Research shows LGBTQ kids among most vulnerable, Kristopher Wells says.
There has been heated public debate and rhetoric concerning the UCP government’s proposed changes to the Education Act with the recent introduction of Bill 8. The new minister of education continually proffers how Bill 8 will provide the strongest legislative protections for GSAs in Canada, while other political parties, educators, and students argue that Bill 8 represents a significant rollback on important protections and supports for both LGBTQ students and teachers.
Bill 8 removes the requirement that principals immediately grant a student’s request to start a GSA and appoint a staff member, in a timely fashion, to supervise the group. Bill 8 also no longer guarantees that students will have the right to call their clubs a “gay-straight alliance” or “queer-straight alliance” without obstruction or undue influence, and removes written clarifications protecting the disclosure of GSA membership.
Bill 8 also eliminates the requirement that all schools must publicly post policies which conform to Alberta’s human rights legislation and include written protections for both students and teachers on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Is Bill 8 a rollback on LGBTQ inclusion and progress in schools? Was Bill 24 an overreach by the previous NDP government? With so much spin, hyperbole, and misinformation being circulated it’s hard to know what is truth, what is fiction, and what is political theatre.
So what does the scientific research literature have to say about the issue of GSAs?
Over 20 years of peer-reviewed research indicates that LGBTQ youth are among the most vulnerable groups of students in schools today, with higher rates of substance use, smoking rates, eating disorders, homelessness, depression, self-harm, and suicidality when compared to their heterosexual peers.
These risk factors are not because of who LGBTQ are or how they identify. They are the compounding product of discrimination, harassment, and prejudice, which all contribute to the development of unsafe school environments that impact the mental and physical health, safety, and well-being of sexual and gender-minority youth. The Public Health Agency of Canada has noted that schools are a critical site for targeted interventions to help reduce these risks by supporting the development of protective factors, inclusive policies, and evidence-informed programs designed to help build resilience, increase safety, and improve mental health.
Research demonstrates that GSAs are an important intervention that not only reduces risk and helps to build resilience, but can also save over $183,000 in future student-related health-care costs that result when discrimination and prejudice are allowed to flourish in schools.
Research shows that GSAs are a vital public-health intervention, which not only creates safer school climates for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth, but also for heterosexual youth. One recent study from the University of British Columbia, which included over 39,000 students in Grades 7-12, found that the longer a school had a GSA, the greater its protective power was for all students. The length of time and presence of a GSA is positively related to increased feelings of school safety. This finding lends support to not only the importance of GSAs, but also to their long-term, cumulative, and positive impact on school climates and student safety.
Research indicates that GSAs make schools safer, so why would any government seek to limit, weaken, or reduce their implementation?
Bill 8 does exactly the opposite of what the UCP proclaims it will do. If Bill 8 is passed, schools will become less safe, policies more vague and ineffective, and both LGBTQ and heterosexual students will suffer.
GSAs do not just change lives, they save them. Government legislation should at the very minimum seek to do no harm. Bill 8 will remove important protections and increase risk impacting the health and well-being of all students. It is legislation that is not supported by research or evidence. Instead, it appears to be crafted out of wilful ignorance, ideological dogma, and wanton prejudice.
Kristopher Wells is a newly appointed Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth. He is an associate professor in the Faculty of Health and Community Studies, MacEwan University, and serves as the co-editor of the International Journal of LGBT Youth.
Edmonton Journal June 27, 2019