A lawyer turned politician. A sexworker turned icon. Pornographers turned club moguls. A doctor turned novelist. And a teacher and student turned activists.
Six tops under 60? Canada’s next top bottoms? Whatever catchy title you want to give this group of queer overachievers, they’re making a difference in our community. The six queer people Xtra profiles below have made important contributions to queer life and all have exciting work ahead of them in the next year. They are truly people that the queer community can take pride in.
Who: Nina Arsenault
What: Stripper, Writer, Actress, TV personality; recently awarded Pride Toronto’s “Unstoppable” award.
Glammy trans icon Nina Arsenault is a busy lady. The 32-year-old former Fab columnist still strips four nights per week at The Lounge, is working on a forthcoming memoir, acts as a judge on the latest season of OUTtv’s Coverguy, sits on the board of directors of the 519 Community Centre, and is preparing to mount a play at Buddies this fall that queer playwright Sky Gilbert wrote specifically for her. But when asked about her busy life she shrugs off her work commitments.
“I try to work out everyday and it takes a lot of time to keep my look together,” she boasts.
That look isn’t just a style. To Arsenault, it’s a symbol of everything she’s risen above since walking away from a job as an instructor at York University and deciding to transition in 1998.
“A lot of transsexuals told me not to tell anyone I want to transition. They said, ‘You’ll never be accepted as a woman.’ They weren’t being mean, they were looking out for me,” she says. “I just decided to have as much cosmetic surgery as possible.
“All my friends thought I was addicted to surgery. I wasn’t. I hated it. It was painful. I had to work really hard in the sex business to pay for it. Having a positive attitude got me through it.
“When I was still ambiguously gendered, being in non-queer places, I dealt with transphobia and was often bashed,” she says. “It was a very difficult time, just dealing with the stress of surgery, the pain, pulling all those tricks and, in my free time, not having a place to go to feel protected.”
Nina pushed herself through those hard times, inspired by other T-girls who’d maintained their grace, dignity and glamour, like Candace Kane and DJ Honey Dijon.
“I’ve always loved beauty and glamour. When I’d see other transsexuals whose look I admired, I’d tell myself to be inspired by them.”
Always controversial and provocative, Arsenault says she has faced criticism from other T-girls and feminists who call her femininity cartoonish.
“For years, people have told me that I’m over the top,” Arsenault says. “At different points in my life I did take their advice and reign myself in, but I just came to the realization that I’m just not happy unless I’m over the top.
“When I was five these older kids in the trailer park showed me a Playboy and I became obsessed with these impossibly beautiful women. I also loved comic book heroines like Storm [of the X-Men], and also Barbies and Jessica Rabbit.”
But Arsenault isn’t just a pretty face. She boasts two post-graduate degrees, including an MFA in playwriting from York University, and says she carries a positive message to her fans.
“Being mean isn’t fierce. Fierce is having confidence,” she says. “I wasn’t always beautiful. I used to be a really ugly transsexual. I know how painful it can be when other T-girls put you down.”
With all she’s been through and all she’s achieved, it’s no surprise that Toronto Pride decided to bestow her with its Unstoppable award this year, but Arsenault says she still sometimes doubts herself.
“The best thing of having received this award is that there’s many times that I’ve thought, ‘Should I do that?’ and I think to myself, ‘I wouldn’t be unstoppable if I didn’t,” she says. “It gives me the confidence to do it. That’s the greatest gift.”
Who: Matt Hughes
What: Seniors activist
A pioneering activist whose 1984 challenge against Acadia University secured the first same-sex spousal benefits from a Canadian school, Matt Hughes is not content to rest on his laurels in his retirement years. After moving to Toronto with his partner 11 years ago, Hughes has taken up the cause of making life more comfortable for queer Torontonians in their golden years.
Hughes says he spends 15 hours per week volunteering on various committees involved with the Toronto Home For The Aged (THA), a city agency that operates 10 seniors’ homes, and he also animates activities for residents.
His involvement with the THA came about after an ex-lover of his, Gary, became disabled after suffering two brain aneurysms. Gary needed 24-hour protection, so his parents put him in a mental health institution, the only available place for him in Nova Scotia. Hughes recognized that Gary’s needs were not met by that institution, and arranged for him to be placed in the THA’s Fudger House at Sherbourne and Wellesley. Gary spent four years there until he passed away last year at age 62.
