[De]Colonizing Sexualities: Queer Histories & Healthcare Accessibility in Ontario

How oppressive is it to hear mainstream media debating about what rights you deserve to have? This was the opening question posed in a video by a trans* activist in Dublin, in a video shown during the introduction of a workshop on inclusive practices for the LGBTQ+ community, held by Rainbow Health Ontario.

The two day workshop took place on March 12 and 13. The first was hosted by Rainbow Health Ontario on March 12 at the Ramada Hotel and was titled ‘Introduction to LGBTQ Health: Inclusive Practices and Language (http://www.rainbowhealthontario.ca/). The second workshop was hosted by the LGBTQ Parenting Network (http://lgbtqpn.ca/) the following day and was called “Queering the Family Tree: Building LGBTQ-Inclusive Programs and Services.”

There is really no better depiction of who has privilege in a context then when a certain group is debating what human rights another group should have. It’s never really as cut and dry as this, especially within an intersectional analysis. But this is a constant challenge the LGBTQ+ community challenge face, an experience well rooted in centuries of colonization and oppression.

The history LGBTQ+ has well been silenced by Western colonization. Speaker Devan Nambiar, the Educationquotes-94 Coordinator for Rainbow Health Ontario, opened his talk on colonization with the example of the Portuguese monarch’s first encounter with the King of the Ivory Coast in the 15th Century. The Portuguese were astonished when the King was female, and there were multiple male Queens to the throne. The Portuguese instructed the King that she could not be a King, but only a Queen. She dismissed the Portuguese and was able to keep Portuguese colonizers at bay for 30 years.

This story is most certainly not an uncommon one in Queer history, a history that has been silenced to suit a heteronormative monosexist Western agenda. In fact, upon speaking to other self-identified racialized attendees, this history was quite common in Indigenous groups within South Asia and Africa.

It is convenient that it is not common now, even moreso when it’s considered appropriate to debate whether trans* identified persons should have the same privileges as anyone else. To add further context, Devan alerted me that homosexuality was outlawed in 1834, yet the term heterosexual only emerged in the 1940s.

???????????????????????????????In the current neocolonized world we live in, homosexuality is outlawed in 70 countries. Devan highlighted that this is important for service providers to know when working with newcomers and refugees who may come from these countries or countries where LGBTQ status is still taboo. He mentioned how coming out or publicly self-identifying is a very Western notion, and that not all LGBTQ+ feel safe doing so, especially when their life was previously at stake for doing so. This relates to what our blog reported back in October about Closeted Activism in the Middle East (http://wp.me/p2D1by-hs).

There are subtle moments where you come face to face with privilege, and that moment occurred for me when a self-identified gay cisgendered man expressed that he needed to be careful travelling and identifying himself publicly for fear for his and his partner’s personal safety. As a straight-identifying person, this would never be a thought.

My fears revolve more around being morally policed for my choice in wardrobe and attitude as a cisgendered woman, or being blamed for any potential sexual violence imposed on me. Although I may be anxious travelling as a sex-positive feminist, my anxiety has never been based on who I may bed that evening. Heterosexual privilege is complicated by gender, and further complicated by race and ethnicity or able-bodied status when it comes to who can freely express their sexuality.

The following day, intersectionality was further dissected while looking at family practice, pluralism, and colonial practices. In Ontario, queer parents often had their children taken from them through custody cases, as family court judges deemed them unfit to parent.

A lot of change occurred in the 90s, including a family court decision recognizing same-sex couples as “spouses,” and allowing lesbian non-biological parents to legally adopt their children.  This led to the constitutional addition of protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation to Bill C-38, Canada’s civil marriage bill in 2005, allowing same sex marriages across the country.

Poster Designed by the LGBTQ Parenting Network. Visit their website to order copies.
Poster Designed by the LGBTQ Parenting Network. Visit their website to order copies.

