Monday, May 11, 2015

This is an LGBTQ+ Positive Space

 Cisgender. Cissexism. Pansexual. Last week I learned a few new words and updated my knowledge of others.

On Tuesday, I sat in one of those nice, cushy board room chairs around a table with a dozen other front-line settlement sector workers to educate myself on the barriers commonly faced by LGBTQ+ newcomers. The all-day workshop was part of the Positive Spaces Initiative, whose website I encourage you to visit if you want to learn more.

When it was my turn, I answered the three questions on the facilitator's Power Point slide: my name, the pronouns I would like used when others refer to me in the third person, and any hopes or fears I had going into the workshop. Gosh golly, I'd never thought about it before. Everyone has always referred to me as "she/her," but not because I'd asked them to. I'd be just as happy in Iranian culture, where everyone has always been "Ou," or in Sweden, where they've just introduced a new pronoun that liberates people from the binary he OR she construct.

Why do you suppose we were each asked to give our preferred pronouns, Erin asked. We sat and blinked at her. It's so that whenever there is someone in the group whose preferred pronoun isn't obvious will not feel singled out in having to request that.  I knew then I was going to like the presentation and presenter.

I've long felt strongly about making my classroom a safe space where I am an enthusiastic ambassador for the Canadian values of tolerance and multi-culturalism, where newcomers of all religions or none can sit side by side to learn the language of respectfully disagreeing.

For the literacy students, it could be a while before they sit in a level three class and learn "I see your point," "in my opinion," and "as I was saying,...." Nevertheless, it's not too early for me to begin to introduce some socio-cultural realities of their new Canadian lives.

In our unit on the family, I stand at the whiteboard with my markers in hand as we brainstorm together the meaning of "family." Inevitably they begin to shout out "mama," "daddy," "children." Sometimes they have enough language before the unit begins to add "grandmother" or other extended family. Because we are only in the warm-up stage, I rely on my artistic ability to convey concepts.

I draw a couple with no children and ask, "What about this? Can this be a family?" They begin to debate, turning toward each other with their conflicting yeses and nos.

"How about this one? Is this a family?" I point to the two fathers with a child.  Next I've sketched two mothers with three kids.

When their YES NO debates have died down and all that remains is the pregnant pause of their curiosity, I do not answer. I stare back at them with an amused smile and let the tension build just two degrees more.

"In Canada," I explain with a sense of pride in being able to welcome them to such a wonderful society, "THIS can be a family. And THIS can be a family. And THIS can also be a family."

If any student seems dubious, I may erase stick figures to make way for Google images. We see wedding cakes topped by two tuxedoed male figures. We see a Gay couple kissing while a priest stands close by. There are flowers. The rice is flying. I search out an image of Kathleen Wynne, premier of our province, flanked by her same-sex partner at a public ceremony.

The point at which any remaining vestige of confusion on faces melts away is when I remind them of the reason most of them feel safe here. Here we can live side by side, Christians and Muslims and all. Many of them have come here fleeing chaos, persecution, violence triggered by intolerance. When I bring this up, they get it. They smile. "Yes," they say. "In Canada, no problem."

To be honest, they usually have only one real concern or question. With their very limited language, they manage to pantomime their most pressing question: how on earth do same-sex couples have babies? Fortunately, I am a very gifted mime. There are many ways, and I present a three-second skit for each. The turkey baster always gets a laugh. And then it's over. Next topic. No big deal.

And that is the classroom atmosphere against which I had my first classroom coming out last year. It went well, but could have gone even better.

And that is why I was so excited when OCASI started the Positive Spaces Initiative, providing me and settlement sector professionals all around Ontario with starter kits and workshops if we would like to start the process of assessing our agencies to determine areas of strength and areas with room for improvement. The goal is for LGBTQ+ newcomers to be able to access services while being afforded the same level of dignity and respect as anyone else--and without having to leave a part of themselves at the door.

A table at the back of the board room was covered in posters, stickers, bookmarks and postcards. At some point in our eight hours together, Erin admonished us to give careful thought to it before putting a rainbow up declaring a space saf(er) and not to do so unless we were ready to commit to creating a space where instances of homophobia and transphobia would not go unchallenged. It would be better to put nothing up than to put up a sign of safety that didn't accurately reflect the way the clients would be received, supported, respectfully treated.

"Maybe your agency isn't ready to embrace LGBTQ+ Positive Space policies and practices, but in your own cubicle you can put up a sticker."

I feel my agency is ready because we did the self-assessment and have begun addressing weak areas while building on and celebrating areas of strength. Three of us were sponsored to attend the workshop. And I'm very happy to say that when I returned to work and explained to colleagues what my workshop had been about, the vast majority asked for a poster in order to declare their classrooms Positive Spaces. I can't wait to see what happens next.

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