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Laurier professor and graduate students conduct unique study to engage local LGBTQ youth
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Dr. Robb Travers, assistant professor of community psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, and graduate students Katie Cook and Alix Holtby have used the unconventional research method “photovoice” for their latest study of local LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) youth.
Teens Resisting Urban Trans- and Homophobia (TRUTH) asked LGBTQ youth in Waterloo Region to take photographs of things that represent their experiences living in the region.
“The goal of TRUTH was to understand the ways in which LGBTQ youth experience ‘social exclusion’ – particularly homophobia and transphobia – and how this impacts their lives, their health and their well-being,” said Travers.
The youth then came together in multiple sessions and discussed the issues reflected in their photographs. While they expressed resilience in the face of considerable challenges, their concerns included isolation, safety, homophobic harassment and discrimination, family acceptance and inaccessible health and social services.
“This research method is a wonderful way of engaging LGBTQ youth and it provides rich and detailed insights into the concerns, issues and needs they share,” said Travers. “It also helps to break isolation and build community among youth as they share these very intimate and personal experiences with each other.”
The study emerged out of findings from the Toronto Teen Survey, a similar research project that Travers conducted with colleagues from York University, the University of Toronto and Planned Parenthood Toronto earlier in the year. In that study, over 1,200 Toronto teens were surveyed to study youth sexual-health needs.
Some of the more curious findings that came out of the Toronto Teen Survey, such as higher rates of high-risk sex and higher pregnancy rates among non-heterosexual teens, spurred Travers to conduct the TRUTH study.
“Because some of our results in the Toronto Teen Survey were unusual and alarming, we were able to secure funding from the Centre for Urban Health Initiatives and The Ontario HIV Treatment Network to look closer at LGBTQ youth specifically to better understand what is going on,” said Travers.
He said that they went in with a very broad question, using the photovoice research method, to find out what key issues and questions they should focus on for a larger, Ontario-wide survey of LGBTQ youth he hopes to conduct with his research partners in the future.
"Some of the preliminary comparisons of issues between the Toronto and Waterloo Region study groups are interesting," said Travers. Toronto has a very visible LGBTQ community and the city is a magnet for LGBTQ youth from within Canada, and also for LGBTQ immigrants and refugees. In addition to more common LGBTQ concerns, issues for LGBTQ immigrant and refugee youth include learning a new language, finding a job, and basic survival.
“Often they can’t go back to their homeland because they would be persecuted, but without proper support in Canada they could end up on the street in the sex trade, presenting unique risks for HIV,” said Travers.
In Waterloo Region, LGBTQ youth expressed a desire to be themselves, to find supports, and to live their lives free from discrimination.
“Unfortunately what we saw in both groups is that homophobic harassment is still rampant in schools, including in universities,” said Travers. “These photographs make the ‘invisible visible’ and paint a complex picture of life for LGBTQ youth.”
The TRUTH study was a joint effort of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Community Research, Learning and Action and the K-W Counselling Services’ OK2BME program. The photographs were exhibited at the Button Factory in Waterloo yesterday, and will travel around to local businesses and organizations in the future.
“The study and exhibit were a huge success,” said Travers, who was delighted that over 150 visitors came to see the display, including the mayors of Waterloo and Kitchener. “I am really, really happy with how people are responding – it shows concern and support for the needs of vulnerable young people.”