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Making places, making lives: Queer and trans youth strategies for more-than-survival in suburban Toronto

Making places, making lives: Queer and trans youth strategies for more-than-survival in suburban Toronto

Wiley Sharp

How do LGBTQ2S+ youth survive and thrive in suburban Toronto? Queer and trans youth are more likely than their straight peers to experience isolation, depression, harassment, violence, and suicide; these structural inequities are amplified by intersecting racial, class, and gendered oppressions. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened this crisis, as lockdowns and health restrictions deprived queer and trans youth of critical spaces of connection and belonging.

In the face of this social marginalization, LGBTQ2S+ youth navigate messy geographies of mobility and unequal distributions of social infrastructure as they build places of refuge and vibrant networks of belonging in their everyday lives. Wiley Sharp’s MA research explores the connection between the everyday practices that sustain queer and trans life in the periphery of the GTA and the places of refuge that queer and trans youth create.

Wiley’s research employs mobile interviews and participatory photography to study these everyday places. Mobile interviews are conversations with participants conducted while moving in and around meaningful, everyday locales. Participatory photography supplements mobile interviews by prompting participants to share photos of other important locations. Together, these methods work to focus discussion on places critical to participants’ lives—rather than predetermined places prescribed by the researcher.

Woodbine beach, pictured here, is one place that facilitates LGBTQ2S+ social and romantic connections outside of Toronto's urban center.

Although Toronto’s urban periphery may appear, at first glance, to be lacking in queer infrastructure, queer and trans youth address the lack of formal social services and community spaces by appropriating all sorts of places. Public institutions, such as schools and libraries; wild spaces, such as parks, forests, and abandoned buildings; and even private spaces, such as family homes, are all taken up as places of queer and trans social reproduction, affording opportunities for queer and trans youth to connect and express themselves beyond the dominant gaze of Canadian society. In addition, digital technologies such as social media and internet messaging platforms enable youth to create novel patterns of connection across these peripheral places, providing new ways for LGBTQ2S+ youth to ‘queer’ suburban space. Preliminary findings suggest that these patterns of subaltern social infrastructure enable queer and trans youth to go on living in spite of the neglect of Canadian society and state.

Wiley’s research contributes to emergent understandings of queer life in Canada’s suburbs, as well as ongoing debates in queer and trans youth geographies about the role of home, schools, and public space in the lives of LGBTQ2S+ youth. Their research constitutes a timely intervention in the crisis of social violence facing queer and trans youth: it aims to provide strategies for LGBTQ2S+ service providers, activists, and allies to support queer and trans places and, in turn, help LGBTQ2S+ youth survive and thrive in suburban Toronto.

Wiley Sharp (they/them) is a second-year MA student in the Critical Human Geography program, supervised by Dr. Alison Bain. They graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a BA in Philosophy in 2021. Their research interests include queer and trans place-making, sub/urban geographies, urban mobilities, digital geographies, and everyday life.