By Rebecca Brown
Dozens of signatures filled the guestbook on Friday night as staff, volunteers, supporters and members of the LGBTQ community poured into the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to celebrate the Youth Project’s 20th anniversary.
“Tonight is all about sharing stories, celebrating our history, performances from our Youth Board and having a lot of fun,” says Kristen Sweeney, an outreach co-ordinator at the Youth Project.
Halifax drag queen Eureka Love and her friend Maddy stood on a podium in the main foyer of the museum, introducing speakers and sharing their own experiences with the Youth Project.
“It seems like such a funny thing because we’ve really come a far way in the last 20 years,” says Love. “It seems a little bit ridiculous to have to hide but the work isn’t done and it’s a really necessary resource to have the Youth Project.”
The Youth Project is a non-profit organization that works with people under the age of 25 around the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. The organization has spent the last 20 years supporting young people in the LGBTQ community through education, support services, leadership and advocacy.
“We’re lucky because when it seems like maybe we’re on the right track, that maybe we don’t need the Youth Project anymore, it just simply morphs into something else that we do need,” says Eureka Love.
Making a difference
Based out of a little house with a bright pink door at 2281 Brunswick St., the Youth Project provides social support for young people throughout Nova Scotia. Workshops on homophobia are held province-wide and the organization is working to create a gay-straight alliance (GSA) network at all schools.
Amy Jones has been going to the Youth Project since 2013 when she attended Queer Prom, a organized event that was hosted by the Youth Project.
“It’s a breath of fresh air, really,” says Jones. “It’s really refreshing to just be around people who you can relate to and connect with and people who are going through the same struggles.”
Jones, who is also the head of the GSA at Cole Harbour District High School, says educating her peers is the best way to fight discrimination at her school.
“I remember my first meeting with the GSA. It was actually the second meeting because I was too scared to go to the first meeting,” says Jones.
Before going to the Youth Project, Jones had only come out to a few of her close friends. She says the project has helped her feel more comfortable with who she is as a person.
“It’s been wonderful,” says Jones’ mother, Kaye MacDonald. “The biggest thing, I think, is the acceptance. It doesn’t matter who you are, [the Youth Project] is just accepting.”
The organization has received funding from the federal government since 1998. Throughout the week, the Project hosts movie night and offer a drop-in centre and support groups. The house has a library, video games, movies, foosball tables and a TV.
Where it all began
The Youth Project began in 1993 as a field placement for Maura Donovan in order to fulfill the requirements for a master’s degree in social work at Dalhousie University.
“It was a tough time to be gay or lesbian or bisexual in Nova Scotia and nearly impossible to be transgender,” says Donovan. “There were no role models, there was a lot of invisibility and there was a lot of fear, harassment and discrimination.”
Coming out as a lesbian while completing her undergraduate degree at Acadia University, Donovan was aware of the need for a support group amongst young people dealing with the issues around sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Comparisons have been made that Nova Scotia [in 1993] was a little bit like Russia now,” says Donovan. “I think there’s some truth to that. Things were very, very difficult.”
According to Sheena Jamieson, a support services coordinator at the Youth Project, young people in Nova Scotia are finding self-disclosure earlier than ever before. When the Project first started, the average age to come out was 21.
Just beyond the entrance, the Youth Project house hangs a collection of mug shots of young people holding signs that read “out since…” followed by dates. Most common on the wall are people below the age of 18.
“[Young people] are finding safe spaces younger, they are learning the language younger and they are finding the resources to come out,” says Jamieson. “This is just a testament to how many people have found the Youth Project and made it something amazing.”
A look back
Lindsay Dauphinee, who attended the Youth Project as a teen and is now on the Board of Directors, remembers her struggle coming out as a lesbian 10 years ago.
“I had some trouble with other kids at school but nothing serious. I wasn’t beat up or anything,” says Dauphinee. “I didn’t have many friends, so I just kept to myself.”
Although the Youth Project has broken a lot of ground for young people when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, Dauphinee says nothing has changed in regards to language.
“I still hear people saying, ‘That’s gay’ or calling people by the wrong term,” says Dauphinee. “I think it’s offensive. It hurts.”
Dauphinee looks forward to the day where it does not matter how people identify themselves.
“I would love to see a day where the Youth Project wasn’t necessary,” says Dauphinee. “That we wouldn’t have to have an organization to battle homophobia and transphobia.”
Eureka Love ended the night with a toast to the Youth Project. Two large cakes were brought out in celebration and guests took to the floor to dance. A playlist of hits promoting gay culture, such as Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and Macklemore’s Same Love, played over the sound system, causing a breakout of movement.
“Here’s to another 20!” says Love.