Canadian youth support organization LGBT YouthLine was removed from the Toronto Catholic District School Board's list of student resources after an article from a noted anti-LGBTQ columnist called its material "pornographic."
Similar to the Trevor Project, LGBT YouthLine offers online resources and confidential peer support through telephone, text, and chat services for two-spirit and LGBTQ+ youth in Ontario — but in the article by former Canadian politician Joe Volpe in his Italian-language newspaper Corriere Canadese, these resources are referred to as "smut" and "porno paraphernalia."
On Friday, LGBT YouthLine Executive Director Berkha Gupta received an email from the TCDSB linking to that article, telling Gupta that YouthLine resources included "inappropriate material." Since then, Toronto Catholic District students can no longer access these services through their schools' website.
"There is a long history accusing 2SLGBTQ+ people of pedophilia and of 'corrupting' children and youth and the article explicitly uses these arguments against us," Gupta said in a statement Monday. "This rhetoric is harmful, unacceptable, and is overt homophobia and transphobia. Volpe wrote this article to clearly de-legitimize YouthLine's work, including attacking the ways that we support Indigenous and Black youth."
The TCDSB has received pushback from numerous Canadian social justice organizations, including Pride Toronto, White Ribbon Canada, PFLAG York Region, and Italian-Canadians for Black Lives.
"This shameful action is yet another example of systemic homophobia and transphobia that continues to run deep within the publicly-funded school board," Pride Toronto tweeted. "These resources are particularly critical during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person supports are limited."
On Tuesday, TCDSB Director of Education Brendan Browne issued a statement saying the school board was committed to supporting 2SLGBTQ+ youth in its schools, but that "online content deemed inappropriate for school-aged children available through third-party resources from the YouthLine website resulted in the temporary removal of the link from the TCDSB Mental Health Resource page pending engagement with YouthLine staff.
"We recognize and appreciate the peer support services YouthLine provides to 2SLGBTQ+ youth 29 and under, while our Board bares [sic] a responsibility to students and their families to ensure students receive age-appropriate content and resources."
Gupta told The Advocate Tuesday that the third-party resources being targeted include links to LGBTQ women's website Autostraddle, which promotes safe-sex practices and covers topics like casual sex, relationships, and sex workers' rights.
They did not intend to take the links down. "We believe that it's a reputable site that gives accurate information, and information for queer youth is already so few and far between when it comes to sexual health information."
Gupta said this was part of a long history of censorship of LGBTQ+ communities in the name of being "age appropriate." "I can speak from Toronto and Ontario contexts that not too long ago, when sexual health education was being discussed, lots of arguments were happening [about] at what age should trans people be introduced to students."
LGBT YouthLine called on the TCDSB to reinstate the link on the student resources website, make YouthLine posters and information available at each school, and take accountability "for the harm they have caused by removing YouthLine due to an inflammatory and hateful article."
Gupta expected to be in talks with the school board within the week to resolve the issue, and hoped the link could be restored sooner rather than later. "We were the only resource on their site around LGBTQ support. It's concerning that in a city where there are so many organizations that provide support for queer and trans youth, there's nothing else given as an alternative right now."
TCDSB trustee Norm Di Pasquale told The Advocate that YouthLine is an invaluable resource for marginalized youth, and he was committed to getting the link back on the student resource website. "There aren’t that many LGBTQ resources out there, and YouthLine is a valued partner of ours. From a personal standpoint, I know people who are very near and dear to me who have used that resource."
He said the school board's concern about third-party links did not originate from Volpe's article, but school staff emailed the link to YouthLine without consulting trustees. "It is unfortunate that one of our staff members decided to send that link to an article in a communication to YouthLine, which I think was not appropriate."
Regarding the Autostraddle content about sex education, he said, "Any link that we have on our site could be clicked on by, let's say, a 10- or 12-year-old. I just think we need to have a clear disclaimer from our website that we're not necessarily responsible for links that you find on third-party people's websites. I think what Autostraddle does and what YouthLine does are very important things, which is give people information and help keep them safe."
Di Pasquale agreed with Gupta's concern about a lack of alternative links for students. "This is an opportunity to really rethink the LGBTQ-focused resources we have on our site, and grow that to much more than simply one link. This is an opportunity to reflect and improve our resources for LGBTQ students."
UPDATE: The link to LGBT YouthLine is back up on the TCDSB website, Di Pasquale tweeted on Wednesday. "I look forward to bringing a motion tomorrow to our board meeting to provide more supports for our LGBTQ students."