The Intersection of Climate Change and the LGBTQ+ Community: Where Does Canada Stand?

By Julianna Campo (Spectrum)

Spectrum is a student initiative aimed at professional and career development for LGBTQ+ students. We aim to foster an inclusive environment to ensure LGBTQ+ students and their allies have resources, information, and connections to maximize personal and professional success.

As the news cycle continues to broadcast the devastating effects of a warming climate, both the national and international community have rightly recognized the disproportionate impact that climate change has on vulnerable communities, particularly women and Indigenous communities. According to the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), women and girls are often concentrated in positions in society and the labour force that make them more vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental change. In addition, Indigenous communities are more likely to experience direct harm as a result of climate change, despite being responsible for the majority of biodiversity conservation and leading environmental activist movements. 

Although this recognition of inequities in the experience of climate change is valuable, a perspective that is often excluded from the conversation is the unique experience of the LGBTQ+ community. This is particularly troubling, as the queer community faces distinct challenges in the face of climate change, such as disproportionate representation in youth homelessness statistics, lack of available and appropriate services, and continuing experiences of violence and discrimination. Therefore, future discussions and policy decisions related to climate justice must also centre the queer experience in order to be truly just. 

According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the leading national research institute on housing insecurity in Canada, between 25–40% of street-involved and homeless youth identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Intersecting identities of race, class, and Indigeneity increase the likelihood that queer youth experience homelessness, with many facing familial abuse and rejection as a result of their sexual and gender identities. Accurate estimates of queer homeless youth are difficult to nail down for multiple reasons, meaning the disproportionate number of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ+ may actually be higher. Firstly, current point-in-time measurements of homelessness often do not include questions about gender and sexual identity, and they do not account for the “hidden homeless” population who couch surf and do not access shelter supports and services. Secondly, shelters and their staff are often inadequately equipped to meet the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, who often conceal their sexual and gender identities and underreport experiences of violence and discrimination at the hands of fellow residents out of fear for their safety. As a result, many LGBTQ+ youth report turning to the streets because they do not feel safe within the shelter system, putting them at even further risk of sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and violence. 

As Canada continues to experience extreme weather patterns, climate change is becoming increasingly salient as a factor contributing to the vulnerabilities faced by homeless and street-involved members of the LGBTQ+ community. In the past 20 years alone, Canada has experienced some of the hottest summers in recorded history, with an increasing number of extreme heat and smog advisories warning residents to stay inside for their own safety. In the winter, although average winter temperatures are increasing, the warming climate has weakened the polar jet stream, which keeps colder air masses moving south in place for longer, accounting for the long cold snaps experienced across Canada from 2013 to 2017. Increases in precipitation over the last 30 years have also contributed to higher levels of flooding and erosion, displacing homeless youth in coastal cities, particularly in the Maritimes. Finally, queer youth living on the streets in British Columbia and Alberta are vulnerable to negative health outcomes as a result of the dangerous smoke and smog levels produced by the increasing number and intensity of wildfires. Therefore, members of the LGBTQ+ community in Canada are experiencing the devastating effects of climate. change first-hand, yet systemic underreporting of the queer experience actively contributes to the erasure of these perspectives within climate activism and decision-making spaces. 

However, as climate change is a global experience, policymakers must also consider the international implications for the LGBTQ+ community, as the rise in climate-related disasters continues to displace millions and fuel the migrant crisis. According to Rainbow Railroad, an international non-profit dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ individuals flee persecution, there has been a dramatic rise in climate change refugees seeking assistance. Refugee and resettlement camps are often hotbeds of homophobic and transphobic violence, with the state playing a complicit or active role in the persecution of LGBTQ+ refugees. In addition, there are still 71 nations that actively criminalize homosexuality, making the refugee and asylum claims even more difficult and dangerous for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, LGBTQ+ individuals may be reluctant to disclose their sexual orientations to immigration officials due to fears of detention and persecution, even if the violence they are attempting to flee is a result of their queerness. In addition, transgender individuals experience additional barriers and may be forced to de-transition in order to seek refugee status, due to their gender presentation not matching their legal name and gender marker on passports and official documents. Therefore, members of the LGBTQ+ community face violence and systemic barriers as they seek refugee status in the face of climate change disasters, and significant changes must be made to the asylum and refugee claims process in Canada and internationally to ensure the safety and dignity of queer refugees. 

In conclusion, Canada is at a crossroads in terms of climate justice. As we continue to experience and witness national and global changes in climate activity, policymakers must be considerate of the safety and lives of LGBTQ+ community. Firstly, the shelter system must undergo reform to ensure that shelters are safe spaces for queer youth fleeing familial violence and rejection so that they do not turn to the streets and become vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. Secondly, as the. Climate refugee crisis begins to escalate, Canada must work with international partners to ensure that LGBTQ+ refugees are not further victimized by the claims process as they attempt to flee persecution. 

Julianna Campo is a first year Master of Public Policy candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She completed her undergraduate at the University of Toronto in Criminology and Women and Gender Studies in 2017. Her passions include environmental policy, housing policy and educational reform.

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