Unlike their big-city sisters, queers who reside in smaller cities and rural areas across Ontario are suffering from inadequate access to the kinds of queer and queer-friendly services available in Toronto. It’s an issue that activists say needs to be addressed in the provincial election on Wed, Oct 10.
“I don’t think any party is doing all they can,” says Brian Lester, board member with the London Area Rainbow Coalition. “In terms of rural areas, the rural experience, whether you’re gay or not the general consensus is that you’re underserved and I think that when you’re looking at the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans] community you multiply that experience and individuals are even more underserved and isolated.”
Lack of financial support for queer and trans programs is a major concern.
“We don’t have a single service in place that is permanently funded. Nothing,” says Barb Urman, coordinator of the York Region LGBT Community Outreach Project. “It’s frightening that with a population of 900,000 there’s not a single place here where people can come to and ask, ‘What’s available? How can I find it? Where do I go?'”
Urman says that for queer residents of the region, which includes the city of Vaughan and towns of Aurora, Markham, Newmarket and Richmond Hill, trying to access support services that don’t know how to handle queer issues can be a difficult and frustrating experience.
“I get calls from people that you wouldn’t believe,” says Urman. “I got a call from a woman who lost her partner to cancer and the hospice she was at told her, ‘We don’t know what to do with you. We have no programs for someone like you.’ They have no idea of how to even talk to a lesbian. They really have no clue.”
Urman says voters have to put pressure on government to do what is right for areas that are resource-deprived.
“I don’t have any hope of having something like The 519 [Community Centre] or David Kelley [Community Counselling] or Sherbourne Health Centre,” says Urman. “That just isn’t going to happen up here. But we need a commitment that we will have the resources where we can at least have a central office where people can call, where there can be some community meeting room. We need sustained funding up here. We really deserve that. What’s going here is not fair, it’s not inclusive and it’s not right.”
Marilyn Weller, the executive director for the AIDS Committee Of Windsor, wants to see continuous funding for regional AIDS groups on the agenda in this election.
“We hear a lot about Stephen Lewis’s work for HIV in Africa,” says Weller, “and certainly there is a lot of empathy for those poor people… but we must not forget that here in our own community, there are large numbers of Ontario residents who are living with HIV. There are also large numbers who don’t know their status, who have HIV and don’t know it. It’s one of the issues that I think is really important… to make sure funding for HIV/AIDS organizations here is a priority.”
The lack of queer-friendly agencies and the scarcity of programs for queer and trans people have left many local AIDS organizations attempting to fill the void by providing additional services not in their mandate.
“Our organization gets calls about things like coming out because people just tie in HIV with gay,” says Gerry Croteau, the director of the AIDS Committee Of Simcoe County. “We do what we can… because there’s nobody else to call.”
Croteau says complacency among local queer residents is a big problem and notes that, for the most part, Barrie-Simcoe-Bradford Conservative MPP Joe Tascona has been “understanding” and “receptive” of the local queer initiatives.
“It’s not even that there isn’t support within the political system, it’s that there isn’t support within the LGBT community itself,” says Croteau. “There seems to be no desire, except by a few people, to get things going. Everybody seems to be waiting for someone else to do something.”
Antihomophobia training and sexual health education are also major concerns for small-town homos. BJ Caldwell, an HIV educator and facilitator at the GBT Men’s Network in Guelph, would like to see politicians make it a priority to improve sexual health training in the province’s smaller and rural school bards.
“Knowledge of HIV and AIDS and sexual health in general is worse than before,” says Caldwell. “Kids in high school now know less about these things than 10 years ago. Sexual health is important for all youth, but especially for queer youth, where they may not be getting information that is relevant for them.”
Caldwell says teachers need training on how to address homophobia in schools, as well as how to talk to students about sexual diversity.
“I’ve spoken to teachers who say they want to say or do something to intervene in situations but they’re afraid,” says Caldwell. “They don’t know what to do.”
Another pressing issue for queer youth in rural areas is isolation, says Caldwell. “I just had one kid who I was put into touch with who is going through some severe mental health issues. He just broke up with his boyfriend, he’s alone, there’s no therapist in his area that he is comfortable going to. He wanted to go to the hospital, but he can’t find a ride to get there.”
Peter Richtig, executive director of the AIDS Committee Of Durham Region, says it’s the federal government, not the provincial government that is the problem.
“My trouble is not with the province,” says Richtig, “I think the initiatives under the current ministry of health are strong… and [health minister] George Smitherman is doing his share. I take issue with the federal government which is dismantling HIV harm-reduction strategies. We haven’t had federal funding in seven years in this region. We’ve tried to have meetings with our federal members of parliament and they won’t even see us. We’re in the trenches doing the work and they won’t give us the resources we need. The province can’t do all the work and part of that responsibility is with the federal government, which has been falling flat in all of their promises. It’s really a travesty.”