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Seeking the magic ingredient

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Along with a cultural history favouring chosen families, GLBT* people hold an openness to creating new family forms. Some of this comes with biology, and some comes from social-political pressures. For many queer parents-to-be, finding sperm is a key part of planning a pregnancy.

Lesbian cis partners and single queer uterus-possessing parents are some of the most likely queer families to seek sperm when they decide to have kids. Trans parents of any gender, depending on hormones and biology, may find themselves looking as well.

So how do queer parents who need sperm get started? There are legal issues, relationships and roles to define, costs, and preferences to consider. The two basic routes to acquiring sperm are through either a sperm bank or a known donor.

“Unknown donor sperm is often seen as desirable because it allows lesbians to parent with autonomy and security,” writes Joanna Radbord in her 2010 paper GLBT Familes and Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Radbord is a Toronto-based lawyer who has won awards for her focus on GLBT* legal equality. The issues can be expanded to include queer parents of other genders too. She says unknown donor sperm is the route most lesbian partners take.

While it does protect the parents legally, unknown donor sperm is costly and sometimes ineffective. There’s also a shortage of ethnically-diverse donors in the Canadian sperm pool because of how it’s set up.

Known donors

Sperm from known donors provides less legal security, but is a do-it-yourself route many prospective queer parents are choosing. Although some believe there is a legal risk of prosecution with self-insemination, Health Canada has stated the intention of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which governs these activities, does not intend government involvement in the private matter of home insemination.

“If it’s a classic turkey baster at-home insemination, no one’s ever been prosecuted for that and I don’t imagine that anybody would be,” says Karen Busby, professor in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba. Busby’s work focuses on GLBT* legal issues and she’s been key in shaping Manitoba’s laws on same-sex relationships, which are the most comprehensive in North America.

Her advice to people using known donors is, “Make sure you talk as much as possible with the known donor about what expectations are and then see a lawyer to write up an agreement.”

She refers to such agreements as “arrangements,” and is clear that what they do is express the intentions of the parties involved. Without consulting a lawyer, she says, people are unlikely to cover all of the issues they need to. But if push comes to shove and there’s a legal dispute, this contract is not what’s going to determine a judge’s decision. In family law, a court will never ask the question, ‘What were the contractual arrangements?’ The court will always ask the question instead, ‘What’s in the best interest of the child?’ says Busby.

A Montréal donor, who wishes to remain anonymous for the sake of the couple he’s helping, did just this and drew up an agreement in consultation with lawyers and the couple.

“The idea was for me to give up all rights and responsibilities to the extent that the law makes that possible,” he says. “The parents, i.e. not me, will have full freedom—they’ll be considered the legal parents, they’ll have custody, they’ll be allowed to move with the child if they want to. They’ll cover all the costs.”

Interestingly, a known donor is technically unable to give up child support rights because it falls under the rights of the child.

And although technically issues could arise, Busby points out many people using known donors don’t have agreements drawn up, and most of the time things work out just fine.

It gets more complicated if those using known donors also have problems conceiving. “The law around sperm donation is absurdly restrictive in my view, because if you’re not in a sexual relationship with the person, the sperm must be held in quarantine for six months before it can be used,” says the Montréal donor.

After the tainted blood scandal in the ’80s, the Canadian government became extremely risk-averse to the possibility of HIV, and so fertility clinics operate under a law that says they have to hold sperm for six months and re-test donors. The law also ends up being homophobic, because straight couples are allowed treatment right away, since they’re considered to be in contact with each other’s fluids anyhow. Even if someone has been previously trying with a donor’s sperm for months, the clinic must quarantine it if they’re not in a sexual relationship.

In the Montréal donor’s case, the couple had hoped to have his sperm frozen and shipped to another part of the country, but barriers became excessive. He discovered his sperm dies when frozen, something that happens to some sperm and not other, and researchers are unsure why. “The [quarantine] law is self-defeating in a way,” he says. “It probably drives people to… bypass the clinic system entirely.”

…talk as much as possible with the known donor about what expectations are and then see a lawyer to write up an agreement.”

