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Celebrating Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Community

ABOVE: IN Magazine’s Jumol Royes with his mother and sister

How I Made My Community More Welcoming To LGBTQ2+ Folks

The rainbow crosswalk I championed – a very visible symbol of progress and pride – made me feel free to be my true self…

By Jumol Royes

Sometimes a crosswalk is more than just a crosswalk. 

I live in Vaughan, a city that is located just above Toronto, with Steeles Avenue West serving as its southern boundary. My family moved here from north Etobicoke when I was a teenager getting ready to enter high school. Having immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in search of new opportunities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, buying their first home in Vaughan was part and parcel of my mom and dad’s dream of building a better life for my older sister and me.  

It’s not hard to see what made the city so attractive to my parents: it’s one of Canada’s largest municipalities and a vibrant and prosperous community with a diverse population. But for someone like me, who was silently exploring his sexuality and processing his sexual orientation, I didn’t always feel like I belonged. 

I can vividly remember attending Mass with my family at our local Catholic church in the early 2000s when same-sex marriage was a hot-button issue. I sat in a pew on Sunday mornings surrounded by a congregation composed of my fellow community members, a majority of whom were openly opposed to gay marriage and not shy about expressing their views. I tried to stay neutral on the subject while wrestling with feelings of shame, soaking up and internalizing homophobia and questioning whether I was a sinner in need of repentance. 

Today, I’m an out and proud gay Black man still living in Vaughan. Yet even though I try my best to live my life authentically, there are moments when my community still doesn’t feel welcoming to people like me.  

I find myself constantly self-editing when I’m out and about in my neighbourhood. Before I even leave the house, I consider who I might run into and carefully select the clothes I choose to wear, occasionally avoiding the bold and bright colours I’m naturally drawn to for fear of attracting unwanted attention. I sometimes catch myself switching to a lower tone of voice when I’m talking on the phone to sound “less gay” when people are around me. I wear sunglasses on days when the sun is barely shining so I won’t get caught looking at a cute guy as he passes by, in case he might take offence. 

Living in this constant state of hyper-vigilance is something I just can’t seem to shake…and it’s exhausting. 

ABOVE: The unveiling of the rainbow crosswalk in Vaughan

I was overjoyed when a good friend of mine visited me during the pandemic, and we decided to go on a nature walk in North Maple Regional Park on the Oak Ridges Moraine, a short drive from my house. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and it felt good to kiki and laugh. When he dropped me back home, we stood on my driveway chatting for a bit before it was finally time to say goodbye. We then gave each other a platonic peck on the lips followed by a long, lingering hug, as is the custom in many gay friendships. But I hesitated for a moment: what if my neighbours were watching? What would they think? Would they judge me or think of me differently?       

In the fall of 2020, the City of Vaughan was recruiting residents for a new task force to “provide guidance to the city in the development of policies that promote fairness, mutual respect and an undoubted sense of inclusion among the diverse individuals, communities and stakeholder groups that compose its population.” After some deep reflection, I decided to apply and was appointed to the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. 

I saw it as an opportunity to have a seat at the table and to help ensure that marginalized, racialized and vulnerable communities felt seen, heard and understood, and knew that their lives and lived experiences mattered.

One of the initiatives that I championed as a member of the task force was the installation of a rainbow crosswalk in Vaughan. With support from the city’s first-ever diversity and inclusion officer, as well as the council and mayor, the crosswalk was approved earlier this year. 

This very visible symbol of progress and pride signals the city’s commitment to making certain that Vaughan is a welcoming, safe and affirming community for all – but symbolism has its limits. The rainbow crosswalk will live up to its full potential only when it’s paired with meaningful actions reflecting inclusive values, like providing specialized services, supports and safe spaces for LGBTQ2+ residents. 

I attended the official unveiling of the rainbow crosswalk at City Hall during Pride Month with my sister and my mom, who sometimes still struggles to come to terms with my sexuality. It was a testament to just how far we’ve come on our journey together. And that made my heart happy. 

I felt a profound sense of pride knowing that I played a small part in making the city’s first rainbow crosswalk a reality. As a teen growing up in Vaughan and feeling out of place, I could never have imagined that I would one day be instrumental in bringing a crosswalk painted in the colours of the Progress Pride flag to my city. Every visitor to City Hall from now on will walk across the crosswalk and be reminded that it symbolizes support and acceptance for the LGBTQ2+ community. 

When I got home from the unveiling ceremony, I went for a walk around my neighbourhood and felt empowered to sing out loud to the lyrics of “Be Me,” the Queer Eye Season 5 theme song (“That’s all I need/A reminder that I could be free/To turn in the pain/Just let go of the feeling/Let go, I need some healing/It’s so clear to see/I was waiting on me to be me”). 

I walked past people with the sun shining high overhead and happy tears streaming down my face. I felt freer and lighter than I’d felt in a very long time. The emotional burden of worrying about what people might think or say had lifted, or at least shifted. It was like a little piece inside of me healed that day. 

If that feeling ever starts to fade, I hope to remind myself that while rainbows come and go, and happiness does too,

If that feeling ever starts to fade, I hope to remind myself that while rainbows come and go, and happiness does too, the day of the unveiling, today and every day I am loved, and that is forever true. 

JUMOL ROYES is IN Magazine’s director of communications and community engagement, a GTA-based storyteller and glass-half-full kinda guy. He writes about compassion, community, identity and belonging. His guilty pleasure is watching the Real Housewives. Follow him on Twitter at @Jumol and on Instagram at @jumolroyes.  

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