Queer Youth Defence Network: Organizing against homophobia in the suburbs

The Queer Youth Defence Network is a small, newly-formed group of queer youth living in suburbs outside of Vancouver, supported by Red Braid Alliance. The Queer Youth Defence Network has launched an online survey to connect with other young queer, trans, and non-binary people, and learn about the “issues youth face at school that schools don’t ever talk about.” 

In this interview, two founding members of the Queer Youth Defence Network, Jessie and Dani, speak about their experiences of homophobia and transphobia, and their hopes for organizing other teenagers into a network that is independent of the school system that regulates and oppresses them. For more, follow the Queer Youth Defence Network on Instagram.

What inspired you to start the Queer Youth Defence Network? 

Jessie: I feel like there aren’t a lot of LGBTQ-friendly places, especially not where I live in Maple Ridge. There is still a lot of homophobia. People say, “It’s so much better. Everything is fine now,” but that is definitely not true.

We need a place where things aren’t sugar-coated, something that isn’t run by a bunch of straight, white men in their thirties. We need something for queer youth, by queer youth. 

Your group is called the Queer Youth Defence Network. Can you tell me about the name?

Dani: We want to defend other youth from transphobia, homophobia, racism, sexism and misogyny. We also want to defend their rights, their freedom, and what they want to do. They are future leaders. We are future leaders, and we want to be great leaders as youth and as queers.

Jessie: I feel like teaching each other about queer and trans history is also a form of defence, in a way, because knowledge is power. If you’re going up against a homophobic asshole, at least you can be smarter, know more. It’s always nice to know where something came from and to be able to understand it. It’s good to know about past struggles and stuff that is happening right now.

Jessie (right) with another Queer Youth Defence Network member, Katie (left), at a protest against homophobic and transphobic violence in Mission

What is it like to be a queer, non-binary, or trans youth out in the suburbs? 

Jessie: My art teacher actually marked me absent because I told him to stop calling me by she/her pronouns. It was a bit of a situation! It’s not that accepting out here. You can’t walk around and say, “Oh, hi. I’m gay.” I mean, no one does that anyways, but if you did you would probably get beat up. 

Dani: I was quite shocked that once I came out to my friends, they were like, “I’m gay too!” And everyone just started to come out. That was the most joyous time for me because I didn’t feel alone. 

But I have experienced homophobia too. Pride Month was the worst for me because there was one incident where I was doing a school campaign for Pride Month and someone hacked into our Kahoot (an online quiz platform) and they said the F-slur and, like, “gays should go to hell.” It really hurt me because I helped create the Kahoot and this fun week for all of us to be openly queer. But that moment made us all cry, it was really dreadful.

How do you think the school system perpetuates homophobia and transphobia?

Dani: I think our schools fail on teaching about diversity in sexuality and gender. They don’t talk about those things. For instance, they don’t talk about sex education for queers, and specifically, for queer youth. They talk about straight couples, what straight people will do and how it works. That is a prime example of how the school system has failed. 

Jessie: What Dani was saying about the school system failing us, it seems like they like to pretend homophobia and transphobia aren’t still going on. Like, “Here at this school, we don’t tolerate homophobia because we have one sign on the wall.” But they really don’t like talking about it. In my experience, when you bring something up or say something is homophobic, they’re like, “No, no, you can’t say something like that.” 

In the school system, if you aren’t at the very top, they don’t care about you. From the time you start school, you are taught to 100% respect authority figures and not question anything they tell you. If a teacher says it, it’s right, 100% sure. They say, “In school you should ask questions. We’re learning here.” But in reality, it depends on the type of questions you’re asking. If you want to ask why the school system is so racist, they’re not going to want to talk about that. They’re not going to want to talk about homophobia. They’re not going to want to talk about any flaw with the system. They try to contain you and teach you that, for your whole life, you are supposed to follow and be a sheep in the herd. You’re not supposed to question things or have actual critical thinking. 

The Queer Youth Defence Network was founded at the end of December. You just went to your first action and released your first public statement. Can you speak about your plans and hopes for the Network?

Dani: Starting this was very nerve-wracking for me because, in all honesty, I haven’t done anything outside of my inner circle at school. 

Making a group like the Queer Youth Defence Network outside of school shows that there’s another open space for youth to be who they are and educate themselves as they grow up in this horrendous society. My goal is to establish a safe space for people, where they can educate themselves. I want to educate myself, as well, by being with you guys. Before I joined this group, I didn’t really know much. It’s made me more of an open person, more able to discuss these things and not shy away from topics like sex education, rape culture, transphobia, homophobia, and all that. 

In the future, I hope that we can really work on this workshop, really promote this survey, work more on our social media platforms, and reach out to people. 

The premise of the Queer Youth Defence Network is that it is a group of queer youth, run by and for young queer and trans people. It is independent from schools, non-profit organizations, and the control of adults. Can you say why that is so important? 

Dani: It is very important because it makes a person feel like they have more places to turn to, rather than just depending on school. If my school did not have a GSA or anything like that, I wouldn’t know where to go. I’m very closeted still. Just keeping that closested side of myself at home, keeping those inner thoughts, is very aggravating and painful. I want to let it out to another circle that I’m comfortable with. 

I think the Queer Youth Defence Network is a great start, because there aren’t that many groups for queer youth out here in Surrey. There are some in the Vancouver area, but that is super far for me. That is a stretch for me. The Queer Youth Defence Network shows other queer youth, hey, we’re here, we’re another safe place for you, you’re always welcome, and all that.

Jessie: Things are more authentic when they’re run by a specific group of people, for that group of people. I don’t think adults do the best job with youth issues because they aren’t youth, nor are they usually queer. With the Queer Youth Defence Network, it’s not something we’re sugar-coating, like they do, especially, in schools. 

It’s important to have our own group because it’s easier for people to build power when they have support, when they’re not alone. I feel like a group that’s a just bunch of queer youth is quite powerful. 

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