“Our kids fall through the cracks because of their identities and life stories.” -Christine Henschel.
On a hot Friday at the Boyle Street Community Centre, Christine and I found a quiet room to sit and talk about her work with 2SLGBTQ+ youth. The week before, I’d asked our staff 2SLGBTQ+ lunch group which of Boyle Street’s programs or services we might like to highlight during Pride Month. Instead, they suggested I speak with Christine.
At a time when many organizations are still working to build programs that are specific to and empower 2SLGBTQ+ people, individuals like Christine lead groundbreaking changes in our sector. Boyle Street is committed to creating more safe and accessible services for the 2SLGBTQ+ community. In the meantime, we’d like to celebrate and learn from Christine’s advocacy for 2SLGBTQ+ youth.
Christine is a High-Risk Youth and Family Wellness Specialist with Allies for Youth, a Collaborative Service Delivery (CSD) program run by Boyle Street and Child and Family Services. Christine’s background is in child and youth care, and she has over a decade of experience in the field.
“Things were different back then. When I graduated in 1997, not a lot was taught about the 2SLGBTQ+ community, explained Christine, “Or trauma-informed care, which I think I always did, but didn’t have a word for. You can’t do the job without it.”
Christine’s work with 2SLGBTQ+ youth began after taking a break to raise her kids:
“When I was trying to get back into the field, I watched a documentary about transgender people. Then, when I came into this role, I happened to have two transgender youth on my file. We really connected, and they’re still on my file, and I found that it’s a passion of mine, to be an advocate and an ally.”
Boyle Street supported Christine to attend the Canadian Professional for Transgender Health conference twice. Training and connecting with professionals in the 2SLGBTQ+ community helps Christine to stay on top of legal and medical policies and use her knowledge to advocate for our youth.
“The approach I take with 2SLGBTQ+ youth is different because they face additional barriers within hospitals, courts and other systems,” said Christine. “I don’t have a fear of standing up in a courtroom and saying, “No, I’m sorry. He identifies as male and his name is ___.” I’ve done that many times. A lot of my youth won’t go without me to those places because they know I’ll stand up for them.”
Although Christine has noticed a positive shift towards acceptance in these systems over time, there are still many barriers for youth who are at high risk and identify as transgender. The process to get an individual's gender legally changed or get approved for hormone therapy is long and complex. Sometimes, by the time the youth get an appointment, they might have become homeless or incarcerated or have left town.
One particular incident Christine recounted demonstrates the devastating consequences when systems fail to create safe and inclusive spaces for 2SLGBTQ+ youth:
“One youth who identified as male and whose peers knew him as male was sent to jail and put in the women’s section. He got outed and that became a big challenge afterwards on the streets. I’ve worked with the Alberta Transgender Advocate on that but some treatment centres are more accepting than others.”
Youth who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ are six times as likely to complete suicide than those who are straight and cisgender. When working with 2SLGBTQ+ youth, Christine always checks in about how they’re feeling in their own skin and whether they feel safe. She finds that some workers work well with 2SLGBTQ+ youth, while others continue to act standoffish or ignorant, sometimes inadvertently, because they are unsure how to support them.
“Kids in care are falling through the cracks and we’re creating potential risks for homelessness and mental health that we could mitigate with better supports,” argued Christine.
The biggest lesson Christine has learned from her experience working with 2SLGBTQ+ youth is that there is still a lot of learning and education to be done in the youth services field and the homeless-serving sector at large.
“I’ve learned that as much as I know in terms of the medical and legal systems, I know that I have to be an ally and that it is an ongoing and sometimes exhausting thing.”
For the past four years, Christine and her colleagues have been working on a proposal to create a specialized 2SLGBTQ+ unit within the CSD partnership between Child and Family Services and Boyle Street. After ongoing challenges in the approval process, the proposal is close to being passed, and Christine said she will celebrate big-time once it’s official:
“We made the proposal because these kids were getting missed. For example, at the time, people didn’t know much about hormone blockers and would not prescribe them, which was extremely detrimental to the mental health of a young man who keeps experiencing a menstrual cycle. Now we’re working on a team and we have support from the agencies.”
When I asked Christine what additional supports she would like to see for her youth, she immediately said an apartment-style home for 2SLGBTQ+ youth. Having a safe space with access to workers and resources would open a lot of opportunities for these youth:
“The youth could get to know people who are going through the same thing and build those support systems. We know that people who have strong support systems do better.”
Written by Freya Hammond-Thrasher (she/her), Communications Coordinator at Boyle Street Community Services.