Nikki and Al’s stories celebrate self-discovery and belonging. Their narratives underscore the importance of leaning into communities for support and connection, the role that health organizations and those in leadership have to keep trans, non-binary and gender diverse people safe, and encourages us to self-reflect on how we can continue to show up in meaningful ways to support the gender and sexually diverse community.
Recently, Foundry interviewed Foundry Central Office (FCO) staff members, Nikki and Al, who shared their personal journey around identity and how they have built a community around them.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your personal journey?
Nikki: I identify as queer and I use the pronouns she or they. I’m also cisgender and a 1st generation white settler living on the occupied and unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, but I grew up in a small city on the eastern side of Turtle Island (in what’s known as southern Ontario). I’ve recently become an Equity and Engagement Specialist at Foundry Central Office, previous to that, I was in the role of Knowledge Exchange and Mobilization Manager.
I didn’t come out as queer until I was 22; I’m Generation X, so growing up as a youth in the 80s, it was different, we didn’t have the same opportunities to learn about gender and sexual diversity. We had no internet (and no cell phones!) so it was harder to find other 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, and to learn about our histories, and about those who came before us. This created a lot of fear and a sense of isolation and exclusion; most of what I did hear about gender and sexual diversity on TV, at school, and in the news, was pretty negative.
I did have a couple 2SLGBTQIA+ relatives and family friends in my life at the time, but gender and sexual diversity wasn’t talked about in my family. The fact that they were 2SLGBTQIA+ wasn’t ever mentioned, everyone just knew, but never spoke about it, so I understood this to mean it was a secret. I always knew I was queer, but there wasn’t really a way for me to express that growing up, and there wasn’t anyone I felt I could talk to. As I got older, and moved to this side of Turtle Island in my early 20s, I found more folks like me and there were places for us to go where we could be ourselves, experience safety in numbers, and build community.
Since then, I’ve built a network of chosen family here in xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) territories. My loved ones are trans, Two-Spirit, queer, non-binary, straight, cis, and many are IBPOC. I’m really grateful to be able to share my life with these folks, we hold each other up.
For the last several decades, I’ve been learning about our 2SLGBTQIA+ histories, and also about how Canadian culture has taught us to view gender and sexual diversity in harmful and divisive ways. I’ve learned that these harmful views are based in the historical and ongoing process of colonization.
In Canada (and many other places in the world with a colonial legacy), we have been taught to value certain identities, races, and beliefs over others, resulting in homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism and white supremacy, ableism, and many other hateful and discriminatory beliefs. These colonial values and beliefs separate us from understanding and caring about one another as fellow humans. I really feel that we need to be kinder to one another, especially nowadays- there’s so many stressful things happening in the world, we need to come together to support each other, not create divisions.
Al: My name is Al, I work as a tech implementation manager at Foundry. I always knew I was different than other folks, growing up. I didn’t feel strongly connected to any gender, and didn’t experience crushes the way my friends did. I remember having to make up a celebrity crush, because people kept asking me and I didn’t know what to say. It was incredibly hard to feel so different than everyone around me without the language or confidence to explain how I was feeling. My family and community growing up was also deeply homophobic and transphobic, and I didn’t see any representation in the media that aligned with my experience.
Eventually, I found [a] community on the internet, and that helped me understand that there was more options than cis, or straight/gay. I realized the experience I had with gender was called “non binary” and my experience with sexuality was closer to demi sexual bisexual person, which basically means I only feel attraction to folks if I have a deep connection with them. The gender (inclusive of all binary and non binary genders) of the partner does not matter to me as much as the connection does.
When I came out to my community including work, I was a micro influencer, so the process of folks using new names and pronouns for me was a struggle, as well as losing credit for a lot of my work by no longer going by my dead name.
How do you celebrate Pride and what does it mean to you?
Nikki: When I first came out, I attended a lot of Pride activities such as parades, marches, and social events; they were a great place to build community and make new friends. After awhile though, I became frustrated with our Pride events being co-opted by corporations and politicians, and used for profit or advertising, without much meaningful engagement or benefit to our 2SLGBTQIA+ communities.
In a lot of ways, I felt like we were being kicked out of our own party. This didn’t feel right because for me, Pride is about creating a space where gender and sexual diversity is at the centre; so many of us already have to hide who we are and aren’t able to be our true selves because we run the risk of rejection, discrimination and sometimes violence. Pride is also very political to me- the early origins of Pride were based out of a community response to violence and the denial of basic human rights. So it felt disrespectful that these groups showed up to our parades and events and changed their logos for the month, but weren’t there to support us when the party was over and homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination continued.
Since then, I’ve come to view Pride as an opportunity for our 2SLGBTQIA+ communities to celebrate gender and sexual diversity, AND as an opportunity for education where we can call folks in to show up, stand alongside us, and make meaningful commitments to social justice and equity. I see this as not just an opportunity for 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, but for everyone who is denied equity because of who they are. Our struggles are connected in so many ways, and we need to combine our efforts if we’re going to change things for the better. We’re stronger together!
