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5 min

Rule #1: Don’t scare your clients away

Queer classes make more dents in government than business

INCH BY INCH. Educator Krin Zook works with children's aid societies, but has been making inroads with the police, too. Credit: (Joshua Meles)

In June 1995, the board of directors of the Children’s Aid Society Of Toronto (CAS) adopted all 38 recommendations found in a report called We Are Your Children, Too: Accessible Child Welfare For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Youth, which showed how children and youth often experienced discrimination in the foster care and child welfare systems.

After implementation of many of the recommendations, the agency now functions as a model for other children’s aid societies around the province. But the agency decided to go a step — or several — further. Leaders decided to create systems to accommodate queer issues not only among its young clients, but also in the workplace. The agency’s policies on training around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are now considered leading edge.

CAS is just one of several organizations which initiated programs to make gender diversity and antihomophobia training part of every employee’s training package, a trend that’s becoming increasingly notable in the social-service fields.

For example, training on sexual diversity is mandatory for all CAS staff, from social workers to bookkeepers to foster parents. Pride events are celebrated on equal footing with other special occasions.

“Overall it has created a safer environment for staff and for the children and youth,” says Blair Boddy, director of internal resources. “This is carried onward to not just our facilities but they take that with them when they leave.”

When Boddy first started working at CAS a child or youth’s sexual orientation “didn’t even enter into our thinking.

“That was reflected in the language that we used, pictures, posters, not making such a conscious effort to get out to Pride events, no accountability for staff and the kids to not use derogatory comments,” says Boddy.

It was a matter of getting beyond tolerance — making grudging allowance for differences when they arise — and toward acceptance. Now, young clients are not asked if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend based on gender lines, but are asked if they have a partner or significant other. Promotional posters are mandated to reflect a wide diversity of family types and last year a Pride decorating contest was held within CAS group homes. Issues of sexuality are no longer danger zones to be steered around, but teaching opportunities.

“Putting a rainbow flag on my appointment book could stimulate a discussion with a child who comes in,” says Boddy. Even if the child isn’t ready to discuss the issue, the rainbow flag sends a subtle signal that a discussion in the future wouldn’t be a problem.

“There are rewards when they say, ‘You created this environment. You let me know it was okay to say who I am. Thank you for creating that environment, for letting me feel safe.'”

Children and youth in care are also targeted for education, but most of that is done through the program Teens Educating And Confronting Homophobia (TEACH), a program of Planned Parenthood. The TEACH educators who go into CAS group homes are all former or current agency clients who can speak directly to their own experiences in CAS.

CAS also runs the program Out And Proud, which works on staff training.

Krin Zook, coordinator of the Out And Proud program says it’s becoming popular in other places.

“We’ve also been [training children’s aid societies] across Ontario, as far away as Thunder Bay, Kenora, places like that.”

Zook’s and her colleagues’ success in developing the program is evident by the fact that they have been asked to travel to children’s aid societies across the province to deliver a day devoted to gay,lesbian, bisexual, trans (GLBT) issues as part of a three-day general training offered by the Ontario Association Of Children’s Aid Societies.

Toronto’s Children’s Aid Society isn’t alone in taking a leadership role. Larry Konyu, chair of the education committee at the advocacy group Rainbow Health Network (RHN), says they’re working to change the way queer people are treated in hospitals, old age homes and other social service agencies.

The RHN is a project of the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario, which emerged out of a 1997 report on how the Ontario healthcare and social service systems fail sexual minorities.

“From that the network decided that its job was to go out and create a workshop that they could deliver to the healthcare and social service communities,” says Konyu. “To teach them what they should be looking at in the care of the GLBT population.”

Konyu says the network has developed a training manual and is working to get into hospitals and healthcare facilities to deliver the training. He worries that it’s hard to fit workshops into busy hospital schedules and is working to overcome that. Rather than waiting for hospitals to contact the RHN, he is working to get training into medical schools and nursing programs — reaching students before they become overworked doctors and nurses may be more effective.

Michele Clarke is another local trainer who works as a health promoter in the queer program at Sherbourne Community Health Centre. Her works focusses on health and social service providers.

“I do basic cultural competence training for service providers,” says Clarke. “It’s not really anti-homophobia 101 although sometimes that’s an aspect.”

Clarke says educating service providers about the barriers to providing the best care to queer people — making assumptions about their health or relationship status, for example — has been fruitful. But it’s also true that she’s teaching to people who have invited her.

“Mostly I think people are very interested, very receptive,” says Clarke. “Homophobia exists everywhere, but in our sector people are very open and keen to know what to do. A lot of people don’t know and because of political correctness are worried that they are going to do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing.”

Many people feel they have a handle on sexual orientation, but there’s increasing demand for information on trans issues — like how to offer gender-segregated programming, as well as more practical issues like washroom use.

Clarke has also done some work with Dick Moore, who runs the Older LGBT program at the 519 Community Centre. A gradually greying population of out queers has made some people worry that lesbian and gay seniors may need to go back into the closet if they need to move to a nursing or retirement home.

Most other sectors — think of how training might go over in, say, the construction industry or professional sports — have been slow to embrace this kind of training. Still, Zook does offer private training in partnership with another trainer.

“The two of us have been doing everything from police to public health,” Zook says, admitting that most of the clients are in the government service sector.

“We’ve wanted to get into the business sector but what we’re finding is that most of them will try to do their own in-house training if they’re doing anything about this at all,” says Zook. “We haven’t put a huge push in the private sector but it’s certainly an area we want to target.”

Zook finds that motivations for doing training are both proactive and reactive. Sometimes it’s established as part of overall staff training. But oftentimes she finds that there is a queer person within the organization who is driving it.

Over the years, Zooks admits the questions and answers from participants have gotten better.

“Years ago when I said, ‘How many people know someone who is lesbian or gay?’, most people wouldn’t raise their hands. Now most people raise their hand.”