The Importance Of Parental Support During These Challenging Times
Pflag’s York Region president talks about the importance of the organization to LGBTQ families during the COVID-19 pandemic…
By Tristan Coolman
The past year in Canada has been tough for many of us. Some of us are isolated in our homes alone; some are living with family members and butting heads with them more often than a pair of mountain goats; others, also living with family, are avoiding those head-butts only because they have stuffed their queerness into the proverbial closet, waiting for the day when they can once again set themselves free.
Regardless of your lived experience, for queer people this has been a tough time – especially for those whose wellness relied on regular outings. Seeing friends in the flesh, going to a bar or club to feel that “thump thump” circa Queer as Folk reverberate through your chest, attending drag brunch, having a cup of coffee at your favourite local cafe or bookstore, and even accessing in-person or at-home support services…all that has changed.
Adaptation is the name of the game during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individually, we have had to adapt to ensure our personal wellness needs are met, and so have community support organizations. That includes our organization, Pflag York Region. This is a charitable organization, similar to Toronto Pflag, that serves a large geographic and population area. We are autonomous from the national Pflag team, but collaborate to ensure the essence of Pflag.
Back in March 2020, before the federal advice and subsequent provincial shutdowns, my team at Pflag York Region had an idea of what was coming. At that time our volunteer-led organization knew we had a tough task ahead. Case counts were being reported regularly but a lot was not known about the novel coronavirus. We made the decision, in the interest of the safety of our community, to put a pause to our in-person “Coffee Night” support meetings.
We are lucky enough to have a support phone line and email, so access to chatting with us was still available – but the true power and essence of a Pflag meeting is the community. It’s being surrounded by affirming individuals who come not only to discuss their own challenges, but to support you with your own challenges in a judgment-free and safe peer-to-peer environment. We knew at the time there was no way to successfully replace the essence of in-person interaction and support.
Beginning in May 2020, despite the inability (or reluctance) of our elected officials to be up front about the anticipated length of the pandemic and its various restrictions and measures, we looked to history to provide a rough guide – and we knew we needed to pivot. We were not in this for a few months but likely a few years.
We cancelled our in-person events for the year, including our Stand Proud York Region Gala – our biggest fundraiser of the year. We traded coffee carafes and cookies for a ticket on the Zoom train, and began to offer online meetings. Our autonomy from the national Pflag team allowed us to get online quicker than some other Pflag chapters, and they could learn from our lessons.
The pivot online has allowed us and our attendees to remain connected with one another. We’ve done our best to create a safe online space for folks to join us twice a month, share any challenges they are experiencing, and find some form of comfort in the alignment we all have around the challenges the pandemic has brought us. Folks can join with or without video, with or without audio, customize their name or remove it completely, and provide their personal pronouns.
Our meetings continue to be attended by a wide variety of folxs: parents and friends of queer people (many of whom are just beginning to navigate the journey of providing support), closeted and out queer people, folxs living alone and feeling isolated, and many more.
The online format has allowed us to experiment and has opened up the possibility for guest speakers to join our meetings. We’ve used the platform to amplify the presence and awareness of other agencies offering support, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association and LGBT YouthLine – both of these agencies have also had to adapt and move their offerings online. As well, we’ve invited different individuals within our community to share more about their lived experiences, speaking about topics such as bisexuality, and reconciling queer and faith-based lived experiences. And we’ve had prominent figures such as Prof. Tom Hooper speaking to topics like the ineffective decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969 and the 40th anniversary of Toronto’s bathhouse raids.
Our partners from Pflag Canada Durham Region have hosted varied presentations such as navigating the public school system, expectations of staff, and what students and parents should expect from staff and admin; or a history of drag as those partners use their online presence to continue their support meetings while arming our community with valuable information and a sense of identity.
The challenges folxs are sharing nowadays are incredibly varied, from a need to just connect with other people to issues with family. Some are on the verge of changing their living situations, some have left home and are navigating the coming-out journey with their parents from a distance, some have taken in others from unaffirming households, some are continuing the journey of transitioning. There are no easy or cookie-cutter answers to these and the many other challenges out there that have yet to be heard, but we make every effort to listen, to empathize, and to offer whatever support we can.
Sometimes the most cathartic experience you can have is just allowing your thoughts to breathe and linger in the air rather than keeping them cooped up in your mind.
The space has also been a place for us to explore topics we might not have spoken about at length during an in-person meeting. The ability to talk about what was happening in the United States led to discussions about racial inequity and the continued attacks, terrorizing and murder of Black people; the inequities and discrimination faced by our Indigenous peoples through the Mi’kmaq fisheries crisis and the inaction of the RCMP; the anxiety many of us experienced during the leadup to and the aftermath of the recent US election.
Admittedly, the online format has its own challenges. Those of us who live in the shadow of large city centres often take for granted our access to high-speed internet, but it is a major infrastructure issue in Canada. For a country of our size, there are logistical challenges – but for a country with our wealth, there should not be. Some folks join our meetings using their cellular devices and data, which does not provide the best experience for participating if they wish to do so. In addition, some folks have travelled anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes from their home in order to join our meetings from an office or another place that has a reliable Wi-Fi connection.
For our team, we’ve tried to check in on each other and support one another when possible and have been transparent with our attendees. We’re a surprisingly small team with everything we accomplish. We’re currently a group of just six individuals (with a few vacancies) who run everything: manage our social media, facilitate our two support meetings, answer support emails and phone calls, and continue to attend and facilitate presentations on everything LGBTQ2. All the work we do with Pflag is on our own time, on top of our “day” jobs. We are folks who work retail full-time, who work on the front lines in our hospitals and counselling and psychotherapy services, in law enforcement, education, accounting and financial services.
We are folks who during the pandemic have been working at home cut away from our own supports, students who continue to work and study full-time respectively, who are isolated from partners and family, parents living away from their queer kids for the first time – and during a pandemic at that. Our core team and team at large, and their families, have been impacted directly by COVID-19 infections and, tragically, loss. Burnout is a reality for us even in the best of times. Through it all, it’s a team I am incredibly proud and honoured to work alongside.
Like many who are on the front lines or who, like us, are trying to support others in any way they can, there are moments where we are left wondering if we are doing enough; if we are having a positive impact. We all take solace in knowing that despite our own personal challenges during the pandemic, we have the time, the capacity and the privilege to assist. For anyone who is looking to get involved and assist with any passion or community groups – you will likely find it online, and we highly encourage you to lend any resources you can. Empathy and time are the most valuable resources you can lend, and if you are willing to help anywhere, organizations like ours are likely to have a spot for you in some manner. There are so many options for you to make a difference: Pflag chapters across the country, The 519, Glad Day, LGBT Youthline, Rainbow Railroad, online GSA groups, CAYR Community Connections, AIDS Committees ( in Toronto, Ottawa and beyond), Egale Canada, PWA and many others.
As easy as it is to see the negative in our communities with the news of the day, and with comments and actions on social media from folks who choose to live in an alternate reality, it’s community groups and the people who work and volunteer with them that give us the hope and the drive to move forward
That’s been our year…how has yours been? Join us and share.
TRISTAN COOLMAN is based in the suburbs of York Region north of Toronto. He works full-time in retail by day, volunteers with Pflag York Region in his spare time, and desperately tries to keep his succulents alive in between. Follow @pflagyorkregion on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook; follow Tristan at @iamcoolman on Instagram, @tristancoolman on Twitter.