This continues to be a struggle for Trans* parents. Devan said that transparents are finding the same resistance today that lesbian couples found in the seventies. According to Rachel Epstein, LGBTQ+ parenting activist, educator, and researcher, and workshop facilitator for the day, approximately 45% of Canadians still believe that LGBTQ people  should be denied the right to parent. “That’s pretty profound. When we walk into your services, we don’t know if you are one of those people.”

That’s when everyone started talking about tokenism among service providers, that posting a rainbow in the waiting room at your workplace was not enough to render your agency inclusive. Someone from the workshop referred to the need to “back up the rainbow.” As well meaning as posting a rainbow sticker might be, if there is even one prejudiced staff member, this could create an exclusionary atmosphere for the service user.

The relevance of having properly trained staff in both social services and healthcare became apparent when Rachel informed everyone that former generations of LGBTQ people still carry the impact of historical discrimination. Barriers to accessibility are still encountered by LGBTQ communities “That’s why you, as one of those service providers, you must go out of your way to make LGBTQ people feel comfortable,” said Rachel.

The workshop not only increased my awareness about the unique challenges the LGBTQ communities face, but also educated me on the unique challenges LGBTQ people face depending on what stage of life they are in. For elders, many are finding that they have to go back into the closet just to survive in Senior homes, where a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy seems to take effect. If their sexual orientation becomes disclosed, they risk alienation and their personal safety.

For children, the main concern is being accepted at home and social alienation when they begin school. This video about Dyson, The Princess Boy, was shown to us, and I had to share it here because it was beautifully put together and is incredibly heartwarming, minus the part quoting a Fox News opinion. 

For parents, heterosexism is constantly an issue, especially when it comes to intake forms that ask about who is the mother and father to their children. Transparents expressed fear of walking in public while being a pregnant male. Among youth, heterosexism within schools was also a major concern, and new issues were brought to the surface. We were shown a video where multiple youth shared their perspective on the issues they faced, and one affirmed that coming out of the closet was antiquated and that it shouldn’t be necessary, that sexuality should be accepted as fluid. This is a pretty basic summary, because this analysis becomes further complicated when intersectional analyses are applied.childNO

According to the research findings Rachel presented, children from LGB led families exhibit:

  • Increased awareness & empathy towards social difference
  • Higher self-esteem & better mental health than children from heteronormative families
  • Less likely to apply gender values and stereotypes to others
  • Lived in more egalitarian households with shared parenting and housework and parents spent more time with their children
  • More likely to be sexually explorative, though no more likely to identify as LGB

After seeing these findings, I recalled the video where the person brought up how oppressive it feels for someone to debate about how many rights you should be entitled to all because of your LGBTQ status. The fact that children from LGB led families are studied on the basis of who their parents bed is oppressive. It points to how LGB parents must prove they are not corrupting their children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, when heterosexual parent led families aren’t put under the microscope on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Despite the blatant display of heteronormative privilege, it’s great to see these positive results. In fact, it appears children from LGB parent led families may be better adjusted emotionally and more mentally stable than their heterosexual parent led peers. In all honesty, what standard would LGB parents have to fulfill anyway? Perfect families don’t exist.

For heterosexual parents to expect more from LGB parents is simply setting them up to fail. Instead, it appears that children from LGB families are more well-adjusted when it comes to gender and sexuality than children from heterosexual led families. Yet, CAS will not be investigating the homes of those who perpetrate violence against LGB children and youth, nor will be any study be surveilling heterosexual parent led families to scrutinize their parenting skills on the basis of their sexual orientation.

lgbt youth
From the ‘STOP Bullying’ Pinterest Page

Both workshops placed emphasis on what constitutes sexual identity and gender identity. Most of us know that sex refers to the biological identifiers of gender – genitals, hormones, anatomy and genetics – and that gender is how one expresses and identifies oneself, including if this means expressing as androgynous and/or nonbinary.

Simply put, gender is between yours ears and sex is between your legs, but even this may be problematic. Sexuality can also be distributed between two categories: sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. The two are not mutually exclusive. For instance, although sexual orientation may be heterosexual for a cisgendered female, her sexual behaviour may include bedding other cisgendered women.


