SOY celebrates 20 years of supporting LGBTQ youth

This community development program is thinking up new ways to support queer and trans youth in Toronto’s constantly changing political climate

A lot can change in two decades, especially on the front lines of activism. For Supporting Our Youth (SOY), a queer and trans community group at Sherbourne Health Centre, they’re using their 20th anniversary to reflect and adjust to the changing needs of Toronto’s LGBTQ youth.

Established on April 6, 1998, SOY provides one-on-one support as well as groups, programs and events for queer youth under 29 years old. Recently, they completed an evaluation that revealed a need to refocus on health and wellbeing, one-on-one support and employment assistance, rather than fostering social connections.

“A lot of the climate has changed and we wanted to see if our services still aligned,” says Adam Benn, manager of LGBT2SQ Community Programs at Sherbourne Health Centre.

SOY’s new Goal Planning Service pairs queer and trans youth with workers for one-on-one support. The idea is to help folks navigate education, employment and physical and mental health systems safely and efficiently.

This type of support is necessary now more than ever. Benn says that while many important steps have been taken toward equality in the past 20 years – for example, the nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 and the passing of Bill C-16 in 2016 – the need for support has not lessened.

More tolerance and legal equality means greater access to jobs and school, Benn says, but LGBTQ youth still need help navigating once they enter these spaces.

In the face of growing public awareness about the intersections between race, gender and sexuality in marginalized groups, Benn says SOY is also thinking more about how these intersections impact the LGBTQ community.

SOY is also developing community guidelines to help staff and youth respectfully navigate differing backgrounds and identities. SOY is also trying to make its staff more representative of the community they support. “We have more racialized staff, more trans staff and I think the youth notice that,” says Benn. 

A full year of anniversary celebrations has been planned. SOY’s annual Pride Prom, which is now called the Freedom Dance, will help kick off Pride. The Bowlathon fundraiser takes place in October.

But SOY’s 20th anniversary isn’t all about celebration. The organization also plans to expand its reach outside of the downtown core with two new programs. The first, a peer leadership program, will provide employment training for youth and encourage skills development. The second, a mentorship program, will focus on supporting Black queer youth in Jane and Finch, Scarborough and downtown. Both programs are set to launch by September of this year.

Though this year marks a significant milestone for SOY, the anniversary is just as much about looking forward as it is about looking back.

“Things have gotten better [for LGBTQ youth],” says Benn, “but there’s still a lot of work that needs to happen.”

SOY relies on the generosity of donors and the community to fund its programming. If you are interested in donating, you may do so here. | @RhiannaJK

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