For Adam Goldenberg, being a young lawyer in Toronto was a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, for him, he could turn to Out On Bay Street, an advocacy group for young gay professionals, to help him get settled.
“For those of us who arrive in Toronto, it can be a bit intimidating,” says Goldenberg. “We are historically a marginalized group. When I first got a job at a law firm on Bay Street, Out On Bay Street is the organization I turned to to find other young LGBT professionals. They put me in the same room, literally, with those who have formed the basis of my professional network. It gives you a place to start and gives you a sense of support.”
And at the annual conference of Out On Bay Street (OOBS) in September, Goldenberg was honoured with the Emerging Leader Award, for his work as the co-founder of Teach for Canada. The organization addresses the crisis in education in First Nations and remote Canadian communities by training teachers to work in those areas and helping those communities to retain teachers.
Now Goldenberg is overwhelmed all over again, this time at receiving the award from OOBS.
“It’s an extraordinary honour and an intimidating honour,” he says. “When you’re recognized early in your career, it puts pressure on you to continue along the same trajectory. I don’t want to let Out On Bay Street down.”
Certainly, over the seven years of its existence, Out On Bay Street has built up quite a reputation as a resource for young professionals. As one of several groups advocating for gay professionals, OOBS has helped to open up the normally starchy and staid world of Bay Street to sexual diversity, and, in so doing, helped to convince corporate and professional Canada that embracing diversity is good for business.
OOBS focusses on LGBT post-secondary students who plan to enter the professional world, particularly in finance or law. The organization holds monthly socials and recruitment fairs throughout the year that offer students and young gays the chance to meet with older gay professionals and with business, law and technology companies interested in recruiting young workers. It also offers a speaker series and the annual Leaders to Be Proud of Awards, which recognize role models and community leaders on LGBTQ issues, workplace diversity and inclusiveness.
OOBS also holds an annual conference and career fair each September, which brings together students from across the country to meet with professionals and mentors. At the conference, the Leaders to Be Proud Of Awards are presented. As well as Goldenberg, this year’s winners include the Lifetime Achievement Award to Salah Bachir, the president of Cineplex Media, for his philanthropy and leadership of gay organizations. Ed Clark, the president and CEO of TD Bank, won the Leading Executive Ally Award for his work on TD’s groundbreaking sponsorships and investments in the gay community, and in supporting diversity within its own workplace.
The annual conference also sees the awarding of two scholarships to LGBT students. This year’s winners are Caroline Trottier-Gascon from the University of Montreal, and Evan Rankin from the University of Toronto Law School.
These events, says OOBS president Japneet Kaur, help students realize that it is possible to be themselves as they move into their professional lives, even in corporate Canada.
“What we try to help students with is which organizations support them and are looking for people of diverse backgrounds,” says Kaur. “What helps a lot is hearing other people’s stories. Out On Bay Street provides mentorship and role models in that area. We do a lot of mentorship. Knowing that these professionals are bringing their authentic selves to work makes them great role models.
“It empowers students. A lot of doubts and sometimes even misinformation disappears. It kind of sounds cliche, but culture’s really important. When you’re looking for a job, you’re looking not only for teamwork and all that, but for whether the company is really looking for diversity. The companies sponsoring Out On Bay Street are the ones putting diversity as one of their pillars.”
For David Spence, now a first year associate with the prominent Toronto law firm of Stikeman Elliott, OOBS helped to convince him that sort of openness did exist among big firms.
“I had heard that Out On Bay Street was a good way to connect with law firms. But the legal world has always lagged behind the financial world when it comes to acceptance and diversity. I was a little bit apprehensive. But I got to meet LGBT lawyers who worked on Bay Street. It gave me confidence to be myself.
“Today most of the firms are very open. I still use Out On Bay Street events to connect with students who are coming up through law school. It’s a chance for them to meet people like me who are working on Bay Street. You need those role models. I never saw it as a huge obstacle, and I hope students today feel confident putting down that they’re LGBT.”
Kaur says OOBS is now working on expanding beyond its traditional areas of business and law, and is now working with more technology companies and especially engineering firms and students. She says the organization is also working on expanding beyond Toronto and even Ontario, looking to work with companies and students from across the country.
