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Celebrating Canada's 2SLGBTQI+ Communities

Profile In Youth: Leon Tsai

The Taiwanese-immigrant transgender woman, feminist, LGBTQ+ advocate and body-positive activist is a young person to watch…

By Jumol Royes

Generation Z gets a bad rap and that reputation is undeserved. Need a little proof? The cohort born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s are fiercely independent, social-justice minded and committed to making an impact. Does the name Greta Thunberg ring a bell?

Leon Tsai is another name you should know. A Taiwanese-immigrant transgender woman, feminist, LGBTQ+ advocate and body-positive activist, Tsai moved to Canada with her family at the age of 12, and came out as trans in high school. She’s currently studying at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), where she’s active on campus as a student leader promoting practices of equity and inclusion. A quote on her personal website reads: “Happiness is not the goal of life, happiness is a way of life.”

How does the intersectionality of your lived experience impact your daily life?
I’m a woman giving birth to myself while standing at the intersections of visibility and violence. The privileges I hold as an able-bodied settler-immigrant navigating through the city of Tkaronto have given me many opportunities for learning, unlearning and community building, as well as confronting systematic barriers within colonial-capitalist institutions. Yet the reality of my daily life is still a push and pull of survival, being a university student struggling with mental health, an advocate facing constant burnout, a trans woman of colour unsafe in public, an artist and storyteller desperate for work and a femme still healing from traumas of physical and sexual violence.

What do you recall about arriving in Canada, and what was the most difficult challenge adjusting to life in a new country?
I remember awkward newcomer programs, language barriers and finding social belonging among peers. Through learning new social realities supported by more progressive languages, I was introduced to other communities and interpersonal and socio-political possibilities. I gained the tools to question and explore my gender identity after understanding and discovering 2SLGBTQ+ expressions.

The most challenging part about adjusting was the socio-political violence experienced in various degrees from bullying, workplace and street harassment, unemployment, misgendering, slurs, and physical and sexual assaults. However, I give credit for providing the tools and languages that have helped me to actualize myself into the light.

While studying at UTSC, you got involved with the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre. What more needs to be done to ensure that university students, specifically trans women of colour, receive the support they need?
When I worked at the UTSC Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, our roles were focused on youth and student representation, and campus awareness and education. But it became clear to me that the University-operated centre is still under a procedural and hierarchal guidance in response to sexual violence. It’s difficult to work institutionally while centring the narratives and needs of survivors, especially when certain truths challenge those in power who are protected by systems. That’s why student unions across campuses often request annual reviews and updates to the language and policies around sexual violence prevention and support by the University.

You also volunteer with LGBT Youth Line. Tell us about the issues LGBTQ2+ young people struggle with.
As one of the youth ambassadors for LGBT Youth Line representing East Toronto/Scarborough, I’m honoured and ready to continue learning and unlearning for the communities that have yet to be heard. There’s a serious lack of community programs and publicly funded resources for queer and trans youth in [Toronto’s] east end and Scarborough – not to mention the intersecting dynamics of racial and gendered violence and microaggressions experienced by many on a daily basis. Scarborough is diverse and home to immigrant families and friends, but cross-cultural shocks, family and internal acceptance and social belonging are still some of the biggest struggles for local, racialized queer and trans youths.

Do you have any advice for young people who want to become allies for change?
With social media, social movements are being communicated through digital awareness and actions (at least in the contexts of Western popular culture). However, such advocacy can lose itself in the desensitization towards violence shown through media, as well as people thinking that solidarity is enough with re-posts and re-tweets and treating the work of healing, equity, inclusion, justice and community care as social media trends. To be an ally is to listen and to amplify what has been said, but not heard; to recognize and uplift those who have been screaming, but ignored; to support those who are still hurting in the dark; to confront the violence many still face every day in solitude; and to reflect on how we occupy and create spaces as well as the agency to give back and do what’s needed through our power and privileges.

It doesn’t always get better, but we get stronger; then we become better, together.

To find out more about Leon Tsai, visit her website at

JUMOL ROYES is a Toronto-based storyteller and communications strategist with a keen interest in personal development and transformation and a love of all things Real Housewives. Follow him on Twitter at @Jumol.

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