Following Gary’s placement at Fudger House, Hughes wrote a letter to the THA pointing out the lack of programs dedicated to gay and lesbian seniors and their families.
“That landed on [THA CEO] Sandra Pitters’ desk at the same time as a survey showed that the centre wasn’t reaching out to the community,” Hughes explains.
Since then Hughes has sat on a number of the THA’s committees, including the diversity committee, which is working on a booklet to advise each of the THA homes on how to become more gay-friendly, as well as the family committee and the Fudger House community advisory committee.
Hughes’ work at Fudger House took some time to get off the ground. While the house was believed to be home to many gay and lesbian residents, very few were out to staff and residents.
“I worked with the chaplain at Fudger House, Rev Brian Nicholson, and what we started doing is gently feeling our way into the homes for people who are closeted and we asked them what they would like to do,” says Hughes. “We’ve been allowing the seniors to guide us to what they want us to do, what help they want us to give to them.”
Hughes says the gay seniors told him they wanted a social club, and since getting started, the club has expanded from two people to 21 residents at Fudger House who call themselves the Molly Wood Senior Social Club. Hughes has also started a gay social group at True Davidson Acres in East York.
The Molly Wood Club meets regularly for movie nights, picnics, field trips and lunches at Zelda’s — which Hughes calls the group’s “home centre restaurant” because of its accessible bathroom.
The group is also planning for Pride celebrations, which will include barbecues and tea dances at both houses, a dinner trip to Zelda’s for all the residents and a contingent of seniors that will take part in the parade itself.
“When we turn the corner, when people notice that we’re homes for the seniors, people start applauding and we get blasted with all sorts of water guns,” laughs Hughes, boasting that he fires back at the crowd just as much.
Hughes’ hard work is clearly making a positive difference in residents’ lives.
“I get such comments on our activities, like, ‘this is the most fun I’ve had in my life.’ One said he’s never seen another resident smile as much as now.”
Who: Andrew Brett
What: Youth activist
It was the fight that counted, says the young queer activist who led the charge against raising the age of sexual consent.
Although the bill he so vehemently opposed is a few ceremonial inches away from becoming law — it passed third reading in the House Of Commons and needs only the approval of the Senate and the rubber-stamp of Royal Assent — Andrew Brett is sanguine about the future. He hopes that the long struggle against what he and many others see as a harmful and discriminatory policy may yet bear fruit if this issue is debated again.
“The most important thing was that the committee put up a fight and demonstrated what was wrong with this bill in the hopes that further regulation of youth sexuality won’t take place,” he says.
For now, short of an election call nullifying the Bill C-22, there is little hope of stopping the age of consent from rising. Further action, like lobbying the Senate on the issue, will depend on the energy of the Age Of Consent Committee (AOCC), which Brett reports is currently on the low side.
But Brett sees this as part of a larger struggle for youth and queer rights. To this end, he’s already plunging into a new role as advocacy coordinator for the University Of Toronto Student Union, lobbying for lower tuition fees and an increase in the minimum wage.
Brett graduated from a Catholic high school and spent two years at Queen’s University studying political science before he left what he found to be a conservative environment to make a name for himself as an activist. He says the time he spent working with the AOCC instilled a healthy dose of skepticism about politics.
“It’s really helped me keep an open mind about parties,” he says. “It showed me that all political parties have a bad side to them and you can’t just blindly put your faith in them.”
Opposition to Bill C-22 began a year ago, when the Conservative government first announced plans to increase the age of consent to 16 from 14 . Brett was immediately stunned on hearing the news.
“It sounded like the stupidest idea to me,” he says. Individuals and community groups across the country agreed and before long, the AOCC formed with Brett as its most visible spokesperson. The committee appealed to both parliament and the public, making the case that the bill would only serve to criminalize youth sexuality by making teens involved in a relationship with an older partner afraid to seek essential information and guidance. It also discriminates against gay men, they allege, by leaving the age of consent for anal sex at 18.
Brett sounds a bitter note on the subject of the NDP’s support of C-22. He is a longtime supporter of the party and in 2005, he even ran as a candidate for them in the riding of Scarborough-Rouge River. So did the NDP “yea” votes for C-22 cause a falling out?