But for all its focus on establishing a culture of diversity and acceptance among Canada’s corporations, OOBS is also prepared to resort to old-fashioned activism when needed. The group has filed a request to intervene in the appeal being filed by Trinity Western University against the Law Society of Upper Canada’s decision not to recognize TWU’s law school. The University makes students sign a pledge to abstain from homosexuality.
The factum filed with the court by OOBS states that: “Out On Bay Street believes that requiring students, on pain of sanction, to abstain from ‘sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman’ is inherently discriminatory to LGBTQ students at or applying to TWU, and is particularly exclusionary towards trans-identified people and both married and unmarried same-sex couples. It erects a significant barrier to legal education for these students by effectively making them ineligible for scarce law school positions…. Out On Bay Street has a special interest and concern in ensuring that LGBTQ students’ access to legal education and the legal profession is offered on equitable terms, based on merit and qualifications.”
And when it comes to the two scholarship awards OOBS awards each year at its annual conference, recognizing activism and community involvement is high on the agenda. Evan Rankin and Caroline Trottier-Gascon, this year’s winners—the awards are in their second year—are both deeply involved in fighting for the rights of LGBT people, both at home and abroad. And as students, both are also deeply thankful for the $2,500 that comes with each award.
Trottier-Gascon, a grad student in history at the University of Montreal, is extremely active in the trans community in Montreal and the province. She says her involvement began with the student strike in Quebec in 2012, and in her undergraduate years.
“I was the secretary-general of the student association. I started being involved in the trans community in my last couple of months. Transitioning trans women have a lot of problems the university doesn’t recognize. There are problems with bathrooms, there are problems with changing IDs. There are problems with university clinics. There was no policy allowing me to change my name. At the moment, we have to come out to our teacher. It forces us to be in dangerous situations. I went to our LGBTQIA association, trans people were not there, there was no political side to it.
“I helped organize the first trans march in Montreal this summer. I organized a round-table discussion in French. I’m working on organizing all the CEGEP and university groups that work on LGBT issues to work on trans-inclusive policies. We’re trying to unite our efforts.”
Trottier-Gascon says the money is a tremendous windfall for her, although she jokes that she “spent all of it to look beautiful for the ceremony.” She says she’s also very proud of the recognition. “I don’t think there are many initiatives like this. I’m not just a mercenary, it’s a recognition for volunteer work, which is basically free. It showcases how much of a better person I’ve become in the past three years.”
Rankin, in his second year at U of T’s law school, says he jumped at the chance to apply for the scholarship. “U of T’s tuition is so high I really couldn’t afford not to apply. But it was also really nice to be recognized. I think it was just luck that I got it. I think I’ve done some good work, but lots of people have done a lot more.”
Rankin sat on the governance committee for Pride Toronto leading up to this summer’s WorldPride, but has done most of his volunteer work internationally. He worked for the United Nations in Bangkok on HIV-related issues, looking especially at legal regimes in Southeast Asia as they apply to HIV and AIDS, such as the criminalizing of same-sex relationships, sex work and drug use. He also explored how legal frameworks, such as public nuisance laws in Russia, are being used to harass gay men and sex workers.
“The fun part of that was not just the work, but that I was there in the middle of the coup in Thailand,” he says. “I was living in the middle of the anti-government zone. I felt perfectly safe until the day of the coup, when a grenade went off a block away. But it didn’t seem like the LGBT community had been affected in any significant way.”
But with his future set for Bay Street, Rankin says OOBS is important both for opening up the corporate world and for rewarding activism.
“Being LGBT is still a disadvantage in many professional circles, which are still very much straight white boys clubs. There are problems with homophobia and acceptance of diversity. It’s important to have conversations about how young LGBT professionals can move themselves forward in environments that are not necessarily the most welcoming.
“But it’s also important to show that working on Bay Street isn’t necessarily incompatible with doing human rights work or work on LGBT issues.”
In the end, though, says Spence, the biggest contribution OOBS makes may be simply providing reassurance to young LGBT students contemplating a career in the professional world.
“Be confident. Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re LGBT. It makes you interesting.”