From left: Youth for a Change co-founder Jen Marchbank with Cole Henderson and founding member Candy Fine at a recent Monday evening event for youth in the LGBTQ+ community. (Photo: Amy Reid)

Strong, persevering and proud

Surrey group for LGBTQ+ youth aims to ‘train the next generation of activists’

PART FOUR IN A SERIES: ‘Youth for a Change’ was created in 2012 by SFU professor Jen Marchbank, Sylvie Traphan

This is the fourth and final story in a four-part series about the past, present and future of our LGBTQ+ community. Click here to read part one, click here to read part two and click here to read part three.

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Paint brushes, glitter, yarn and other art supplies rest upon a handful of tables in Newton. Youth laugh as brushes glide across a canvas. Others battle it out at a foosball table nearby, cheers erupting when a goal is gained.

The scene is one that plays out every Monday night, as part of Youth for a Change (youth4achange.com), a group created in 2012 to support and educate LGBTQ+ youth, ages 13 to 21, and create “the next generation of activists.”

Tonight, the youth are creating art and poetry for an “art bomb” to be displayed in The Grove in Newton this summer.

One among them is Cole Henderson.

The 19-year-old is nervous as he sits down to share his story, explaining he was 14 when he began questioning his sexuality and gender identity.

Two years later, he began transitioning from female to male using hormone treatments, something he will have to continue for the rest of his life.

“It didn’t go well,” he says of the social change, noting it was upsetting that people around him would still refer to him using female pronouns.

“My mom said she kind of felt like she lost her daughter. I think it was me changing, but it was a change for other people as well.”

Henderson recalls looking for resources during that time, and says finding Youth for a Change was a life-saver. It was “all he had” when he was struggling as he came out.

“It was everything to me.”

Henderson is grateful to the group which has allowed him to make connections and offered him an opportunity to educate others on how to treat LGBTQ+ people, something he’s done with New Westminster youth workers. Having graduated out of Youth for a Change, he now returns as a volunteer as he applies for social work himself.

“We need more groups,” Henderson stresses. “More activities, functions. Places where people can go and feel included. Meet people, make connections, accept themselves.”

Another former member who now serves as a volunteer is 23-year-old Candy Fine who grins as he says he is “trans but not really specific on pronouns.”

Fine remains “very involved in activism.”

The award-winning drag queen is a founding member of the group and was part of the team that created Canada’s first-ever educational material on LGBTQ+ elder abuse, in partnership with SFU. Fine wrote one of the scripts and acted in one of the videos.

Today, Fine helps run Vancouver-based Dan’s Legacy, a group that provides counselling for youths and adults.

Asked what needs to change to make things easier for youth coming out today, Fine immediately replies “proper representation in the media.”

”So having gay, trans, bisexual, pansexual, two-spirited people in media as normal people. Not just the comedic relief – the gay best friend or the know-it-all activist.”

He also called for “more queer literature in schools.”

“I remember in high school having to convince the principal and councillors to get three queer books. It took six months of convincing them that it was appropriate. There’s lots of queer literature that’s kid-friendly or teen-friendly,” said Fine.

While Henderson and Fine have “graduated” from the group, there are many minors currently in it, some as young as 13.

Several members speak of attending Surrey’s first-ever “all-bodied” swim held at Newton Wave Pool last October, organized by Youth for a Change and city staff. The private event’s tagline was “All Genders, All Sexualities, No Judgement.”

Surrey’s manager of parks, recreation and culture Laurie Cavan tells the Now-Leader the event was for youth ages 15 to 21 and featured accessible, gender-inclusive change rooms and washrooms. Two more “Youth All-Bodies Pool Party” events are planned in 2019, however the dates are not yet finalized.

A 15-year-old Youth for a Change member, who identifies as non-binary, volunteered at that event and told the Now-Leader it was “probably one of the most therapeutic or healing things, for me personally.”

“Ever since I joined this group, my mental health has gotten a lot better,” adds the teen, whose name is not being published due to safety and sensitivity concerns.

“I’m not feeling isolated. I can speak to people easier, I can present easier. I think it’s important because it’s very easy to feel isolated.”

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Youth for a Change was founded by Jen Marchbank – a professor in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University – along with her wife Sylvie Traphan, and “10 very keen youth.”

“We had been working with a number of LGBTQ youth prior to that, but some of them had expressed a desire not just to have a place to go, but to be able to be engaged themselves in creating social change,” says Marchbank.

“Our original members, some were basically living on the streets, or in care. The idea was we would become activists, educators, advocates.”

Marchbank explains early work was educating youth on LGBTQ+ history, then they began doing workshops in high schools around homophobia and transphobia.

Later, the group began participating in educational workshops with the YMCA in which members of Youth for Change talked to other teens about the LGBTQ+ community, about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Since then, their work has been extensive: From participating in training of youth and community workers, to creative performance and art projects, to lobbying for gender neutral facilities, to monitoring school board policy, it’s run a wide gamut.

The group has also done intergenerational work, connecting youth to seniors to learn from their life experiences.

A “Call and Response” project with seniors resulted in a 2017 book called Basically Queer: An Intergenerational Look to LGBTQA2S+ Lives.

Then there’s events held for the youth, such as “Queermas” during the holiday season and drag queen bingo.

And while the group, and its efforts, has evolved over the years, Marchbank says it’s never lost the original vision: To be a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth and to create the “next generation of activists.”

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Vera LeFranc was Surrey’s first and still only openly gay councillor ever elected, serving from 2014 to 2018. She stressed the importance of groups like Youth for a Change.

“I think we need to make sure we have safe spaces,” says LeFranc. “And the word has to get out. Sometimes we create safe spaces but young people don’t know about them or how to get to them.”

During her political days, LeFranc took interest in projects supporting youth, heading a project called Connecting Community to Surrey Youth Leaving Care.

“What you see in those circumstances is so many young people who are LGBTQ2+ who are not connected to their home, who have no sense of belonging, are experiencing multi-levels of discrimination and oppression so it’s really difficult for them to move on,” says LeFranc, highlighting the high rates of homelessness that exist in this demographic.

“If you think about their lives and the many lost opportunities that we have to intervene and create a change in their trajectory, and we’re not doing it. That’s why that project was so important to me.”

LeFranc, who now serves as CEO of Metis Nation BC, said she was disappointed with results of the recently released McCreary Report which “identified that racism, homophobia and a feeling of dislocation for young people was really on an uptick.”

“It’s really sad for me,” she adds, “because I feel like we made a lot of progress, we’ve become very progressive, but with everything that’s happening in the world it seems like we’re going backwards and that’s really affecting young people.”

That study, the BC Adolescent Health Survey, involved 38,015 students in Grades 7 to 12, finding an increase in reported discrimination due to sexual orientation, from four per cent in 2013 to five per cent last year.

LeFranc says it’s a “very strange time,” but that she’s encouraged by youth today.

“We have a youth ministry (at Metis Nation BC) and we do a lot of activities with youth and they’re very enthusiastic about creating safe spaces for LGBTQ2+. Young people are knocking it out of the park. Us oldies need to move over,” she laughs.

But on a more serious note, LeFranc said young people searching for their identity – be it sexual, gender or otherwise – are particularly vulnerable.

“I think that it is so critical for young people to absolutely be able to develop into the person they should be,” LeFranc adds.

“When you come against the world, which young people do, it’s really difficult for people. I think if they don’t find those safe spaces, it will take them longer to get to where they want to be, and need to be. Hopefully we’ll eventually have a world where you don’t need to find a safe space, that everywhere is a safe space. We’re not there yet.”

To learn more about Youth for a Change, visit youth4achange.com.

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