makeup, fashion, comedy and drag, among other things.

“The ultimate goal is to create representation for queer people who look like me (and) I really want to show what I like to call ‘gentle masculinity,’” he says.

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Though social media isn’t always a safe space for racialized and LGBTQ2 communities, Potts says he does his best to delete hateful comments and make his specific platform as safe as possible.

Potts himself had a queer mentor growing up, who was his boxing coach and a family friend.

“I attribute a lot of my self-confidence and things I learned about my identity and my self-worth to him,” Potts says. “He’s still in my life today.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

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