“I guess that depends on what you call a falling out. I’m definitely less enthusiastic about the party. I’m still a member, but I’m less willing to go and help out with things than I was before.” He adds that other issues, such as the NDP’s law-and-order plank in the last election also contributed to his cooling to the party.
In retrospect, the only thing that troubles Brett about his fight against raising the age of consent is that he will be labelled a one-trick pony.
“I worry that when someone Googles my name that’s all they’re going to see,” he says.
But with youth and passion on his side, it seems clear that Brett will continue to make splashes on the Canadian political scene.
Who: El-Farouk Khaki
What: Immigration lawyer; Activist on queer, Muslim, HIV and gender issues, and NDP candidate for the federal riding of Toronto Centre
El-Farouk Khaki got an early education in political activism and the plight of refugees. His father was a prominent independence activist in his family’s native Tanzania, but once the country was freed from colonial rule, the Khaki family found themselves to be members of an unpopular racial minority in a republic dominated by a one-party democracy.
At age eight, Khaki fled with his family first to England and then Vancouver, where he grew up and studied law before settling in Toronto where he has lived since 1989.
Since starting his private practice specializing in immigration law in 1993, Khaki has taken the lead in representing refugees whose cases involve sexual orientation, gender, and HIV issues. His pioneering work in this field led to implementation in 1994 of sensitivity training on sexual orientation issues for Immigration And Refugee Board members and staff.
Still a tireless advocate for refugees, Khaki has also been at the forefront of addressing sexual orientation and gender issues in the Muslim faith. From founding the first queer Muslim organization in Canada, Salaam, to acting as the Secretary-General of the Canadian Muslim Union, Khaki has been a strong voice for tolerance and accommodation both for and within the Muslim community.
This year Khaki was celebrated by the Lesbian And Gay Community Appeal for his body of work, and sought and received the NDP nomination in the federal riding of Toronto Centre, hoping to extend his advocacy work into the political sphere.
So far, Khaki’s platform has reflected much of the traditional NDP party line, but he has staked out a number of planks that he holds dear, particularly in immigration issues.
“I’d like to see implementation of the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD). As soon as the legislation was passed, the Liberals put a moratorium on the RAD and the Tories are uninterested in it,” he says.
He also takes exception to “Safe Third Country Agreement” with the United States, which allows Canada to deport to the US any refugees who enter Canada through that country.
“It affects queer refugees,” he explains. “One of the exemptions is if you have a spouse in Canada. People may not be comfortable exposing themselves to Canadian officials if they come from states that sanction violence against gays.”
He has also come out in support of including explicit protection for trans people in the Canadian Human Rights Act, equalizing the age of consent, decriminalizing prostitution and for extending services to queer youth who live outside of major urban centres.
As a candidate, he faces an uphill battle for the riding against former NDP premier of Ontario, Bob Rae, running under the Liberal banner and, even if elected, he will likely serve as an opposition MP, but neither prospect has Khaki shaken.
“Not being in government, you have a bit more freedom to advance issues, because of the whole party line system. Second or third parties have a freedom to bring forward issues that aren’t politically expedient.”
As Xtra went to press, current Toronto Centre MP Bill Graham announced his resignation, meaning a by-election for the riding should be announced soon. Xtra will keep you posted when it’s announced, but when it is, Toronto Centre’s queer community will have a strong activist on the ballot.
Who: Farzana Doctor
What: Therapist, Activist, Novelist.
An accomplished therapist, community activist and film producer, Farzana Doctor is adding novelist to her already impressive resume.
“I’m calling it a doomed love triangle of sorts,” Doctor tantalizingly says of her book Stealing Nazreen. Seven years in the making, what promises to be a pioneering portrayal of the queer immigrant experience was released this month by Inanna Publications.
Because of her demanding full-time job, Doctor didn’t envision creating a novel when she first put pen to paper. But as the story kept growing, this professional social worker soon turned into a full-fledged writer. Still, Doctor doesn’t feel trapped between her literary world and the world in which she counsels people on issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and substance abuse. The two compliment each other, she says, because social work demands a writer’s eye for the human detail — the way people move and talk — that makes a great story.
