GayCalgary® Magazine [copy]

Immigrants and Refugees

Creating Safe and Positive Spaces for LGBTQ Newcomers

Editorial by Evan Kayne (From GayCalgary® Magazine, January 2011, page 52)
Immigrants and Refugees: Creating Safe and Positive Spaces for LGBTQ Newcomers

Canada is one of the leading countries when it comes to granting rights and freedoms to Lesbian, Gay, Queer, Bisexual, and Transgender citizens. Therefore, it is logical to assume many GLBTQ individuals from countries where freedom of sexual expression is repressed might want to come to Canada.

However, there is a disconnect for newcomers to our country, whether they be immigrants or refugees. While heterosexual newcomers have a support network geared towards them, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender newcomers face a system which barely supports them. This was the subject of the seminar "Creating Safe and Positive Spaces for QLGBT Newcomers" held mid-November as part of the Canadian Council for Refugee’s Fall Consultation 2010. This seminar saw speakers from the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and Vancouver’s Rainbow Refugee Committee (among others) addressing the barriers and problems GLBTQ newcomers face.

Some of the barriers are obvious, others more subtle; and even with obvious barriers there are complications that GLBTQ immigrants/refugees face, of which service providers may be ignorant. For example, language may be a barrier; yet even if you have a working knowledge of either of Canada’s two official languages, a GLBTQ newcomer from a different country may struggle with the binary gender options. As an example, this can really impact transgender newcomers – what pronoun do you tell people to use if you’re unsure yourself?

Additionally, a huge barrier is that a newcomer’s claim may hinge on them revealing their sexual orientation. How many of us remember how difficult it was for us to come out of the closet to a friend or family member here in our native land? Now try doing this with a complete stranger and for some, add the barrier of overcoming ten, twenty or more years of internalized homophobia.

Ori Garcia of Vancouver’s Rainbow Refugee Committee told us the best way for us to understand what a QLGBT claimant goes through is to imagine we are vacationing in another country and we get into trouble. As she puts it, "I don’t know anything about the place, I don’t know the language, I don’t know where I can go, I don’t know the resources...what if something happened to me? Where can I go? Should I call the police – can they be helpful?"

Because claimants are facing these barriers and questions, addressing GLBTQ newcomer concerns requires a bit of a slower, nuanced approach at times. Even if an individual’s claim for entry into Canada is based on their sexual orientation, approaching the subject with a claimant may take several attempts, and above all, one has to work at their comfort level. Often one has to let all claimants know that alongside all the usual newcomer resources, there are also resources for GLBTQ individuals. People working with refugees and immigrants have to also communicate that there are safe spots and welcoming organizations if a claimant comes forward.

Besides the difficulty for GLBTQ newcomers, existing groups working to make the claims process more queer-friendly are struggling with how to diplomatically broach this problem with agencies and other newcomer support groups. Given the media coverage/criticism and xenophobic attitudes of some members of the public, government and private agencies are a bit sensitive to any criticism – even if it’s to offer them suggestions on how to better address GLBTQ concerns.

For claimants using these government agencies and services, creating a trusting atmosphere is another barrier. In Canada, on the whole we know the government and the police to be reliable and somewhat trustworthy. Many immigrants/refugees are fleeing countries where trusting the authorities is the last thing they want to do.

Ori gives the example of her experiences. She moved to Cancun thinking it would be more of an open society for a trans-woman. The police arrested her for prostitution (to which she wryly notes "I probably was the most conservative prostitute ever – I was wearing a long skirt and sandals"). She had a choice of staying in an unsafe jail environment for days or paying off the police. So telling someone with her past experiences to "trust the police, trust the government" when they are in Canada is a big step.

This fear of the authorities and worry about jeopardizing their claim may make GLBTQ newcomers reluctant to go to the police or authorities here in Canada when they have a legitimate safety or human rights concern (e.g. a landlord may evict them if they discover the claimant’s sexuality – instead of taking legal action on the basis of a Human Rights violation, the claimant will simply run from the problem). This could happen because on one hand claimants are told not to get into any criminal troubles with the police (as it could jeopardize their claim); but on the other hand, they are not reassured you can trust the police or government to protect you when you are in danger or when your rights are being compromised.

The speakers at the seminar had a few suggestions on how to resolve some of these barriers, but the big one was through sensitivity training of the agencies and support groups. As a start, questionnaires should be redesigned to be inclusive of claimants with GLBTQ concerns. As Sharalyn Jordan from the Rainbow Refugee committee told me: "put it out there in front as part of the whole package". Much like health or survey questionnaires which have questions not relevant to the individual, an encompassing, inclusive approach could help reach GLBTQ newcomers.

As well, Ori mentioned a simple change on interpersonal dynamics when meeting face-to-face with a newcomer may be helpful to GLBTQ claimants: "Sitting there with this big face, this mean look at somebody who’s coming from a huge background of fear and persecution, that’s not going to help this person open themselves to explain why they’re coming here".

Making this connection, creating a safe space can be done by getting existing members of that particular ethnic/political/nationality/sexual orientation (etc) volunteering to help newcomer agencies. Ori recounts how she was working with someone who provided her information about transgender issues, medications and support. On one hand, she took in the information, but she also thought Who is this guy to tell me these things? How does he know what I’m experiencing? Yet, at the end of the discussion, when the individual came out to Ori as a trans-man, "there was a huge sense of relief" as she had connected to someone who could identify with her concerns.

If an existing agency or support group doesn’t immediately have someone with similar concerns with which the claimant can connect, they shouldn’t worry about their aid not resonating with claimants. Sharalyn emphasized "...we’re not saying we don’t want or valued allies. Valuing and having allies is critical in eliminating issues surrounding LGBTQ newcomers." The panel was trying to say if there is someone who has gone through the claim process or someone who is from a similar background, let them speak; encourage and help them to step forward for newcomers.

Looking forward, the speakers at the seminar did encourage everyone to be patient with the process of change. Yes we may see the occasional article about some government official turning down a GLBTQ person’s claim because they felt the claimant "wasn’t gay enough", yet there are many, many more gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual claimants who do get their claim allowed. And while not all of us may have the resources to directly work on these issues, Sharalyn from the Rainbow Refugee Committee tells us there are small ways we can help: "the Queer community has an important role to play in addressing some of the anti-refugee and anti-immigrant discourse that is out there now." We can lend our voices to this and counter some of the myths and wrong beliefs people have towards newcomers, because some of those newcomers are from our community, and deserve the right to freely embrace who they are in Canada.(GC)

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