When Hamilton homo Ron Mattai was brutally gaybashed at a bar in 2004, friends, family and supporters raised money to assist with what were expected to be exorbitant reconstructive surgery costs. But when a plastic surgeon donated services, there was a bank account filled with money that had lost its purpose.
Mattai and his supporters, in concert with Hamilton social planner Deirdre Pike, decided the few thousand dollars raised was enough for start-up costs to found Hamilton’s first queer-specific support agency.
“The person who beat me was 19 years old,” says Mattai. “He showed no remorse when he was found guilty. It made me realize that we need to teach young people from early on. I also learned a lot about myself. I have had to face a great deal of internalized homophobia. It’s truly been an awakening. The centre will be safe space, where you have people reaching out to you. That’s what it’s meant to be.”
Just two years after its conception as an idea, the queer Community Wellness Centre officially went public on Jun 17, Hamilton’s Pride Day, with a parade float and booth.
“It’s a place to create community, to bring a level of wholeness on the emotional, spiritual and physical levels [for queers],” says Pike. “The Wellness Centre won’t be working from a medical model. We’ve looked at places like Vancouver’s The Centre and Toronto’s The 519. There will be health promotion programs, and the requests for antihomophobia training from other service providers are already skyrocketing. We want it to be a place people — out or questioning — feel safe to walk into.”
Without an official home or name, it’s already been nominated Organization Of The Year by Hamilton’s 2006 Pride Awards. A contest to name the centre is currently underway, with a September launch for both its capital campaign and the permanent name.
Having secured one year’s funding through the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the centre will be hiring a staff person to develop and deliver the youth and parenting programs, and establish the website. The centre’s volunteer board, which includes Mattai, will begin a capital campaign this fall to fund beyond the first year.
Current initiatives at the centre include a queer youth group, a program for same-sex parents and an on-line resource centre. Pike dreams of one day having 24-7 volunteer-run phone peer support line, expanded programming such as smoking cessation programs and a trans youth group, and a welcoming space where queers and people questioning their sexuality can feel comfortable hanging out.
The question of a permanent location for the centre isn’t an easy one. Although there is no clearly defined gay neighbourhood in Hamilton, Pike hopes the centre will be in the downtown core, potentially on Locke or James streets. With queer presence primarily being “four bars and Pride festivities,” the Wellness Centre, wherever it hangs its shingle, could be instrumental in creating a cohesive queer scene.
“The considerations of access are complex. There are still so many people closeted and we have to take seriously the barriers for them coming to the centre,” says Pike, adding that a decision will be made soon, in consultation with local businesses and neighbourhood associations.