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These LGBT students just won scholarships for their activism

Some of the 2017 LOUD youth leaders open up about their motivations and their setbacks

Loud scholarship recipients group shot
The 2017 LOUD scholarship recipients (clockwise from back left): Hanna Jacobsen, Kyle Militello, Zdravko Cimbaljevic, Kiran Sunar, Blake Stilitis, Clarisse Scopp, David Ng, Nico McKay, and Sarah Desrosiers. Credit: Shimon Karmel/Daily Xtra

Each year, the LOUD Foundation awards scholarships to LGBT youth across BC who are dedicated to community engagement. This year, the foundation received a record 91 applications and awarded 12 students scholarships on June 8, 2017, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre salons for their volunteer work.

Xtra spoke to some of the awardees about what motivates them and the activism born out of their life experiences.

 

David Ng

David Ng

When David Ng sat down to edit Hayfa, a film that shares the story of Hayfa Abichahine and the complexities of coming out to her Palestinian-Lebanese mother, he felt a connection so deep that he was brought to tears.

“I cry every single time I watch it, and editing it I was just weeping away,” he says of the 2015 film produced by the group he co-founded called Love Intersections.

As the child of an immigrant, he says the film really resonated with him.

“Already, we’re outside as people of colour. To come out to our parents, all of a sudden, it’s almost like we’re wanting to be more othered,” Ng elaborates. It’s not just about queerness, he notes, but about challenging their idea of what success means.

After experiencing anti-Asian racism in the LGBT community, Ng co-founded Love Intersections with Jen Sung in 2014 as a way of sharing the stories of queer people of colour through film.

“The films have been exhibited over 30 times at film festivals all over the world,” says Ng, adding that the project was hatched three years ago as he wrote a blog piece over a glass of wine.

Ng has had a longstanding love affair with activism, starting when he first self-identified as a feminist at the age of 14. “I started out as an activist doing media arts and I’ve seen the impact of feminist queer arts in my own life and the lives of my community,” he says. “That really sent me on a trajectory on how to use feminist art in community.”

After not hearing back from the LOUD Foundation, Ng was sure he hadn’t won an award. But he didn’t give up hope.

“Because I am the person that I am, I always follow up even if I get disqualified or my applications are not successful, because I want to learn from what I did wrong,” Ng says. “So I was just following up and then a week later, I got short-listed and I was over the moon.”

Ng, who will be completing his PhD at UBC’s Social Justice Institute, won the Reese Barajas award.

Kiran Sunar

Kiran Sunar

Kiran Sunar’s study of Punjabi literature stems from a need to answer the many  questions they had about the history of their people.

“I basically look at questions of gender and sexuality and the fantastical in early modern Punjabi literature,” says Sunar, who uses the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their. “I found a lot of answers in terms of a sense of knowledge. A lot of people don’t know these histories and there’s a lot of misconceptions.”

Sunar, who is a PhD student in Asian Studies at UBC, says that the colonial legacy  has altered these histories, particularly in the case of the violent partition of 1947, which also split the area of Punjab between the two newly formed of nation-states, India and Pakistan. “What has happened since then is that there’s been all of this history that’s been erased,” they explain, noting the adage that history is always told by the victors, referring in this case to the issue of how much inaccurate historical knowledge about Punjab was produced during British rule in South Asia.

“People in India [and Pakistan and the diaspora] will have different stories of what happened. For me, it’s really important to share histories that are of a really multi-voice community and sort of knit back together some of these histories.”

Sunar, who has been learning Punjabi, Persian and Sanskrit as part of their program, says South Asian literature is under-studied because it isn’t given the same value as European literatures.

“They aren’t seen as having artistic value. They’re seen as folk; they’re seen as, ‘Look at what those people did back then,’ sort of like with a colonial lens,” Sunar says. “I think that there is definitely more work that needs doing.”

Sunar, who was awarded the Gina Best scholarship, hopes to infuse the histories they study with their love of creative writing.

“In the same way people write historical novels about Ireland, I want to write about [South Asian histories].”

Blake Stilitis

Blake Stitilis

An aversion to chemistry almost set Blake Stitilis off his path toward becoming a doctor.

