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With the goal of creating a more welcoming environment for LGBTTQ students and supporting student-run Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), WSD held its first OUT Forum on Feb. 21.
The WSD Inclusion Across the Rainbow and Healthy Minds event saw 105 Grades 7 to 12 students and 30 educators come to R.B. Russell Vocational High School for a day of keynote speakers, workshop sessions and plenty of discussion about health topics relevant to all students, including those in the LGBTTQ community. Sessions included an introduction to mindfulness practices, healthy relationships, overall wellness for youth during stressful/challenging times, and more.
"We wanted to promote a positive, holistic approach to health that included healthy lifestyles, healthy relationships and strategies for good mental health," said WSD Health Education Consultant Nori Korsunsky. "We also wanted to provide our LGBTTQ students and allies with strategies and information about resources, supports and services.
"We want all students to feel safe, welcomed and included as part of the school community…we know if students don't feel safe or included, they are not going to attend school. Schools have the potential to lose out on a lot of creative, talented and bright young people."
Jared Star, Sexuality and Reproductive Health Facilitator with the Sexuality Education Resource Centre of Manitoba, served as keynote speaker at the event. He told students and staff about growing up gay in Winnipeg and the challenges he faced.
While Mr. Star had the support of his mother, teachers, counsellors and some of his friends when he came out as gay in high school, he still experienced bullying, isolation and felt out of touch with his peers.
The stress of living in a world where heterosexuality was the dominant norm eventually led to Mr. Star dropping out of school in Grade 10. Simply put, school didn't feel safe.
"I was worried all the time…I learned later in life that it was called anxiety," he said. "I felt like I was being chased by a tiger all of the time. I was always in fear, and it was really, really hard."
It took a few dark years before he came back to finish high school and eventually take social work in university.
"I realize, when I think back to it, that wasn't looking to find myself, I was actually looking for community. I was looking for a sense of belonging and knowing that I mattered to people who were like me."
GSA groups are a way of providing that community; the intent is to provide a safe circle of peers for LGBTTQ students and straight students who wish to offer support.
Multiple studies have pointed to LGBTTQ youth in Manitoba and Canada having higher diagnosed rates for mental health disorders, substance use and abuse, homelessness and other issues.
"In the Winnipeg School Division we are really trying to change those statistics," Ms. Korsunsky said. "We have a number of innovative initiatives within our schools to foster safer and more inclusive school communities, and this event is part of that. We have many incredibly caring adult and youth allies and a very supportive board and senior administration."
WSD currently has 12 student GSA groups in its schools, with a few more on the horizon.
As Mr. Star knows from personal experience, accessing supports, if needed, is critical for LGBTTQ youth.
"Asking for help was very important, it was the doorway to turning things around," Mr. Star said. "I couldn't do it on my own. I had given up on finding myself and thought 'now it's time to go find my future. Now it's time to take care of me.'"
Uzoma Asagwaraa, founder of Queer People of Colour, presents during WSD's first OUT conference.