5 min

The unwelcome wagon

Being gay isn't the same as being in the gay community for youth of colour

DIFFERENT ISSUES. Black CAP's Trevor Gray says black men often don't consider themselves gay. Credit: Mark Bogdanovic

Jason Rodriguez (not his real name) is a 19-year-old whose family came to Canada from the Philippines five years ago. He lives with two brothers, a sister and his parents, who regularly pressure him to get married. He’s not out to them. When his father gets frustrated with him, he will say, “Why are you such a fag?”

Jason hangs out at the steps at Church and Wellesley, goes to the downtown YMCA and a few gay bars. Though he might be a prime candidate for safe-sex information or a youth group that provides information on coming out, Jason says he’s never heard of gay or AIDS service organizations like the 519 Church Street Community Centre, Supporting Our Youth (SOY) or Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS).

For Jason and other young people of colour, the myth that the gay community exists for all people has yet to come true. There is still a disconnect between gay service providers and non-white youth.

These organizations need to demonstrate they want real social change by making their services accessible to all. And they need to do it without resorting to predictable excuses like needing more funding.

Bev Lepischak is the program director at Central Toronto Youth Services (CTYS), a government supported agency that provides homo-oriented services like the SOY and a writing program called Pink Ink. They also offer Desi Queer, a South Asian video project. Lepischak says at least 20 percent of the male clients are Asian men between the ages of 16 to 25, but that few young black men use their services.

“For some black men they feel they cannot come out by attending,” she says. “There is a macho culture in the black and hispanic communities. Some of these men have a conflict that being gay isn’t considered masculine.”

That said, Lepischak says CTYS can do more to help homosexual youth of colour. CTYS advertises primarily through brochures to other agencies and could do more effective advertising directly to non-white youth. But it takes an extra effort. Dino Paoletti, who works with HIV-positive youth at CTYS, says getting brochures into schools, for example, is difficult.

“Some schools are not open-minded, especially Catholic schools. The schools fear the reactions of some parents about bringing brochures containing information about homosexuality,” he says.

Paoletti and Lepischak point to cultural issues that prevent them from addressing their sexuality. Says Paoletti: “Some gay youth of colour have a conflict with themselves to deal with being a person of colour and gay.”

Trevor Gray, coordinator of the Black Coalition For AIDS Prevention’s Men2gether project, agrees that cultural issues are important. But he defines them differently.

“To be gay is a North American notion and some men from the Caribbean don’t label themselves as gay,” says Gray. “For Caribbean men their lives do not revolve around their sexuality.”

Though everyone acknowledges the obstacles, there are few solutions on the table.

Clearly one problem at CTYS is its hiring practices. Lepischak says that two facilitators who work primarily with gay youth were hired as “a political move to hire gay counsellors to work with gay youth.” Both of the counsellors are white, one male and one female, while CTYS’s non-white counsellors work primarily with heterosexual issues, programs like helping young offenders.

Hiring more workers of colour would provide role models that are lacking in my visible minority communities. And it would demonstrate that the agencies are taking reaching people of colour seriously.

The Lesbian, Bi, Gay Youth Line is also a resource ethnic minorities can utilize for support, but its staff are just as white. The volunteers who answer the phones are all under the age of 27. But Heather Childs, the acting executive director and service coordinator, wouldn’t say how many were visible minorities; she guessed at about 25 percent.

Childs says the organization has a policy of not asking the racial background of its callers. Statistics are collected on the age, gender and location of the caller. Childs estimates 75 percent of the calls come from gay white men. The youth line does have workshops that deal with anti oppression and there are discrimination policies in place.

When pressed, Childs concedes that more work can be done to reach ethnic minorities – but things like increased advertising would require more funding.

The Hassle Free Men’s Clinic on Church St has found a way to reach out to non-white people, even within its existing budget.

“The Hassle Free Clinic noticed in the last five years that there has been an increase in East Indian, African, South Asian and Caribbean men,” says the clinic’s Robert Trow, who is white. He says two South Asian men have been hired, one as a counsellor, the other as a nurse/paramedic. The clinic has brochures in eight different languages such as Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese and Vietnamese. Trow says that by having men of colour working there, “more men of colour will feel comfortable.”

The other three employees are white males, though. If a young black men went in for assistance he would see no one he could identify with.

Trow says that the clinic could spend more time to improve services dealing with outreach feedback from the ethnic agencies it deals with. The clinic does have a partnership with ACAS to provide safe-sex information in bathhouses.

Another big obstacle in trying to be more inclusive is finding out who is accessing services and who needs them. Trow says the Hassle Free did a questionnaire that asked clients their ethnic background. However, many men declined to reveal their background and checked the “other” box.

I suggested to Childs that the youth line could do a survey to find out more about ethnic youth using the services, how to reach them and what they need; she said it might be considered for the future – if they have the budget.

Some people are making the effort to meet the needs of young people of colour.

In 1996, CTYS started a program with a community centre that assists black youth in North York, particularly around issues of coming out. Last year, CTYS conducted training sessions there that dealt with homosexual issues and anti homophobia training. The outreach program is an admission that there is definitely different implications for white youth and minority youth in terms of coming out.

“There is a clash between expectations between the youth and their parents,” says Lepischak. Some ethnic youth born in other countries don’t realize they can come out in Canada.

Llewellyn Goddard, a black man who works for the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, is working on creating a group for young black homosexuals called the Black Lesbian Gay Youth Initiative. Right now the group in its early stages, applying for funding.

“It was about time that there were services for black gay youth,” says Goddard.

The BLGYI is affiliated with the Substance Addiction Program For African Canadian Youth, which deals with not only addiction problems but other issues like black history, family counselling and self esteem issues for black youth, both straight and gay. Goddard said he wants the BLGYI to be for black gay youth and run by black gay youth, providing services including safer sex education.

York University’s Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay Alliance At York (TBLGAY) uses listserve e-mail lists (you can find out how to sign up at their website, as a way to communicate, a method that seems to be able to reach out to youth of colour. The virtual world offers some protections the real world can’t provide.

“Some black students are concerned about being seen going into the gay office,” says Keira Grant, TBLGAY’s external coordinator.

Gabriela Boldrini, TBLGAY’s internal coordinator, says that she has heard some youth of colour wonder if the safe space at the alliance’s office is “too white” and whether students are less likely to come if there is “a sea of white faces.”

Grant says one of her goals is to make the office more inclusive, for example, by holding film nights programmed to different ethnic interests.

The question remains why it’s taken so long for people of colour to start having services of their own. Even though youth of colour may use the services less than white youth, their concerns are no less valid.

If youth of colour must wait for more funding to have services tailored to them and advertised to them, then these agencies do not seem to consider these groups important.