At the same time, writing gives Doctor a creative outlet for the realities that confront her in her work. In addition to her private practice, Doctor spends time as a consultant at the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health training service providers to be aware of specific issues facing queer clients. She tries to combat widespread assumptions that addiction is somehow the result of queerness, shedding light on the homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia that puts added stress on people already dealing with illness.
Like the characters in her novel, Doctor wrestles with her converging identities as an immigrant lesbian of colour. Reflecting on the impossibility of separating one aspect of herself from another, Doctor says it’s hard to fit comfortably into mainstream queer or South Asian space. She feels most comfortable in an environment that has a combination of both.
“I couldn’t completely come out until I met South Asian dykes and was able to see ‘oh, wow, South Asians can be dykes, too.’ That’s what helped me make the big click in my head when I was coming out. So I really needed various parts of my identity to be coming together,” she says.
A novel about a South Asian lesbian would have helped assemble that puzzle for Doctor as a young woman, and she hopes that her book might help others going through the same thing. Mostly, though, she just wants everyone who picks it up to have a good summer read.
Doctor’s creative output doesn’t stop at the printed word. As a member of Friday Night Productions, a queer South Asian video collective, Doctor coproduced a documentary that takes an intimate look at the lives of queer South Asians and their families. Rewriting The Script: A Loveletter To Our Families examines what relationships are like after someone comes out, providing a resource for parents with queer children. It has just been released on DVD.
Oh, and with the ink still wet on Stealing Nazreen, Doctor is already a third of the way through her second book. Asked for a sneak preview, she would reveal only that it is the story of middle-aged man who has made a “huge, awful mistake.” She won’t say what this colossal blunder was, of course, leaving us hanging until it rolls off the press. But despite remaining tight-lipped about her writing, Doctor has provided plenty of reason to believe that whatever she does next — in fiction or reality — will be something to watch out for.
Who: Mandy Goodhandy and Todd Klinck
What: Owners of Goodhandy’s, Toronto’s Pansexual Playground
“Someone said to me, ‘What kind of club is this?’ and there’s really no answer,” says Mandy Goodhandy, co-owner with Todd Klinck of Goodhandy’s.
She has a point. The lovely transsexual promoter and pornographer who claims to be, ahem, 21 and a virgin, and her business partner have put together a bar experience like no other in Canada. Goodhandy’s, which celebrated its first anniversary this past May, is a home to trannies, tranny-lovers, gays, straights, queers, sex workers and everyone else, and offers drag shows, live porn and even a “diamond club” where patrons can steal away for private sexual encounters.
“We get a lot of tourists at the bar, especially on Thursdays,” says Klinck, of the bar’s popular T-girl night. “Generally, guys who are into T-girls are better off and can travel.”
“It’s almost as if we don’t appreciate what we have here in Toronto,” agrees Goodhandy.
But Klinck admits that the legal rights we have in Canada are so new that many Canadians may not quite understand them.
“It’s only been one and a half years since the Supreme Court’s [Dec 21, 2005] indecency ruling,” says Klinck. That ruling declared that sex acts behind closed doors in private establishments are not indecent for the purposes of the Criminal Code’s bawdy-house laws. Consequently, clubs like Goodhandy’s, which allow private sexual encounters and voyeurism, can operate without threat of prosecution under the Criminal Code.
Goodhandy’s is about more than celebrating sexual liberation. The club offers a uniquely trans-positive environment, where trans people can feel comfortable both as customers and staff.
“We wanted to be open to everyone and have individual nights for various groups, but everyone can come,” says Goodhandy. “This is our [transsexuals’] space, but they’re visiting us and we’ve made them very welcome. We didn’t always feel that way in other spaces, especially if you were obvious.
“One of the goals is to have a space where you can be supported in the transition,” says Goodhandy.
The bar also employs some transitioning transsexual bartenders and barbacks.
“The transition period for a transsexual is hard for employment because they’re not outwardly expressing what they are yet,” says Klinck.
For a small, out-of-the-way bar off the main village drag, Goodhandy’s may be punching above its weight in terms of its impact on the queer community, but its owners aren’t operating the bar with dreams of striking it rich.
“We’re both not capitalists,” explains Goodhandy. “We’re not into the big buck. If we were, we’d have picked a bigger club.”
“The goal is for it to be profitable and pay for itself and be a good place for the community,” Klinck says.