This is particularly the case if someone wants to use a gay man’s sperm for conception. Sperm donation for gay men is only allowed with special doctor’s permission, a relic of homophobic policies from the ’80s. This means it can only easily be used if someone has no trouble conceiving and does not have to go through fertility clinics.

Unknown donor sperm – issues to consider

Another reason people use fertility clinics is to access sperm from an unknown donor. The process usually begins at a doctor’s office with a referral.Importantly, human rights legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status for those seeking reproductive assistance. As of August 2012, trans rights are protected in Manitoba as well.

Because most fertility clinics were set up to treat infertile heterosexual couples, there are varying levels of awareness when dealing with GLBT* clients.

The Toronto-based LGBTQ Parenting Network has some tips for queer people navigating the clinics. The network’s guidebook on assisted human reproduction notes the “norm” for clinics is heterosexual, cisgender clients who are partnered or married with access to two incomes.

This can mean intake forms lack appropriate places to record gender identity, sexual orientation, relationship status or family configuration. The counsellors at the clinic may not understand realities specific to GLBT* reproductive choices and parenting plans. This will vary widely by clinic.

Know that fertility clinics are privately-operated and most of their services are not covered under Manitoba Health.

Also know that the technology exists for HIV-positive people to conceive and give birth to children without transmission. As of August 2012, the guidebook notes, there were six clinics in Canada offering pregnancy support services to HIV-positive people.

Family law is presently receiving an update in Manitoba to recognize that some children have more than two legal parents. This will open the way for queer families to include more people on a child’s birth certificate. While some people reproduce as couples, others wish to have their donor and maybe his husband or partner involved in the child’s life. Still others have family forms as unique as the relationships they negotiate. While family law across Canada is uneven and unprepared to deal with this reality, it’s evolving and beginning to catch up.

First published in Winnipeg’s OutWords Magazine, Aug 2015

http://outwords.ca/2015/issue-fall-2015/seeking-the-magic-ingredient/


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice, especially when it comes to other queers.

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March 13, 2016 at 11:02 pm

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Queer polyamory

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Dreaming the road to freedom

Among the many ways to do relationships, polyamory stands out in many people’s minds as an ideal version of perhaps unattainable freedom. But for polyamorous people, it’s a practical kind of freedom that exists in a context of deep intimacy.

Most polyamorous people stress the importance of communication, knowing limits and needs, and hashing out a relationship that fulfills the deeper desires of all involved. Openness and accountability are values most aspire to.

And while some see poly as their orientation, others use it to describe how they structure their relationships.

The thing most polyamorous relationships have in common is their capacity for multiple honest loves.

There are other kinds of non-monogamy: open relationships, swinging, polygamy and, of course, cheating, but these are distinct. While some open relationships overlap with poly, “open” is often used to describe sexual activity outside a couple.

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Bram Singleton and Anlina Sheng are each involved in polyamorous relationships.

 

Why polyamory?

“I first learned the word [polyamory] seven years ago, and it was kind of a revelation because there was finally a label for this stuff that I was already doing,” says Sheng, who is 33 and the founder of PolyWinnipeg, a local group that holds monthly talks and events. “I’ve been doing non-monogamy pretty much my entire dating life.”

Sheng’s style of poly involves separate relationships that can be described as “Vs.” The relationships are called this because one person is linked to two or more other partners, but those partners aren’t linked romantically with each another.

“I like it when everyone can be comfortable with each other and spend time with each other, but it’s not particularly important to me to do the big happy family style of poly,” they say.

For the most part, they’ve considered themselves a solo poly person, highly valuing their independence and autonomy.

While this is one form of polyamory, there are more closely knit relationship scenarios that others—like Kyle, a 24-year-old Winnipegger—aspire to. Kyle’s polyamorous roots began about a year ago when he entered a triad relationship, joining an existing couple. Although it didn’t work out, he learned a lot.

“What I found from that was, as a person who identifies as bisexual, having a male and a female in the same relationship with me really allowed me to pursue both halves of myself.”

