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Our Stories On Our Terms

Each member of the LGBTQ community has a story, but every individual has the right to decide for themselves whether or not it needs to be told…
 
“What did your parents say when you told them you’re gay?” is just one of the many intrusive questions a lot of gay and lesbian people are accustomed to getting, sometimes from complete strangers. Even within the LGBTQ community, many bisexual people have to confront biphobic lines of questioning about whether their orientation is legitimate, genuine or “just a phase.” Some trans and non-binary people can feel as though their lived identity is not recognized and accepted when they are asked questions about their bodies, medical history or other personal details.
 
Answering questions and telling one’s personal story of coming out or facing discrimination can help guide the questioner to a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by LGBTQ people, but it’s important to remember the emotional toll this type of sharing can take. “Personal stories of community members are useful for education and advocacy—they can be used to highlight an issue of concern, to make the case for certain policies and to galvanize support,” says Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian charity that helps LGBTQ people escape state-sponsored violence around the world. “It is important, however, that these stories are not exploited, and that there is sign-off from the participants [before the stories are told].”
 
The power of personal stories was made clear on November 28, 2017, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly apologized for the direct and systemic discrimination perpetrated against LGBTQ people by the Government of Canada. Martine Roy’s advocacy over the past few decades, along with the work of many others who faced discrimination, contributed to the Prime Minister’s statement. Roy has been talking about her story since the early 1980s, when she was dishonourably discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces for being gay, despite two years of loyal and effective service. She says that sometimes people need to see how emotionally taxing discrimination can be before they can grasp how it impacts people on an individual basis. “The Prime Minister did read our stories before delivering the apology,” she explains, “to give soul to the story.”
 
Christine Newman, civilian co-chair of the Toronto Police Service LGBTQ2 Community Consultative Committee—the first trans woman to hold the position—uses personal experience with transphobic violence to educate others about the importance of creating inclusive spaces, hoping her stories will change people’s behaviour. Newman, a long-time advocate for LGBTQ and mental health issues, as well as a writer and lecturer, cautions that this might not be the best route for everyone with a story to tell. “You can end up re-traumatizing yourself when sharing those experiences,” she says, but adds that “too many people are dying” for her not to do anything. Sometimes people want more detail than she is willing or able to disclose, a feeling many LGBTQ people can identify with. In such cases she recommends providing inquiring minds with some perspective, saying, “My story is solely my story. I am not a spokesperson for the community.” It’s important to provide a broader picture that includes statistics such as the extremely high occurrence rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidality among trans people, she says.
 
The statistics are known all too well by Giselle Bloch, a Toronto Pflag board member who runs a peer support group for parents and caregivers of trans youth that is hosted by Central Toronto Youth Services. She uses her personal story of being a parent with a trans child to help parents confront their own transphobic biases and prejudices so they are better able to support their kids. “Is it difficult? Yes, sometimes,” says Bloch, but to her the struggle is outweighed by the reward. “When more parents support their trans kids, we hope to have fewer kids dying of suicide, fewer kids getting kicked out and ending up homeless—that’s why I speak.”
 
Bloch maintains that this type of sharing, however, is not the only way to make an impact. She says it’s up to individuals to choose whether their personal stories will play a role in their advocacy work. In some cases, “every time they share, they are reliving their trauma,” she explains. She says it’s up to each individual whether or not they want to include personal experiences when talking to others about transphobic discrimination and violence, “and if they don’t want to, that should be respected.”
 
To her, it’s about controlling the situation. If a community member is asked to speak publicly, but the questions at the event are different than were discussed or are not related to the topic at hand, she hopes people can find the strength to say, “You know, this is a question you shouldn’t be asking.”
 
Making those limits clear, even on an individual basis, can sometimes be as impactful as answering questions directly and may help people to recognize their behaviour as overly intrusive or problematic. When it comes to cases of harassment and discrimination, curiosity is often not a legitimate excuse, and simply letting people know their questioning has gone too far can prevent them from making the same mistake with others. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policy on preventing sexual and gender-based harassment states that “questions or discussion about sexual activities” could be identified as forms of harassment, regardless of their intention. The Commission identifies similar behaviour as potentially problematic if it is directed at trans people about their personal characteristics or behaviour.
 
Each member of the LGBTQ community has a story, but each individual has the right to decide for themselves whether or not it needs to be told.
 

 
COLIN DRUHAN is the executive director of Pride at Work Canada, a not-for-profit organization that empowers employees to foster workplace cultures that recognize LGBT employees. For more information, visit prideatwork.ca.

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