Inside a small set of rooms at the Carleton Unicentre, two young adults from mid-sized Ontario towns are doing what university students around the world have done for years. They’re planning the evolution, one awareness campaign at a time.
Joanna Paddock, 20, and Shaun Vollick, 22, are this year’s coordinating staff at the Carleton University Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual And Transgender Centre. Young, gifted and queer, they are articulate, yet slightly blasé; wise, but unavoidably vulnerable.
Paddock will coordinate the Centre’s programming, and Vollick its administration. Between them, they have years of activist and organizing experience that they are intent on using to create a campus environment that pushes the edges of the progressive envelope – one that celebrates sexual and gender diversity, that is safe and welcoming for them and their fellow queer students.
It’s no small order.
Queer tortoise, queer hare
This project is an extension of the queer activism Joanna Paddock has been immersed in throughout her teenage years. Growing up in London, she came out as bisexual at 13. “I would have gone crazy if I had waited,” she says.
Before she graduated high school, Paddock started the first gay-straight alliance in her city. She organized protests and did presentations to help land $80,000 for queer resources from her school board. She gave lectures to student teachers on growing up gay and travelled to Montreal to lead a workshop at a national Egale Canada conference.
Chances are, if Paddock has nine queer activist lives, she’s lived at least one of them already.
On the flip side, Vollick is a veteran of a Guelph Catholic school, who just happily celebrated his one-year, coming out gay-niversary. “They don’t teach homosexuality in Catholic school,” he muses. “They barely teach sexuality in general.”
In fact, no one was openly queer at Vollick’s high school. Exuding a grounded calmness, he reflects, “It wasn’t a welcoming community.”
Having survived the torments of homophobic religious education, Vollick emerged from high school a student government leader. He went on to coordinate programming for the Carleton Disability Awareness Centre, before working in residence, then making the leap to the GLBT Centre this summer.
He says of his work now, “I guess I’m sort of making up for lost time, you know, after being voiceless for so long.”
Supporting the theory that younger queers are more inclined to embrace a fuller spectrum of sexual and gender identities, Vollick and Paddock lay it down unequivocally that one of their priorities for the year is a focus on bisexuality and transgender issues.
“One of our joint goals is that we need to have more awareness of bisexuality and transgenderism in the community, because there’s a lot of internalized homophobia towards these people,” says Vollick. “It’s horrible to think that we can’t even be allied within ourselves, and we expect others to be allied with us.”
Paddock says the centre held a trans awareness week for the first time last year, but the time of year was off and the events were under-resourced. This year, she notes, it’s her biggest goal to raise participation and make it a much bigger success.
This focus on including transfolk, who currently linger on the periphery of queer communities, is an interesting political choice for a young woman who – by virtue of her new position and her sexual orientation – is simultaneously at both the centre and the margin of her community.
Paddock says that as a bi woman now involved with a man, the understanding and respect the centre tries to cultivate for all its queer students are not always forthcoming for her. She says that some of the comments and reactions from her peers convey the impression that she can be neither really queer nor decisive, emotionally responsible nor trustworthy.
When Paddock nonchalantly drops her list of activist contributions like a quick shopping list, a visitor feels like she’s talking to a young veteran of the trenches. But when Paddock describes this biphobic flak, her voice breaks and her eyes fill. One is reminded that this is the kind of personal and political shrapnel that continues to wound bisexual people like Paddock.
It’s a dynamic Vollick seems to understand. The two seem to share a new, purposeful alliance, a camaraderie that they will need to face the rigours of the coming year.
They will be tasked with managing a large part-time and volunteer staff (they are seeking approval on some 25 part-time work-study positions) and executing an ambitious education, advocacy and support-oriented work program. And all of this in a space that most – including themselves in the past – always loved primarily as a wicked place to hang out and socialize.
They are scheduled to give lectures in sociology and human rights classes, and have designs on connecting with Carleton’s new president and dean of students, to help anchor a queer-positive agenda firmly in the campus culture.
They know that one of their first challenges will be tackling a zenith of campus homophobia – frosh week.
Says Vollick, “There is a double standard in the outer community, where someone would be really chastised for making a racist comment at work or on campus, but it would be really rare for someone to be called on a homophobic comment, especially during something like orientation week.”
Paddock cringes, “Oh geez, that’s gonna be hard.”
“Yep,” agrees Vollick. “So you could have this huge homophobic comment thrown out and no one would probably say anything.”
“That’s what we’re there for, though,” says Vollick. “We’re there to stop them, to chastise them.”