Blog: 2SLGBTQIA+ , Safe Spaces, and the Intersections of Neurodiversity and Mental Wellness
By Amanda Labonte & Jenna Robinson
2SLGBTQIA+ folks, Safe Spaces, and the Intersections of Neurodiversity and Mental Wellness
The Pride Centre of Edmonton is an organization that “provides a non-judgmental, welcoming space where people of all attractions, identities, and expressions can be themselves, find support, meet new people, and be part of a caring community.” (Pride Centre Edmonton, 2022) It was established in 1971 with the name GATE (Gay Alliance Toward Equality) Edmonton. In 1987, it was renamed the Gay and Lesbian Community Centre of Edmonton (GLCCE), and changed again in 2004, reflecting its current title, Pride Centre of Edmonton. They provide numerous supports for the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community and have created multiple programs including for youth, seniors, and refugees. This organization creates and maintains safety.
We connected with Shawndy Kowalchuk (she/her), the Youth Program Director of the Pride Centre, for a discussion on what safe spaces look and feel like for those of the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community. Our interview examined the intersection of neurodiversity, experiences of mental unwellness, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ persons.
Feelings of Safety
We began by asking about how some of the folks who access Pride Centre of Edmonton’s services define safety in their neighbourhoods and the community. Kowalchuk stated that “a main theme amongst anyone I talk to, or anyone in this community [2SLGBTQIA+], is feeling safe to be themselves.” Kowalchuk stated it is important to challenge gender stereotypes and that the Pride Centre is often “the only safe space; they come [to the Pride Centre] physically because this place doesn’t exist anywhere else for them.” For many folks, their homes, neighbourhoods and schools are not safe and people do not “feel safe to be who they are.” Further, Kowalchuk identified that some supports continue to remain ‘invisible’ because they need to “remain under the radar” for safety reasons. This can result in resources being left unknown and relies on service providers “knowing the right thing to ask.”
2SLGBTQIA+ folks living in rural communities can experience heightened isolation, as they are removed from many of the safe and inclusive spaces that urban centres can provide. This was particularly true before the COVID-19 pandemic, but one benefit of COVID-19 Kowalchuck shared was the forced expansion of programming to virtual platforms. Kowalchuk stated that previously the Pride Centre of Edmonton “had the odd Zoom show or something, but they didn’t have it in the same capacity.” Kowalchuck was ecstatic about the ability to ‘reach’ more 2SLGBTQIA+ folks because of online platforms. For rural youth particularly, Kowalchuck stated accessing the virtual programs can be life-changing in that “they can’t come back tomorrow to the Pride Centre, and while they have to wait a week, at least they have this once a week to look forward to.”
Pride Centre and Community Safety
Through our discussion with Kowalchuck, it was clear that creating and maintaining safe spaces is critical to the work of the Pride Centre. Kowalchuck stated one of the ways to connect is “meeting folks where they’re at and letting them come to you.” Kowalchuck identified this as a way to create connections, relationships, and in turn, safe spaces.
Kowalchuck discussed the strengths and community impacts of the Pride Centre of Edmonton include “giving people the opportunity to meet other people like them. It creates an avenue for representation that they don’t get to see anywhere else.” Kowalchuck continued by identifying how the Pride Centre of Edmonton fosters relationships and connections that “open a lot of doors for people in terms of support.” She acknowledged that “some people may come in for one thing and then find resources for other things, too.” In some cases, Kowalchuck stated, “[the Pride Centre of Edmonton] is the first time they have friends and [experience] other big moments where people feel safe enough to take that first step.”
Part of this work includes accessible resources; Kowalchuck acknowledged that online programming provided opportunities to reach a broader audience, but also stressed the importance of creating resources in multiple languages. Kowalchuck stated that community safety goes beyond the Pride Centre of Edmonton and needs to include gender affirming care in healthcare settings, which is something that continues to be a barrier for many folks.
Neurodiversity and Mental Wellness
An intersection that was identified by Kowalchuck was neurodiversity and the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community; she has noticed that neuro-diverse folks have been connecting and utilizing her Youth Programming. Unfortunately, Kowalchuck stated, “there aren’t a lot of resources for folks who are neuro-diverse and queer. So, if you are a youth looking for support, you can find some general stuff, but there isn’t really anything specific” to the intersections of neurodiversity and queer.
When asked what Edmonton as a broad community could do to better support folks who are neuro-diverse, Kowalchuck advocated for “more conversations around accessibility and sensory issues. As an example, we bought weighted blankets and fidget toys for the office. We got them for the youth, but everyone has been enjoying them, too.” Kowalchuck shared the Pride Centre of Edmonton has a ‘Stoplight System,’ where they use coloured nametags to signify how much interaction a client wants that day. A yellow sticker indicates some communication is alright, whereas red is a signal that the person would like to be left alone at that time. This allows people to engage in social spaces and communicate what they are wanting without having to verbally state it. Kowalchuck discussed other ways of creating safe and inclusive spaces for neuro-diverse folks, including reaching out and collaborating with other organizations, and creating partnerships and relationships.
When it comes to mental wellness, Kowalchuck stated that mental wellness is complicated, it has a wide spectrum and intersects with broader community challenges. Kowalchuck provided an example where “you are more mentally well if you have economic stability, but if you’re struggling because you’ve come out as trans, and your employer fired you,” this can affect a person’s mental health. The Pride Centre of Edmonton can and does offer support, but there are wider systemic issues within society that compound the challenges experienced by 2SLGBTQIA+ folks. Further, to obtain mental health support, Kowalchuk explained how engaging with resources such as Access 24/7 can be frustrating when gender-affirming language, is not used. When asked about Briteline, a new 2SLGBTQIA+ support line, Kowalchuck stated that she wished there were “more things like that, it’s really great and it’s something that we’ve needed for a long time and it’s amazing that it’s local to this province.”
How can the broader community better support 2SLGBTQIA+ folks and create safer spaces?
We asked Kowalchuck how the broader community can support 2SLGBTQIA+ youth who may not be able to get to the Pride Centre or perhaps cannot join in virtual sessions due to barriers they may be experiencing; Kowalchuck identified that “I connect with a lot of teachers or youth workers that ask “what can I do” – pronoun pins, posters of pride flags, literally wearing things that say you’re a safe human. That you’re somebody that they can potentially approach. It’s on their terms, but you’re still gently guiding them.”
Another avenue of support for 2SLGBTQQIA+ folks is to remove assumptions; Kowalchuck stated that “people know themselves best and that you can’t assume – wherever you come from, meet people where they’re at.” Moreover, Kowalchuk stated that it is “the little ‘big things that you can do anywhere to make a difference and impact.” When it comes to youth specifically Kowalchuck says, “let the youth be the expert because they are!” This includes thanking folks when they correct you on their pronouns; it requires safety and courage for one to do so, and those acts should be recognized. Lastly, participating in Safer Spaces training, expanding and supporting GSAs, and more broadly, promoting a gender inclusive world are among other ways to support 2SLGBTQQIA+ folks and foster safety in all communities.
How else can you support The Pride Centre of Edmonton and the work they are doing?
Pride Centre of Edmonton. (2022). https://pridecentreofedmonton.ca/
Note: This is an excerpt from our July 2022 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here