So… long story short, I celebrate Pride in a few ways. In terms of the education piece, my team member Seren and I are hosting the first annual Pride Learning Series for the Foundry Network so we can all learn together how to support 2SLGBTQIA+ youth and families. To celebrate, I’m also going to a Pride pool party with my friends and chosen family, and I also plan to attend a drag show, the Trans March, and the Dyke March this year.
Al: For me, pride is every day. It’s living my life out loud, to show other folks that their life is worth living. It’s less about parties and rainbows for me (though very important symbols for others) but about being allowed to show up as myself and creating space for other people to show up as themselves as well. We want to make the space more accessible, make pronoun changes the norm, and help the world to not expect cis straight people as the norm. As a friend of mine online said, I would rather change the pronouns I use for someone a million times, then have to write their obituary.
It’s also so incredibly important for us to know our history, especially in a world that insists we are new, or problematic. Trans and queer folks have always been here, despite the attempts to remove us, we have always been here and will always be here.
We know that violence and harassment against transgender and gender diverse people has been on the rise, and prevalent both online and in-person. What role do health organizations and those in leadership have to keep trans, non-binary and and gender diverse people safe?
Al: I think health orgs can do a lot of things to support. Make their support of us known publicly, even when it’s uncomfortable and there is backlash. Use the power and privilege you have to speak up when laws are happening that reduce the rights of queer and trans folks. Co-create programs with us to help us meet our health needs. Do this all year around, not just in June. Allyship is easy in June, but less so all year around,
Internally, orgs need to make sure their teams are being trained to support sexually and gender diverse folks. So often, I am the first person who uses they/them pronouns joining a team, and all the emotional labour for educating and correcting people falls on me. Create environments and training internally where folks are expected to correct and support each, even if they are cis.
Lastly, take transphobia and homophobia seriously, I’ve sat through so many rants about pronouns at mental health events and orgs, where no one said anything and just let the homophobia and transphobia slide.
Call folks out, make your support known, because we know the folks with hate are always the loudest, but they are not the majority. Be louder with your support and protection of the community.
Nikki: I learned a new word recently- it’s transmisia; it’s similar to transphobia (which means the fear of trans people), but transmisia is more accurate in terms of what’s happening today because it means the hatred of trans people. Over the last year or so, many politicians and organizations have created harmful laws and policies that target trans and gender diverse folks, but these aren’t based in science or best practice, they are focused on denying the humanity of trans and gender diverse people. Trans and gender diverse people are being stripped of basic human rights across the globe, and this has been really publicized in the media. This has led many people to feel empowered to discriminate against, and harm trans and gender diverse folks and their loved ones. It’s really scary and it’s happening here in our little corner of the world too.
I really feel that we, as health organizations and leaders, need to double down on our efforts to provide safe, inclusive and accessible services for everyone in our communities. If we’re going to support youth and families in their health and wellness, and to live a good life, we have to provide equitable access to the care we provide. This means that we work to remove barriers and provide targeted supports for those most at risk- and it’s well documented in the research that 2SLGBTQIA+ youth are among the highest at risk of negative health impacts, especially IBPOC youth.
What can organizations do to show solidarity and create an inclusive environment for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth and families?
Nikki: It’s important that agencies make it known in their communities that they’re providing support, people won’t show up if they aren’t aware that it exists! This also sends a message that 2SLGBTQIA+ youth and families are valued, and it increases a sense of safety for those in need of services. It’s also important to offer a variety of ways for folks to participate; not everyone will feel comfortable attending a group in a public space due to fear of being outed in a community where they may not be safe.
Organizations can also serve as community role models and demonstrate their support by attending/speaking at 2SLGBTQIA+ events, highlighting what they offer for gender and sexually diverse communities on their agency website and program materials, and engaging 2SLGBTQIA+ youth, families, and community groups in designing and participating in inclusive programs and services.
Do you have any guidance for caregivers in supporting a youth who is exploring their own gender identity?
Nikki: The best place to start is Trans Care BC’s Child & Youth Resources page. They provide a lot of great information including basic information on gender diversity, supports and resources for Two-Spirit, trans and gender diverse youth and families, and information on accessing health care. Many of our Foundry Centres across the network provide targeted supports for youth exploring their gender identity, you can always reach out if you need more information.
Read, reach out for support, join online communities about gender identity. Ask your kid what this means to them, but do not make your kid responsible for educating you. If you are struggling with it, it’s valid, but work that out with a therapist or peer supporter at somewhere like foundry, not with your kid
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Nikki: Yes! Foundry BC has received funding from Sun Life to enhance and increase supports and services for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth and families across our provincial network over the next 3 years! I will be leading this work in my new role as Equity and Engagement Specialist here at Foundry BC, and I’ll be collaborating with the centres, Host Nations, youth and families, partner agencies, and future partners in our Foundry communities. In the coming months I’ll be reaching out to engage folks; there will be a variety of opportunities to provide input and get involved in this process. If you want to learn more, feel free to reach out to me directly: email@example.com.