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Queer health workers gather in Toronto

RHO organizes first Ontario meeting

At the end of March, 300 or more healthcare and community health workers will get together to talk about queer healthcare in Ontario. It’s a topic riddled with potential landmines — which, of course, is part of the fun.

Anna Travers is the force behind the conference. She’s the director of Rainbow Health Ontario (RHO), an organization founded in the spring of 2008, based out of Toronto’s Sherbourne Health Centre, with the mission of improving queer healthcare across the province.

“Right from the first proposal we wrote, we saw the conference as an important part of the education and training work we wanted to do,” says Travers. “RHO has been in operation now for about two years, so we thought this would be the right time to do it.”

Travers says the conference will take place every two years.

While the meet-up is aimed primarily at health professionals, researchers and community workers operating in Ontario, participants and speakers will come from as far afield as Vancouver and Halifax. Not since the one-time Rainbow Health Canada conference in Halifax, in 2005, will the country have seen such a large-scale gathering focused on queer health.

“There’s just so little in Canada that when people hear of a conference that looks interesting, they come,” she says. “A lot of people, particularly outside large centres like Toronto, work in incredible isolation. Many lesbian, gay, bi and trans services are still quite grassroots and small, so there are few opportunities to connect with others to network and learn. So we’re excited about the opportunity to bring people together to share what they do and create networks they can sustain after they go home.”

Considering the conference’s themes — access and equity — some might cringe at the high cost of registration, a cool $425. But Travers is quick to point out that the conference is being run on a break-even budget and that scholarships (for which applications are now closed) have been provided to nearly 50 participants, particularly those located at a distance from the city.

“I am confident that the majority of people who applied for access will have been given the assistance they needed. I would also like to say I’m not ashamed of the fact that this is a professional conference,” Travers says. “There’s a lot of crossover between people in the community and people doing this work.”

Keynote speakers include psychiatrist Gail Knudson from BC, founder and past-president of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health (CPATH).

“She will speak about Vancouver but also what’s going on internationally in trans healthcare,” says Travers.

US-based author and women’s health activist Amber Hollibaugh is also slated as a plenary speaker, and Bill Ryan from McGill University in Montreal will be speaking about seniors’ issues and other aspects of queer healthcare in Quebec.

“We wanted perspectives from outside Ontario in particular,” she says. “As anglophones, we often don’t know what’s happening right next door.”

Morgan Holmes of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo will be giving a workshop on intersex issues, and the TransPULSE team will present their preliminary trans healthcare survey results.

The workshop roster covers such subjects as research partnerships, prostate cancer, queer parenting, risk-taking and HIV, and queer youth.

The conference will feature Conversations that Matter, “an open-space concept where people can suggest a topic and others can sign up during the day, and we’ll send them off to rooms so they can begin those conversations,” Travers explains. With a view to region-based networking, each of RHO’s 14 LHIN (Local Health Integration Network) representatives, one for each provincial healthcare region, will host a breakfast table.

On a professional note, Travers mentions that three workshops — “We’re going for four!” — have been given Canadian College of Family Practice accreditation. “Very few of the professional or medical schools have any [queer] content in their curricula, so most nurses and physicians, and even social workers, get very little training in this area.”