“For a long time, the only reason that held me back was I thought I couldn’t do chemistry, but then I came back to it as an adult and was like, ’Okay, I have a lot more support, I can probably deal with this in a better way,’” Stitilis says. “I was really relieved because I thought it was something that I couldn’t do and it was keeping me from doing something that I wanted to do.”

Stitilis says the flaws in the way healthcare providers treat LGBT patients encouraged him to enter the field. “I realized a lot of health is determined outside of the healthcare system in terms of our place in society, our socio-economic standing, our access to resources, our race, our gender, our sexuality, our class,” Stitilis notes. “Especially when it comes to sexuality, there’s a lot to be desired when it comes to the healthcare that LGBT folks receive.”

He finds the situation unacceptable. “Everyone should feel comfortable and safe going to the doctor and that they can receive the same standard of care as anyone else.”

Stitilis hadn’t planned to apply for a LOUD scholarship so when he found out he’d won, he was surprised. “I just know that there are so many talented, wonderful people that are applying that do such great work and so it was really reaffirming,” he recalls.  “It felt like my community had my back in my plan for what I wanted to do.”

Stitilis, who is completing prerequisites for medical school, won the LOUD scholarship.

Sarah Desrosiers

Sarah Desrosiers tried to convince herself she couldn’t be depressed because she is a psychology student.

“It came to a point where my friends were noticing behaviours about me that I wasn’t noticing,” Desrosiers recounts. “I was like, ‘No, it’s just stress. I’m a psychology student, I can’t be depressed. I know what that is.’”

Depression was the price Desrosiers paid for volunteering 20 hours a week at her university’s Pride Resource Centre, working 25 hours a week, and excelling in all five of her classes at UBC Okanagan to make the dean’s list this year.

“This year I fell off the wagon mentally,” Desrosiers says. “I broke, and I didn’t realize I broke until my friends brought it to my attention. I was proud of myself that I was able to get these great grades and do all this volunteering but it came at a very high price,” she elaborates. “I stopped working out, I gained a lot of weight, I was crying all the time, I became depressed so it’s a little bit bitter sweet.”

Desrosiers credits her family, friends and professors for helping her make it through a tough time. “I was convinced that I would finish my exams and I would feel great, and that did not happen,” she says. “It got worse over the summer, so if I didn’t have all these people looking out for me, I don’t know if I would have gotten through it. I got through it because of my social support system.”

Desrosiers, who was awarded the LOUD WESA scholarship, is set to graduate in 2018 with  a major in psychology and a minor in anthropology. She hopes to pay forward the support she received by being there for other people in the community through a monthly OutTalk where people share their coming out stories.

Zdravko Cimbaljevic

Zdravko Cimbaljevic

When asked what he was most proud of, Zdravko Cimbaljevic pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts.

“The thing that I’m proud of is that I stayed who I am despite all the obstacles and hatred and people not treating me as human,” he says. “By staying who I am, I can look back and see how many people I made smile, or made their day. For me, that’s the biggest reward.”

After facing persecution for being himself in his home country of Montenegro, Cimbaljevic fled to Canada. “I arrived September 2013 in Canada as a refugee. The reason for that is, in 2011, I came out as Montenegro’s first out gay man in the country,” Cimbaljevic recalls. “In 2013, I organized the first Pride. It was good that it happened, I’m so happy and proud that it happened but it really ended up violent.”

Cimbaljevic describes a scene where hundreds of police officers protected the landmark event’s attendees from hundreds of attackers. “We needed to be evacuated by boats because it was on the coastline,” he recounts. “I received 250 death threats within 15 days;  my obituary was all over the street,” says Cimbaljevic, adding that he stayed off the streets and laid low in his apartment for a month.

At the time, Cimbaljevic had just returned from Vancouver’s Pride parade and was encouraged by friends to seek asylum in the city. “After that, I got really engaged in the community here and internationally, within Rainbow Refugee and Foundation of Hope, and helping other refugees escaping persecution [to] settle.”

Cimbaljevic describes activism as inseparable from who he is.

“My activism is my life.  I cannot measure it; it’s literally a part of me. This is who I am,” he says.

Cimbaljevic, who won the LOUD WESA scholarship, is currently pursuing peace and conflict studies at Langara College and hopes to continue on to international relations.

Editor’s note, June 28, 2017: This article was updated to most accurately reflect Kiran Sunar’s work.

This story is filed under Vancouver