The Scoop: It’s no secret that the LGBTQ+ community faces many challenges across the globe. Queer and trans youth, especially, are powerless to much of the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and societal stigma still in existence. Canada is one country that still struggles to support and embrace its queer and trans children. The Fyrefly Institute works to combat this and provide much-needed support and services to LGBTQ+ kids in Canada.
Adolescence can be a difficult time for anyone — especially in the digital age. Kids and teenagers are exposed now more than ever to information and influence, and it’s all always at the touch of their fingertips. Virtual platforms like social media have become both a blessing and a curse for many young people, as an avenue of connectedness and cyberbullying.
For LGBTQ+ youth, these experiences are amplified exponentially. Not only do queer and trans children have to deal with the societal stigma that still plagues the queer community today, but they often experience issues at home and school as well.
In a 2023 U.S. survey by The Trevor Project, 1 in 3 young people who identify as LGBTQ+ reported that their mental health was negatively impacted by anti-LGBTQ+ legislation/policy, and fewer than 40% of youth surveyed said they found their home to be affirming of their identity.
Many people across the globe are aware that the United States has had a slew of clashes between social and political groups on the topic of LGBTQ+ rights, but the U.S. isn’t the only place that struggles to support youth in this community.
In 2021, the Canadian government reported that young people aged 15-24 made up 30% of the nation’s 2SLGBTQ+ community. Another study by the Centre for Sexuality found that 64% of LGBTQ+ youth in Canada felt unsafe at school, and 37% of trans youth have experienced verbal or physical harassment because of their gender identity.
These issues are among the many reasons behind the Fyrefly Institute — a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for the 2SLGBTQ+ community in Canada. They provide a wide variety of support services for queer and trans individuals, especially young people, and also conduct research that helps promote and progress their work.
Camp Fyrefly is an Empowering Escape
Plenty of people have fond memories of their summer days in childhood. Spending endless time outside with friends, swimming, running around and soaking up the sunshine are all common summertime memories. Folks who went to a yearly summer camp, especially, have built fond moments and lifelong friendships.
Sitting around a bonfire or giggling late at night with cabin-mates is a special experience that is often unique to young people who spend time at summer camps, and often helps children start their school years on a more positive note. For LGBTQ+ youth, school isn’t always something to look forward to, so Camp Fyrefly aims to help.
As previously mentioned, the majority of LGBTQ+ young people in Canada experience fear and even harassment at school due to their identity. Camp Fyrefly was born from the desire to address that issue and help prepare queer and trans students for the school year ahead.
“Fyrefly was a research project for a doctoral student at the time. The idea was that he was looking at challenges faced by trans and LGBTQ+ youth,” said Glynnis Lieb, executive director of the Fyrefly Institute. “He designed Camp Fyrefly to look at the impact of having a few days right before the start of junior or high school for trans and LGBTQ+ youth to be together, focus on their own identity, empower themselves, and face the school year ahead.”
Unlike some traditional summer camp options, camp Fyrefly provides a safe space for kids who share the experience of being queer or trans to form community and feel less alone when they’re facing another year of potential difficulty in school. Beyond this mission, however, Glynnis also shared that the camp specifically aims to reach marginalized groups within the LGBTQ+ community itself.
The team at Camp Fyrefly recognized that many of the campers who attend each summer tend to already have some support in their daily lives, but other demographics of LGBTQ+ youth struggle without it. To remedy this, the camp focuses on serving indigenous youth, those in the social services system, and kids living rurally who face barriers in their ability to attend camp. The sliding scale pricing for Fyrefly sets a maximum of $300 and often allows for camp fees to be waived altogether for campers who need it most.
The Future is Queer
It’s no secret that our global community has a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance, and many countries are actively unwelcoming to people who identify under that umbrella. Even nations with more progressive policies, like Canada, have some room for growth in this area.
The Fyrefly Institute and its Camp Fyrefly program have certainly identified these deficits in Canada. As Glynnis explained, the camp’s vision is not only to make queer and trans youth feel less alone in their experience, but also to inspire the next generation of leaders and policy makers.
“It’s great to celebrate identity, but now we’re looking at tactical leadership development. How do you prepare these young people to be in decision making positions as they age?” she said. “We work to teach them how to get in front of the city council, how to organize a rally, or how to get into decision making positions within the education system.”
Throughout the 19 years in which Camp Fyrefly has existed, there have been plenty of success stories in this realm. For example, one of the camp’s alumni is now the programming director at the University of Alberta, several former campers are running non-profit organizations, and some have even been elected to government positions.
Other stories of triumph coming from the program look a bit different, but are also worth celebrating in a huge way.
“We have a group of youth who came to camp not even knowing each other, but who all struggled with addiction, precarious housing, and other experiences. After COVID they decided to explore drag performing, and they’ve now developed a troupe and are performing all over the city and are getting paid gigs everywhere. Two of them are going to be co-hosting the governor’s health awards,” Glynnis shared.
Fyrefly Institute’s team focuses heavily on researching the unique measures of success that can be attributed to their resources and programs, like the camp. Although getting elected to political office or heading a nonprofit are all great accomplishments, Fyrefly also looks for success in other forms. Glynnis said they hope campers can find the ability to find positive connections, learn healthy boundaries, and find passion and purpose for their lives.
Changing the Narrative
LGBTQ+ folks in Canada already face plenty of difficulty and stigma as they move throughout life. Being harassed, discriminated against, and facing legislative roadblocks are still, unfortunately, part of this experience. Even some queer and trans people who seek medical care are faced with issues.
According to Glynnis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM) used by healthcare providers has historically created issues for the queer community. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that homosexuality was removed as a psychiatric condition from the DSM-5. Many physicians and psychiatrists have pathologized LGBTQ+ identities and caused their patients to feel “othered” or damaged in some way over the years.
“If I’m a trans woman who has migraines, the conversation is always about the awkwardness around sexual diversity, around identification and there’s always this added layer,” Glynnis said. “With gender diverse folk, there’s always this lens of looking at their diversity and their gender identity first. We need to get away from that.”
The Fyrefly Institute is also trying to change the narrative around how care providers treat queer and trans people — especially when it comes to their training.
“Working with LGBTQ+ folk is usually seen as a side module in any program, whether it’s medicine, or education, or whatever. It should be woven into the fabric of every program,” Glynnis said. “Whether you’re training to be a doctor, or a psychologist, or a teacher, this is part of your curriculum and is the same as working with [cisgender] men and women. These recognitions should be throughout, rather than a specialized module that you talk about for half a day.”
She explained that they are also fighting for accessibility for LGBTQ+ people in the healthcare system. Fyrefly advocates for the inclusion of gender-affirming care, like hormone therapy, in all health plans and all locations. Especially for people in more rural or conservative areas, these types of care aren’t easily accessed, and often force patients to travel distances to get what they need.
Being provided safe, accepting care is also a contributing factor to the mental health of queer and trans youth and adults alike — but Glynnis explains that the focus for many people isn’t there yet. Rather than having conversations around how the LGBTQ+ community can be best served, divisive conflicts over things like drag queen storytimes distract from the work that organizations like Fyrefly are trying to do.
Having as many people as possible stand up and join them in their advocacy will make a huge impact, according to Glynnis. “We need people to recognize how dangerous it is [for LGBTQ+ people to feel unsafe] and to stand up to it, because supportive voices are going to make a crucial difference right now.”