This interprofessional workshop provided invaluable insight on the next steps required to provide inclusive practices across the province, as well as speaking to the difficulty of advocacy work in suburban and rural parts of Ontario. It provided a great networking opportunity for professionals to connect and work together in creating better services across Ontario. This workshop helped me restore my faith for a more inclusive Ontario, hopefully leading us to the day where no one will have to face barriers just to be with the person they love, irrespective of their gender identity and expression.*

Here are a few concluding tips for anyone planning to work with the LGBTQ communities

  • Advocate for your agency to implement more inclusive language practices, most importantly on intake forms. Intake forms are the first impression a service user has of your agency. Let service users identify themselves by providing a blank space under gender, and on certificates that ask about the user’s parents. For example, where it would ask mother and father (because forms were heteronormative), you would switch it to parent and parent
  • Advocate for all staff to be trained in LGBTQ+ inclusiveness. This will create a welcoming space and decrease barriers that LGBTQ people face in health and social services
  • Always ask, don’t assume. Always ask someone what pronouns they prefer to go by.
  • Avoid using the word homosexual and homosexuality. It refers to the criminalization and medicalization of LGBTQ People.

Here’s another great resource Devan shared with me on the dangers of social work being colonial by being overreaching with wanting to ‘help’.

‘Save us from the saviors,’ say LGBT Indians, sex workers (video)

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Sara Moscatel is a third-year social work student focusing on sexuality, gender, anti-colonialism, and settlement concerns for Portuguese-Canadians. When she’s not dedicating herself to something, she can be found at home eating and bingeing on Netflix with her partner.


Closet Activism: The Importance of Grassroots Gay Activism in the Middle East

When it comes to the possibility of a gay rights movement in the Middle East, some of you might be thinking

  • No, it can never happen
  • Of course! The Gay Rights Movement is so powerful and loud, there’s no way it can’t breach the customs of the Middle East
  • I know so little about the Middle East, I frankly don’t know how social justice is approached, respective of Middle Eastern culture
This IID series talk was hosted by Ryerson’s very own Kamal Al-Solaylee, Journalism professor, author, and journalist. He is also gay-identifying and of Yemeni descent.
This IID series talk was hosted by Ryerson’s very own Kamal Al-Solaylee: Journalism professor & previous Director of the Undergraduate Journalism Program at Ryerson, author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes that won the 2013 Toronto Book Award and 2012 Hilary West Writer’s Trust Prize for Nonfiction. He was a distinguished Globe and Mail writer and theatre critic, and contributed to the Toronto Star, The Walrus, National Post, and Toronto Life. He is gay-identifying and of Yemeni descent.

I identified with the last statement when I heard there was going to be a lecture held at Ryerson addressing Gay Rights in the Middle East. Organized by International Issues Discussion (IID), the event was called Is a Gay Rights Movement Possible in the Arab World? IID is a student-led forum that organizes discussions for universities that focuses on contemporary global issues.

Kamal had always known he was different. He was popular in school, had many girlfriends, and a family to come home to. But he had a secret: He fantasized about men. He didn’t understand that he was gay, so he felt guilty and wrong. Kamal grew up in Yemen, then moved to Beirut. He had no one to disclose his thoughts with, and knew from the start that he couldn’t. If he did, his whole life would be turned upside down. Eventually, Kamal left the Middle East for England to pursue English studies.

When I sat in on the lecture and listened to him speak from his own personal experiences in the Middle East, I felt a sense of worry for what I was about to discover. But Kamal’s main message was: “Expectations for the Arab Spring were unrealistic from the Western and Global world”.

The Arab Spring was a series of uprisings occurring throughout the Middle East back in 2010. There were revolutions, protests, and demonstrations, all fighting against oppressive regimes and structures. People had finally had enough; the Arab Spring was a sign of hope for the future. It led to the removal of rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The entire world watched as civil uprisings erupted across the Middle East.

One of the many demonstrations that took place during the Arab Spring. This photo was taken from a demonstration in Egypt.

