FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - APRIL 5, 2019
STATEMENT BY PAEDIATRIC RESIDENTS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LGBTQ2+ SAFE SPACES IN ALBERTA’S SCHOOLS
As a group of passionate, concerned, and non-partisan paediatric resident physicians, we are asking Albertans to support the continued provision of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs)/Queer-Straight Alliances (QSAs) in schools across Alberta. GSAs/QSAs provide safe, inclusive, and positive spaces for LGBTQ2SA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Two-Spirit, Asexual/Agender/Aromantic) students. In light of the upcoming provincial election on Tuesday, April 16, 2019, we request Albertans to use this opportunity to encourage their political representatives to commit to legislation that prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of Alberta’s LGBTQ2SA+ youth.
Initiated by youth, GSAs/QSAs are supervised by a faculty advisor, and are rooted in the principles of promoting respectful settings for students to gather and build community, while fostering strength and resilience for youth to overcome stigma and discrimination they may face in other facets of their lives. In the first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools, 64% of LGBTQ2SA+ youth, and 61% of students with LGBTQ2SA+ parents, reported that they feel unsafe at school.
Research makes it clear that LGBTQ2SA+ students are more likely to feel safe in schools with GSAs/QSAs . Parents/guardians, teachers, school boards, and the government each play integral roles toward ensuring that schools are safe havens for children and youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities. There are powerful positive impacts on the mental health, emotional health, physical health, and overall wellbeing for youth when they feel valued and accepted for who they are.
This communication is in response to the recent announcement from the United Conservative Party (UCP) leader Jason Kenny to bring into force the Education Act, which would replace the current School Act, thus eliminating changes made by Rachel Notley and the New Democratic Party (NDP) under Bill 24 (established November 2017) and returning the province to the law as it was under Bill 10 (established March 2015). Although the differences in Bill 24 and Bill 10 are subtle in language, they are profound in application.
Bill 24 closed the loopholes of Bill 10 to act in support of GSAs/QSAs. Under Bill 24, should a student request a GSA/QSA, their principal must grant one “immediately”, whereas Bill 10 had no time requirement, which historically lead some independent schools to delay the implementation of a club . Additionally, under Bill 24, private schools became subject to the same requirements as public schools with respect to the creation and enactment of policies to affirm the rights of LGBTQ2SA+ students; Bill 10 had no such demand for private schools. Most notably, the fundamental change under Bill 24 was to prohibit teachers and school staff from informing parents or guardians when a student joins a GSA/QSA. This was an essential change to ensure that schools cannot “out” LGBTQ2SA+ kids. Although Jason Kenney said that the UCP is not proposing mandatory parental notification, he stated it would be up to teachers to use their judgment to decide whether it is in the best interest of a child to tell their parents that they are involved with a GSA/QSA. If Alberta were to return to Bill 10, the confidentiality of Alberta’s LGBTQ2SA+ children and youth will be in jeopardy, which could have significant implications for their safety and welfare and would undermine the very existence and purpose of GSAs/QSAs.
To convey a personal perspective, Myles Nahal (18), who identifies as queer and transgender, spoke to CBC News at a GSA/QSA support rally in Calgary, AB on March 28, 2019. He described how his involvement in a high school GSA in Calgary helped him get to know himself without being outed to his parents. He shared: "meeting more people who were queer and trans lightened my world for me and just really saved me." He also revealed that: "for a lot of people in the queer community, coming out is very important and special moment for us, and it's the one thing that we get to control--how it's done and who we come out to.”
Nahal suggests that GSAs/QSAs “empower kids to grow in their own identity so they're comfortable to come out to their families when they are ready” . As paediatric resident physicians, we are responsible for protecting and caring for one of the most vulnerable populations in health care: children and adolescents. We believe that supporting LGBTQ2SA+ youth is a public health imperative as evidenced by the significant and disproportional health disparities experienced by this population in the realms of mental health, substance abuse, violence, homelessness, and suicidality.
The Canadian trans youth health survey (2013-2014) revealed that, of 114 transgender youth (ages 14-18) surveyed in Alberta, 79% engaged in self-harm behaviour, 69% experienced sexual harassment, 41% had attempted suicide, and 32% had run away from home . A positive youth development framework can influence a young person’s ability to overcome adversity by strengthening the protective factors in their environment such as: supportive adults, peer groups, and engagement in school and community activities. This survey concluded that schools and school districts should work proactively with LGBTQ2SA+ youth, their parents/guardians, community leaders, and allied professionals to develop comprehensive policies, programs (like GSAs/QSAs), and inclusive curriculums to create safe and welcoming school atmospheres .
We feel that we can contribute a valuable perspective to this conversation as, akin to teachers, we are mandated reporters of child maltreatment and are duty bound to be the first responders to speak out and advocate for youth when their identity and human rights are being threatened, including by the electoral platform of any given political party. In our profession, the only grounds for breaching the circle of confidentiality that exists within the patient-physician relationship would be if child or adolescent indicates intent to harm themselves or others, or if there is a suspected case of abuse or neglect. It is not within our rights to disclose a youth’s defined sexual orientation or gender identity unless the youth has provided clear and informed consent for us to share this information. Thus, the notion of placing this responsibility onto the shoulders of teachers could be seen as immensely problematic.
To truly do all we can to advance and protect the health and wellness of Alberta’s children and youth, we are cognizant that our involvement transcends medical expertise and is not limited to the four walls of a hospital or clinic. The social determinants of health are far-reaching and originate in the school and home environments. It is in recognizing this reality that we are issuing this advocacy statement in support of a young person’s right to privacy and confidentiality. This is aligned with the Alberta Human Rights Act, which explicitly states that protected areas and grounds against discrimination for minors under the age of 18 include: gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation .
We are continually inspired by the compassion, courage, and bravery of young Albertans who initiate and participate in GSAs/QSAs. At the Calgary GSA rally on March 28, 2019, it was extremely poignant to see a youth group (ages 8-10) holding up colourful hand-drawn signs that read: “Protect our Safe Spaces”. We urge Alberta voters to consider the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ2SA+ youth when voting on Tuesday, April 16th.
To the incredible children and youth of Alberta whom we are honoured and humbled to work with every day: we see you, we support you, we respect you, we learn from you, we celebrate you, and we will stand with you, always. Thank you for being your authentic, amazing, and vibrant selves!
*Media enquiries can be directed to:
Jazmyn Balfour-Boehm, HBSc, MD
Paediatric Resident, PGY-2