The mood inside Bowmore Road Junior and Senior Public School was electric this week, as a sea of rose- and fuchsia-clad students, teachers, parents and administrators marked this year's International Day of Pink with the school's first in-person assembly since COVID-19 hit.
Many hours went into the pink-hued artwork, messages and decorations enlivening the Toronto elementary school's halls; glittery streamers hung from the gymnasium ceiling and students and staff energetically practised their speeches and performances.
The whole school community pitched in for the event held Wednesday, on the annual day to combat homophobia, transphobia, bullying and discrimination against those in the LGBTQ community.
"It feels like an important day because it is an important day," said 13-year-old Sebastien Carter, a Grade 8 student who was excited for the kind of in-person gathering that COVID-19 "took away" from students.
Young LGBTQ people comprise a population deeply affected by COVID-19's ongoing disruptions to in-person learning, since school is a place where many find safe spaces among peers and educators.
Faced with pandemic measures advising distance and isolation, some enterprising students and educators created vibrant LGBTQ communities online. However, as momentum builds for a return to pre-pandemic living, advocates are urging decision-makers to keep the focus on LGBTQ youth, their challenges and supports they require.
"We need to talk about discrimination — and a lot of people don't want to talk about it and they don't want anything to be said — but it's important topic and it needs to be shared," said Carter.
"To ignore it, it makes it an even bigger problem," Grade 7 student Liv Gienapp-Svenneby immediately added.
The 12-year-old credited Bowmore's Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) as a space where students learn about LGBTQ issues and experiences, as well as something that's changed the atmosphere at school.
Some conversations "may be uncomfortable, but if we didn't have [the QSA], it would be even worse," they said.
Working to ensure students have places to learn and engage in those sometimes-uncomfortable talks remains top of mind for Toronto high school teacher Kevin Doe.
During the pandemic, the social sciences and English teacher helped shift in-person gender and sexuality alliance (GSA) groups into an online space for the Toronto District School Board.
"Educators know that schools are safe spaces for a lot of students, and that their home life might look different than it does at school," he said.
"We recognized that in our conversations with students, when they were talking about the challenges they were facing with their families or the challenges they were facing not connecting with their peers or their friends.
"We know that two-spirit, trans and BIPOC queer people, especially, need a space to connect outside of the home."
That's echoed by Trevor Goodyear, a registered nurse and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. He's part of a team that's been tracking the mental health of different Canadian populations — including LGBTQ people — during the pandemic.
"We've seen a lot of youth feeling more isolated and perhaps less supported, with [services] they otherwise might have access to," he said.
Goodyear and his colleagues found that, relative to heterosexual people, LGBTQ adults in Canada were more likely to be coping poorly to the pandemic, having suicidal thoughts and using substances as a way to cope. Recent reports from U.S. researchers and peers have found similar trends among LGBTQ youth, he said.
"When we're looking at some of the mental health impacts of the pandemic and our necessary public health restrictions, LGBTQ youth are one group who's been especially impacted," he said.
"That said, this is a group who is very strong and resilient and can be very well supported by our schools and social environments — and I encourage schools to really play that important and valuable role in supporting and protecting [their] well-being."
Students drive change
Amid the pandemic, Doe, the TDSB teacher, has seen a culture shift in students advocating for equity and inclusion.
"Since the beginning of the school year, I've noticed that my students are introducing themselves with their pronouns, which is something that didn't happen before," he said. "Their fingers are on the pulse. They know the terminology. They know the issues. They want to delve deeper."
While bullying in schools has unfortunately also followed into online spaces and "we still know there's work to do," Doe is invigorated by the energy students have.
"They are excited to be in person, they are excited and ready to jump into new initiatives."
LGBTQ youth do still face bullying or harm while at school, but the very fact that school exists as a space where a student is independent and surrounded by other young people is key, said Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity.
"It's that peer-to-peer mechanism that is so crucial.… And what the pandemic did for so many people is cut that off," she explained.
While she said she felt isolated amid COVID-19, Owusu-Akyeeah noted that as an adult in her own home, "I'm able to connect with my friends … and not worry if I say the word 'lesbian' that someone's going to harm me."
"Whereas these youth, even when they were at home, even when some of those resources moved online, they still face challenges," she said. "It made phone calls challenging. It made participating in gay-straight alliances — even virtually — very challenging for some youth."
WATCH | LGBTQ youth building community online, via TikTok, Discord:
Yet Owusu-Akyeeah is inspired by the ingenuity in how youth and LGBTQ agencies found new ways to connect.
Colleagues at the Ontario-based LGBT Youth Line, for example, quickly shifted to include text and online services — and immediately saw a spike in youth contacting them via those new avenues, she said. Owusu-Akyeeah said she's also dazzled by young people using platforms like Discord, TikTok and Instagram to create new LGBTQ communities and discussion spaces.
This intrepidness offers lessons to both agencies serving this population about how best to reach them, and to school and government officials at all levels about what these young people want and need, Owusu-Akyeeah said.
Adult decision-makers should be "more proactive and less reactive" in addressing issues affecting this group, she added, since almost one-third of LGBTQ Canadians are under 25 years old, according to Statistics Canada.
"I want to see bold, collaborative efforts to make sure that we're preventative and ensuring that youth are protected and supported."
More than a 1-day event
At Henry G. Izatt Middle School in Winnipeg, Grade 9 students tasked with designing T-shirts for a class project focused their efforts on two LGBTQ themes: celebrating Pride and International Day of Pink.
Students drove the process from the start, said teacher Alyssa Caughy — from BIPOC students discussing how to express unity in their logo design, to a trans student highlighting the use of gender-neutral language.
Caughy said she was "living the teacher dream" by just being able to guide their passion for the project. "I get to take a step back and learn from them," she said.
Choosing International Day of Pink as a theme simply made sense, said 14-year-old student Trinity Frank.
"Day of Pink — it's about everybody's differences and how everybody should be treated equally," they said. "We kinda just live by inclusion and equality because we're a very diverse group. So it meant a lot to us to be able to show this to people and have a visual representation."
A monster-sized storm ultimately scuttled the school's plans to mark the day on Wednesday, though some wore the T-shirts while in remote learning.
Still, Caughy thinks having a delayed celebration — hopefully next week — underlines that the values expressed on International Day of Pink go beyond a one-time event.
"We wear pink on Day of Pink, but the attitudes and the beliefs that are represented should be sustained through our whole year," she said. "I'm fortunate enough to have a group of Grade 9s that talk that talk and walk the walk, before anybody even asked."