As Kamal explained, many people in North America had hopes and aspirations for what was to come following the uprising. Human rights would change, women’s rights would be brought to the forefront, and oppressive regimes would collapse. Many of us who shared such ideas were wrong.  As Kamal puts it, the people of the western world were wishful thinkers and had the wrong expectations.

The mistake comes from the fact that three facets of Middle Eastern culture were ignored:
1) Family structures.
2) Gender roles and expectations assigned to women and men.
3) What is allowed to occur in public and private spaces.

Kamal pointed out that many people might think that religion in the Middle East forces social inequalities.  However, it is the above three pillars that make up Middle Eastern society that Kamal says influences gay rights. These divisions occur because of a culture that has existed for generations. Because gender norms are so vastly ascribed to that, it could be social suicide for people to challenge the norm.

During the lecture, I learned a few interesting things about the Middle East that highlighted why gender roles and their attached expectations are the main reason why gay rights are so contentious.  Masculinity is attached to strength and dominance, whereas femininity is attached to delicateness. Kamal explained that in the Middle East, sex is often used solely for procreation, and not recreation. Two men having sex is then seen as acting out in pleasure, something which is looked down upon. Furthermore, the saying holds that “the fucker is in no danger of being perceived as queer”. This is because the receiver during intercourse is associated to femininity. This is not very different to Western countries that ascribe to gender roles and then proceed to implicate the LGBTQ2S+ community based on these gender expectations.

Now, how does this tie in with the Arab Spring?

One of the most surprising things Kamal said was “The Arab Spring never really cared for gay rights”. According to him, the Gay Rights Movement is seen as a form of western colonialism within the Middle East. It’s seen to be like an imported franchise, when it actually just wanted to disrupt particular Middle Eastern issues. When the world watched as the Arab Spring unfolded, they watched through a pair of western glasses. The West thought issues that were important to their way of living would be similarly important in the Middle East. This was the West’s mistake.

Instead, Kamal pointed out that there are other ways to understand and promote Gay rights in the Middle East. Prior to the 19th century, Gay rights in the Middle East existed in fluidity, with no real lines between Gay, Straight and Bi. But, as Kamal explained, things changed over time as rulers shifted. With massive negative media attention on certain countries, many people focused on protecting their culture and fighting Westernization in the Arab World. I see it as a push and pull situation: as ideals are pushed onto Middle Eastern countries, they pull back in defense, a natural reflex, which intensifies and affects cultural norms. That’s when Kamal pointed out something known as Activism from the Closet. In countries where homosexuality is being cracked down upon by government and police, loud, in-your-face activism that is typical in North America will do more harm than good in the Middle East. Activism from the closet refers to natively developed strategies and supports for gay communities.


Kamal said being gay in the Middle East was like, “being in exile”. Many gay folk will leave their home for Westernized countries. But this leads to two issues:

1) Not everyone has the resources to leave. They might not have the money, or know any other languages
2) Leaving your home country to pursue emancipation doesn’t solve the issues of your native land.

That is why activism from the closet is so important.

What I absorbed most from this lecture was that my social location inclines me to view the Middle East through a Western lens.. When I think of a Gay Rights Movement in the Middle East, I’m thinking of a Westernized Gay Rights Movement. That’s why I’m not seeing any gay rights being implemented at all. The final question shouldn’t be is it possible, but rather, what does a Middle Eastern gay rights movement look like?  Kamal finished by stating that gay rights can exist anywhere, even in the Middle East. But they have to be developed indigenously, they can’t just be imported.

Find Kamal’s book here: http://www.harpercollins.ca/books/Intolerable-Kamal-Al-Solaylee?isbn=9781554688869&HCHP=TB_Intolerable

Quill & Quire literary Review of Intolerable: http://www.quillandquire.com/review/intolerable-a-memoir-of-extremes/

Simone Olshansky is a third year social work student who loves learning about challenging and complex issues. In her program, she has taken a keen interest in public administration. She aspires to be a civil servant or educator one day. On her free time she reads fiction novels and takes care of her mind, body, and soul through self care. She loves to talk and explore the world.