By Stuart Mann
In a conversation with his mother and aunt in 2015, Mylo Woods talked about how difficult it was to be a trans youth. “Everyone was bullying me, using homophobic slurs, making me feel angry and depressed, even suicidal,” he recalls telling them.
During the conversation, Mylo said he wished he had a place to get away from it all. “I just wanted something for me and other kids where we could be ourselves and forget worrying about those things anymore,” he says.
His comment struck a chord. “In my world, if a child asks you if you can build a safe space for them, you say yes,” says his aunt, the Rev. Erin Martin, the incumbent of St. James the Apostle, Sharon, located about 50 km north of Toronto.
Ms. Martin and Mylo’s mother, Kit Woods, had an idea. What about creating a safe place for LGBTQ youth and their friends at the church? The women, who are sisters, asked some parishioners if they would like to help. They said yes, and in 2016 A Safe Place was born.
Held in the parish hall, the twice-monthly gathering gives LGBTQ youth and their friends an opportunity to hang out together and be themselves. There is no structured program. Sometimes they simply shout out “I’m gay!” or “I’m trans!” or “I don’t know what I am!” It is a release for some of the kids because they can’t say it at home. Often they share stories about their lives such as being misgendered or rejected because they are gay. Then they rally around each other for support. It isn’t all serious – they have a lot of fun as well.
Mylo, 14, says it has been a lifeline for him. “I’ve gotten to know so many other kids like me who have gone through what I have, so they get it,” he says. “A Safe Place has cool people and we do cool things like normal people.”
Since it started, A Safe Place has grown from four youths to about a dozen. It is for youth aged 12 to 18. Once they reach 18, they’re asked to be mentors to the younger kids.
The youth come from the surrounding area and as far away as Markham. Some have come out to their families and others haven’t. Some do not tell their parents exactly where they are going. “They’ve told their parents they’re going to a youth group at a church, but they haven’t revealed what kind of youth group it is,” says Ms. Martin. “It’s still not a hundred per cent safe for them in their families.”
A Safe Place has mostly grown through word of mouth or by the youth bringing their friends. Ms. Martin gets calls from organizations across Ontario wanting to learn more. Recently the RCMP’s headquarters in London, Ont., asked if it could raise money for the group.
“We’re just a tiny group but apparently there are not that many like us out there,” she says. There is a similar group in Newmarket but not many others outside of Toronto.
In addition to financial support from the church and outside groups, A Safe Place received a $5,000 Reach Grant from the diocese to get started. Reach Grants help churches try innovative forms of ministry to connect with people who aren’t yet attending church.
Ms. Martin says St. James the Apostle and the surrounding community have been very supportive. In recognition of A Safe Place’s efforts, she was asked to be the grand marshal of the York Region Pride Parade on June 16 and the group was given an honoured place in the parade.
She praises her parishioners. “Even those people who didn’t totally understood what LGBTQ kids were going through could understand that children need a safe place. No matter what anybody believed individually, everybody believed that they wanted St. James to be a place of safety.”
She believes strongly that churches should be places of safety, especially for people who are marginalized and need to have a voice. “We need to be advocates for them,” she says. “Also, we need to be more visible about saying to LGBTQ people, especially kids, we love you and accept you.”
Parents of LGBTQ youth get support, too
LGBTQ youth and their friends aren’t the only ones who go to St. James the Apostle, Sharon for a safe place to talk – their parents do, too.
When A Safe Place started, some of the parents stayed at the church after dropping off their kids. Their kids had come out to them and they didn’t know what to do. They were confused and had questions.
Kit Woods, the mother of a trans youth and one of the founders of A Safe Place, had been through it herself and knew what they were feeling. “Because I had experience, I’d say ‘Do you want to step outside and talk for a few minutes? I’ve been where you are.’”
Ms. Woods saw that the parents needed a safe place as well, so the church provided one. A group of parents now meet once a month to talk. “We don’t have to temper our words or thoughts for people who might not understand,” she says. “We just get to talk like real people who share an experience.”
She says her son’s experience and creating A Safe Place has opened up a new world for her and her sister, the Rev. Erin Martin. “We now have a passion for LGBTQ youth and adults and being true allies,” she says. “It’s something we’re so grateful for because we absolutely love being a part of it. These are incredible, creative kids that are a joy to be around.”