A Few Minutes with...Dr. Kristopher Wells

The Kids Are Alright! Dr. Kris Wells advocates for LGBTQ+ youth through his work with iSMSS and Camp fYrefly

by emil Tiedemann

I WATCHED as the whole school erased his identity as though he had never existed,” recalled Dr. Kris Wells, assistant professor at the University of Alberta and director of its Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, referring to a gay former student of his who took his own life.

“I was that same kid; I remember the razor blade at my own wrists at 15. I made a different choice than he did. From that point on, I left teaching.” 

Dr. Kris Wells is one of the most recognized & respected LGBTQ+ advocates in Edmonton, known for his work with the University of Alberta

Wells returned to teaching when a friend introduced him to a group for gay and lesbian youth. 

“And that’s when I came back to the University of Alberta to try to understand what was happening in our schools and try to change it,” he said. 

He joined iSMSS and transformed how the government looked at LGBTQ+ youth through vital research and studies that proved change was necessary. This led to the evolution of Camp fYrefly, a summer leadership retreat that allows a safe and understanding environment for youth who identify as sexual and gender minorities.  

Today, Wells continues his work with iSMSS, Camp fYrefly, the No Homophobes campaign and other LGBTQ+ groups and organizations, spreading his message of equality for all throughout the halls of the legislature and in our own homes during the six o’clock news.

It may have taken a tragedy like the suicide of a young gay man to allow Wells to see that being “invisible” was not the way to solve the LGBTQ+ issues in Alberta—and the rest of the world for that matter—but this award-winning advocate for social change can clearly see the path he’s on and will not be silent anymore. 

IE/ What exactly is iSMSS and what is its mission?  

Kris Wells/ Our mission at iSMSS is to use research to lead social change in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender-expression issues. One of the big things that we try to do is work with our major social institutions to help them understand what their responsibilities are towards LGBTQ+ persons.

We help to do not only research but to develop policy, to do professional development with organizations, and we’re probably best known for that research connection through our Camp fYrefly program, which is now going into its 12th year.  

Everything we do stems from those core experiences of listening and learning from youth and how we have this privilege of being in a university environment to take those youth experiences and amplify them, whether that’s through the government to create new, more inclusive legislation or doing professional development with teachers in classrooms to help them understand, for example, gender-identity issues.  

IEWhat is Camp fYrefly? 

KW/ Camp fYrefly is a four-day summer leadership retreat for sexual and gender minority and allied youth, and what we try to do is account for everything they are not getting in their formal school environments.  

When I was growing up Camp fYrefly didn’t exist—it wasn’t even imaginable! A lot of it is about community building, knowing that you’re not alone, that you’re not the only one. What we know from the research and working with young people is it’s the isolation and the alienation that kills.

If you can see yourself in the future, then you have no hope, and then you turn to those negative coping mechanisms: drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, suicide, etc. We want them to know first and foremost that there’s a community that supports them and that no issue is too small, no issue is too big. It’s building that trusting relationship, to be that one trusting adult in the life of a young person, and we know that that trusting adult might not be in their family.  

Camp fYrefly helps LGBTQ+ youth express their identity and learn to embrace it, and gain confidence in the real world

IEHow far do think Alberta has come in terms of acceptance and understanding of the LGBTQ+ community?  

KW/ Prior to 1998, LGBTQ+ people in Alberta had no human-rights protections, so to look at then and now—where we’re talking about, for example, legislating support for GSAs—we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time.  

We still have a lot of work to do, but I think what we’ve seen is we’re on the right path and we’re headed in the right direction. As we’ve seen with the Bill 10 debates, there’s still a lot of education that needs to happen to people out there, and we can’t become complacent as a community ourselves.  

IEWhat grade would you give Alberta’s current and last governments in terms of their support of LGBTQ+ people?  

KW/ Right now, here in January 2015, I’d probably give a grade of a D. The government still fails to understand how important gay-straight alliances are and that it’s clearly discriminatory if you don’t allow students to have them in our publicly funded schools.

If you allow other student groups, then by law you’re going to have to allow GSAs. That shows us how much educations still needs to be done. Do we have to wait until a student tragically takes their own life before the government’s going to understand the importance of GSAs? That would be the worst-case scenario.  

IEBefore this GSA debate, what grade would you have given Alberta’s government?  

KW/ I probably would’ve given it a C+, maybe moving towards a B. We’ve seen some important changes and progress for the community, and then with Bill 10 we saw some steps back.  

Wells is very accustomed to public speaking!

IEDo you think Edmonton would benefit from having its own “gay” district, such as San Francisco’s Castro neighbourhood? 

