“Painting the Full Picture”: A lens on the nuances behind 2SLGBTQIA+ youth substance use

BCCSU and UBC researchers Christian Barborini and Trevor Goodyear talk about the research behind the free photo exhibit “Queer Eyes, Queer Lives,” open from June 10 -29 as part of Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival

Christian Barborini (left) and Trevor Goodyear (right)

Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and other sexual and gender minority (2SLGBTQIA+) youth experience inequities in substance use. Research has historically emphasized the negative experiences and effects associated with using. Christian Barborini and Trevor Goodyear, two researchers from the BC Centre on Substance Use and the University of British Columbia, sought to explore the social context of queer youths’ substance use, including how it connects with place, identity, and community.

Based on two years of research led by Barborini and Goodyear, alongside the Substance Use Beyond the Binary Youth Action Committee and BCCSU colleagues, viewers are invited to see the photography created by participants through their studies. The photo exhibit "Queer Eyes, Queer Lives," offers a visual reflection of how 2SLGBTQIA+ youth in Vancouver are building homes and lives of substance for themselves despite overlapping injustices faced.

Untitled, by Panda (pseudonym)

Queer Eyes, Queer Lives: A photo exhibit of 2SLGBTQIA+ youths’ substance use, homelessness, and resiliencies

"Queer Eyes, Queer Lives: A photo exhibit of 2SLGBTQIA+ youths’ substance use, homelessness, and resiliencies " represents a series of questions surrounding substance use and other aspects of life, including identity, housing, and mental health. The exhibit is free and open to the public. It is being held at the SUM gallery from June 10 – June 29 as part of Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival. It showcases 60 photos created by youth aged 14 – 29 who participated in the studies.

The opening night on June 10 features special guest DJ O Show from 7-10 pm. On June 19 at 5:30 pm, the gallery will host a panel with the researchers and some of the young artists, providing an opportunity to delve deeper into the research and the stories behind the photos.

“Pride,” by Lauren (pseudonym)

Photography as a tool for participant-led research

The studies carried out by Christian Barborini and Trevor Goodyear offered an opportunity for the participating youth to narrate their own experiences using an approach called photovoice. Goodyear’s “Out on the Street” study examined how substance use and homelessness trajectories intersect among 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. Meanwhile, Barborini’s “Cannapix” study focused on how cannabis use features in the gender experiences of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming (TGNC) youth throughout British Columbia. For both studies, the researchers worked with youth in the Substance Use Beyond the Binary Youth Action Committee, which Barborini and Goodyear established in 2022.

Using photovoice, or participatory photography, helped the researchers to explore in depth the issue and context of substance use among 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. An important feature of this approach is that it shifted autonomy from the researchers to the participants. "This method allowed them to convey points of view, which they previously might not have been able to articulate with words or with a more quantitative research design involving predetermined fixed responses," Barborini notes. They added that, “maybe we're missing critical information regarding the nuances of substance use,” noting that this information is essential to informing the development of more comprehensive policy and practice responses.

Substance Use Beyond the Binary Youth Action Committee artwork by Sophie McKenzie

Shifting perspectives

The studies acknowledge the risks and harms associated with substance use, yet they also make room for greater consideration about what drugs may be doing for youth as they navigate key life transitions, including with sexual and gender identity, community building, and housing.

One of the critical outcomes of this research is the reframing strength-based and generative potentials of substance use. Particularly with cannabis use, evidence suggested that youth are mindful of their limits, the potential side effects, and ways to achieve their desired effects.

“There’s a really emancipatory and transformative role that we’re seeing from drug use,” Barborini emphasizes. “Many of the queer youth we spoke with are using very intentionally to support introspection, discovery, and development. It allowed them to imagine futures for themselves in a world that doesn’t create spaces for them to flourish.”

“Lost in Colour,” by Star (pseudonym)

Lessons for policies and services 

Barborini and Goodyear hope that the exhibit will showcase the strength, resiliencies, and knowledge of 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. In bringing together participatory and arts-based research methods to better account for the social context of 2SLGBTQIA+ youths’ substance use, the researchers have sought to engage local youth in a more holistic and less stigmatizing way.

Both researchers stress the importance of centering queer youth voices when designing programs, policy, and research. They also call for greater investment in youth- and queer-inclusive substance use and harm reduction services, 2SLGBTQIA+ community supports and programming, and quality housing and family reunification initiatives. Addressing the social issues affecting 2SLGBTQIA+ youths’ substance use and “providing interventions that can meet them where they’re at will ultimately better support their health and well-being,” adds Goodyear.