Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon to all of you. My name is Tristan Coolman. I use the pronouns he, him, his, and I identify as a gay man. My journey with volunteerism led me to my current position at Pflag York Region as its president. Pflag York Region is a support, resource and education network for all municipalities in York region.
It truly is an honour to be here today to speak directly to LGBTQ2+ health in Canada. With Pflag, we have a variety of initiatives that promote community and safe spaces. For example, we host several coffee nights a month, which act as support meetings for LGBTQ2+ identifying individuals, their families, friends and allies. It's a safe, confidential space to share their stories and gain advice from others who are on similar journeys. We are family for all, where no hand goes unheld, where no one is left behind.
I encourage all of you, as members of this standing committee, at some point to attend a local Pflag meeting in your respective ridings. It's one thing to allow me to speak today, and my colleague from Toronto, in February, just to share a small handful of stories, but it's another to hear them in person.
LGBTQ2+ health, as I'm sure you have discovered, varies immensely based on a number of intersections, which can include but are not limited to access to education, income and financial stability, ethnicity, creed, faith and geography. You name it, and it will change and shape that person's experience.
As a gay man, I've experienced intersections with my background. I was raised by an immigrant single mother. With her background and upbringing from Guyana, her influences from my grandmother and her siblings, she didn't know much about the LGBTQ2+ community. When I came out almost 15 years ago, neither did I. I came out on Labour Day in September 2004, as I entered my last year of high school.
I recall the moment when I knew things would be all right. I had received an essay back in my Canadian law class on the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada—quite the hot-button issue back then. It was one of the easiest essays I had ever written. As I received my paper back, I looked down and saw a mark of 98%, easily the best grade I ever received. My teacher handed it to me with a smile and invited me to drop by the office during lunch. I did, and I was greeted by my philosophy, history and economics teachers, all of whom shared how impressed they were with the paper and wanted to congratulate me.
That support meant everything to me and gave me the courage to confront my mom. That night, I knocked on her bedroom door and handed her the paper without saying a word. A few days later, we embraced and talked it out. There was still work to be done with our relationship, but in the moment, I knew it had pivoted in the right direction.
Fast-forward to today—15 years later and 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalized in our country. I wish I could say I hear more stories like this, but I don't. The situation is dire. A lack of education and a lack of understanding and love for one another are still running rampant in our communities from coast to coast to coast. Unfortunately, hate is alive and well, compounded by a lack of access to services, degrees of homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia that are layered into each intersection in our country. It is institutional, it is cultural and it's once again gaining strength in numbers.
One of our service users who identifies as a transgendered woman has faced consistent discrimination in every work environment she has entered. She works in construction and has an exceptional skill set as a manager. However, on every job site she has worked on, she's been faced with hateful comments in verbal exchanges with her co-workers and in private, etched on the walls of bathroom stalls.
Recently, she encountered a time of financial instability. She shared that she had to move as she was being evicted due to missed rent payments. She had to make a choice between paying her rent and paying for her meds. She shared this news in December 2018, and we've yet to hear from her since.
Clearly, more needs to be done to encourage our private sector partners to engage their employees in equity and inclusivity training.
Very recently, a mother and her son started coming to our meetings. Soon after, the son shared that he was struggling with his gender identity and started to identify himself as non-binary. The mom and her child are in their mid-fifties and late twenties respectively. They were diagnosed with Asperger's and anxiety. As they started to seek other support services, the mother shared her experience in contacting a number of clinics and counselling services. With a referral, wait times to even meet with a professional were at least five months. Services, however, could be accessed quicker; they would just have to pay for them. Unfortunately, the family cannot afford the luxury of receiving quicker access to counselling services.
For some, counselling services wouldn't mean just an improvement in their quality of life; it could very well be the key to unlocking how they navigate their gender identity. It may be the key to unlocking how they navigate day to day and how they choose to present themselves to the world and mark their place in it. It may be the key to unlocking how they can live as their true, authentic self.
We recently met with a family of a transgendered boy who has fears that many of us in this room have thankfully never experienced. One day the family—mom and son—were at a local community event attended by hundreds of their friends, family and neighbours. Everyone seemed to be having a good time until mom had to use the washroom. It was a hot summer day, so they'd had a lot to drink to stay hydrated. The only washrooms available were in a nearby community centre. When mom asked if he needed to use the washroom, her son said he'd wait until they got home. It would be hours until they would get home.
Her son then shared his feelings on using public washrooms. He described that using a separate, gender neutral washroom in the presence of a male and female washroom would feel like an act of coming out. Her son is still very conscious of his appearance. He cut his hair short and started wearing larger and darker coloured articles of clothing to look, in his eyes, more like a man. Conscious of his appearance, he fears for his safety when using a male washroom. He feared strangers taking notice of his actions and his appearance. He feared strangers who may want to question him in person and who may even turn violent. Just imagine that every time he goes to school, or goes out with his friends or his family, he's exposed to situations that threaten his perception of safety.
For many in the LGBTQ2+ community, safety and health work in tandem, with personal safety being a daily concern. Much like a soldier in a war zone, people like this young man are incredibly conscious of threats to their safety. On the surface, sources of these threats can sound simple enough, but the roots are largely cultural and could be mitigated by the way we think about equity, diversity and inclusion in all of our institutions at all levels of government.
Allyship is not an identity, but a set of behaviours and character traits we all need to promote. It's a lifelong journey of connecting with marginalized groups and individuals to build trust and hold those who threaten these groups publicly accountable, with no room for interpretation. Most importantly, being an ally isn't something you get to call yourself. It's a title that's earned.
Allyship can take many forms. Being an ally can take the form of identifying pronouns in everything you do—from a signature on an email to introducing yourself with them in a formal setting like this meeting here today. Sharing your pronouns makes those who identify with a gender and those who don't feel welcome and openly accepted.
The LGBTQ2+ community simply doesn't have access to the same quality of life as the majority of Canadians highlighted earlier, with months-long wait times for services. Unfortunately, this access greatly depends upon the moral fibres of our leaders. The LGBTQ2+ community expects each and every one of you, regardless of political party, to evaluate and understand the recommendations you've heard so far and any that are brought to you in the future. You must push forward with all of them with the utmost urgency. It's not your place to pick and choose, but to listen and to take action.
There is no boundary—and there should be no boundary—between levels of government. There is no excuse. It is no exaggeration for me to sit here today and to say that LGBTQ2+ people are at a disadvantage. They're alone. They are suffering. They are dying. They have died. My first boyfriend was one of them, having lost his battle with depression at the age of 23.
I want to make my personal recommendation clear to all of you. I expect you and your colleagues, both past and present and across political boundaries, to lead by example and to take on the life of being a strong ally to marginalized groups like the LGBTQ2+ community. Leave no room for interpretation when it comes to the use of hateful statements and actions, whether they are direct or ambiguous. It is simply not enough to assume you or your colleagues possess these characteristics. Fifty years have gone by since homosexuality was decriminalized and we have not moved fast enough.
It was the allyship of my high school teachers that gave me the courage to confront my mom. These behaviours may have saved the life of my first love. They would have stopped discrimination on that construction site. They can make our community spaces institutionally accessible and access to health care services more equitable. Should this committee suddenly dissolve, it is allyship that will carry this cause on. The lens of allyship requires no bills and no second or third readings. It's allyship that will truly hold us accountable to future generations of LGBTQ2+ people in Canada.