KW/ The idea of having an LGBTQ-identified neighbourhood is really a challenge right now. We see [these districts] disappearing all across North America, and some would say that’s a negative thing because we lose that sense of visible community. Others would say it’s a sign of progress, the fact that we’ve been accepted much more widely into all the other communities.  

Particularly with the advent of the Internet, you no longer have to go to an LGBTQ+ neighbourhood to find a potential partner or relationship—now you can simply be online. But I think it’s important that we support our community businesses: those businesses that come from our community, represent our community and give back to our community.

There’s a danger if we don’t do that. I think [these gay-oriented districts] bring richness to our city, shows other communities that we’re here, we’re there, we’re part of the city—you can see us, you can hear us!  

IEDo you remember your first Edmonton Pride Festival? 

KW/ I do! I remember being at my first Pride Festival and seeing people wearing paper bags over their heads—that was in the early ‘90s. Back then there were no human-rights protections [for LGBTQ+ people], so if you were to be seen at one of these kind of events you could be fired from your job. 

What I remember when I was a classroom teacher is not being able to be out. I would go to Safeway on the weekend with my partner and he would put his hand on my hand on the shopping cart, and I would freeze because if a student saw this I would be fired from my job. So what it did was it made me have to deny our relationship, and that was so hard and painful. Here’s the person I love, and I have to hide it and I have to deny it! 

For me, that really weighed on me as a teacher, because I can’t be an authentic teacher and if I can’t be there for the other LGBTQ+ people in my school—and particularly the students—then what kind of teacher am I? That role model wasn’t there for me as a queer kid growing up in the ‘80s—even though I knew there were queer teachers there—so I was perpetuating that silence and invisibility by not being out myself. It was too dangerous.  

IEWhen did you come out publicly? 

KW/ I went to the community bar the Roost one weekend, saw one of my students there from my school, and we locked eyes but could never talk to each other. Back at school, we saw each other in the hallways, but there was no space to talk or safe to be visible. I came back to school after some weekend and he had committed suicide. I watched as the whole school erased his identity as though he had never existed, and I said, “I can’t be a teacher, I can’t be part of this. If I had just said something, maybe it would’ve made a difference.” 

Wells in his office at the University of Alberta, which has always supported everything that Wells stands & works for

I took a year off and that’s when a friend said to me, “You should come check out this new youth group that just started for gay and lesbian youth.” He told me he thought I’d really like it, so I checked it out. The moment I walked in and they found out I was a teacher they said, “Do something!”

And that’s when I came back to the University of Alberta to try to understand what was happening in our schools and try to change it. That’s led me to a master’s degree, into a Ph.D. and into evolution of Camp fYrefly with co-founder and co-director Andre Grace—that was part of my journey. I’m not going to be silent anymore! 

IEHow do you deal with all the negative feedback and personal threats/ insults? 

KW/ It’s motivation! If someone’s called to get me fired this week then I’ve done my job, because what I’m doing is challenging deeply held attitudes of people and that’s how change happens—disrupting the status quo. I use it as fuel to do more, to speak louder rather than to be silenced.  

IEDo you think celebrities, athletes and other prominent people in the community who are LGBTQ+ have some sort of responsibility to come out? 

KW/ Coming out is a deeply personal issue. I’ve had kids ask me if they should come out or not and I say to them, “Only you are going to be able to answer that question.” The number-one thing is safety: is it safe for you to come out? And then there’s your economic viability: is it going to have negative consequences? I don’t think anybody can tell or demand that someone comes out. I think what we need to do is to be able to support people that may have these issues.  

I think it’s great that we have these LGBTQ+ role models that are coming out—whether it’s in sports or entertainment or literature, visibility matters! But I don’t think we should be outing people. It’s a deeply individual experience and I think everyone has to make that assessment for themselves. I can tell you that coming out is a form of liberation: it’s a weight lifted off of you where you don’t have to worry about managing your identity. 

All that energy it takes in hiding or managing your identity in different aspects of your life can be put into something else: your relationship, your work, your studies, rather than simply worrying if you’re going to be accepted. But, again, everyone’s journey and process is so different. I think we need to just support people where they’re at and encourage them to fully and truly be themselves, whatever that means to them. 

IEWhat does the word “pride” mean to you? 

KW/ Pride means a lot of things to me. Pride means community. Pride means celebration. Pride means how far we’ve come but yet how far we still have to go. Pride to me means having faith, trust and love in yourself. Pride always brings a smile to my face whenever I hear the word, because it means so many different things to so many different people. That’s why pride is so important, because it isn’t just one thing.  


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