He describes it as feeling complete and is looking for a three-person relationship in the future. “It’s kind of like a monogamous relationship except that it has a requirement for one more person,” he says.

Kyle’s also open to being part of a quad—a four-person unit—and the idea of a poly family appeals immensely. He sees the benefits as being an abundance of support and intimacy.

I first learned the word [polyamory] seven years ago, and it was kind of a revelation…

He describes watching a movie with his boyfriend at home while their girlfriend went on a date. She’d come home and tell them how it went, and if it wasn’t good, they’d support her. “We’d give her a big hug, and we’d make some more popcorn, and we’d start another movie,” he says. “It felt good to encourage my partners to go out and find more people.” He felt a sense of both liberation and comfort in this safety net.

Mitra, who helps run a polyamory group in Edmonton, has identified as poly for more than five years, since she was 25. And she didn’t get into polyamory on purpose. “I had actually thought that I would choose monogamy,” she says. But when she fell in love with a poly man, she began to ask herself some questions. She realized poly seemed more difficult to do in the world, but the inconvenience didn’t outweigh the emotional benefits.

“My life partner and I have a very open approach where we don’t give each other permission to do anything. We are free to do whatever we wish,” she says. With a foundation of open communication, respect and consideration, Mitra has the freedom to allow whatever develops romantically and sexually with anyone else. She also avoids the use of terms like “primary partner” because it implies other relationships would be secondary. Her life partner lives with his wife, and they’re Mitra’s neighbours. Mitra also has other partners.

Part of polyamory’s beauty is its insistence upon openness regarding desires. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the skill set polyamorous people need to develop to be successful can benefit any relationship. Communication, learning the specifics of your own needs, desires and boundaries, and hearing those of a partner deeply are skills that cultivate intimacy. Learning to negotiate agreements and create realistic expectations are useful for anyone. Understanding jealousy triggers is good work as well. All of these are necessary for good poly relationships, and too often in default monogamy, the work to build these connecting skills is left undone.

As soon as you enter into a poly relationship, the entire rulebook goes straight out the door

Tips to a happy poly life

“I think the one thing that people should remember is not to make any assumptions,” says Mitra. Because polyamory is so different from other social norms, you can’t assume what the other person thinks, believes or wants. She warns that even if people think they’re not making assumptions, they probably are. That’s something to be conscious of.

Kyle has a similar tip. “It’s all about communication. As soon as you enter into a poly relationship, the entire rulebook goes straight out the door. There are no rules because we didn’t grow up with any kind of media to guide us through this kind of process. So if you’re really not comfortable with hashing out exactly how you feel about everything, then it’s going to end badly. Talking, talking, talking about everything is vitally important. There’s a lot more risk involved, but there’s a lot more reward too. Poly relationships can be explosively fun, but they can also explode.”

Kyle suggests defining the power structure of a relationship from the get-go: is it equal partners, primary/secondary, or something else?

Sheng advises knowing your own needs and desires, being able to set boundaries, and understanding what you can control and what’s not appropriate to control. It’s also important to remember that polyamorous people are not more enlightened or superior. That assumption is untrue and obnoxious.

What to watch out for

A bad first experience with poly doesn’t mean polyamory isn’t for you, says Sheng, although it’s OK if it isn’t. They recommend learning from other’s mistakes and remembering to do what feels right. “Don’t let anyone tell you there is one true way to do polyamory,” they say.

Sheng’s seen people put up with things they would never tolerate in monogamous relationships and advises new polyamorists-to-be to keep themselves safe. “I see a lot of particularly young bisexual women who are targeted by couples who are looking to date as a triad, and who get treated horrendously badly,” Sheng says. Don’t put up with anything that ignores your instincts and invalidates your experiences. If you feel there’s something wrong, there probably is. Polyamory does not equate to finding a way to accept being unhappy. Abuse can come in any relationship and it can be confusing for a new poly person to untangle and navigate the forms that abusive manipulation can take.

Resources

Whether new to polyamory or not, having a support network of other polyamorous people can be valuable.

The PolyWinnipeg group has a Facebook page that lists events and other items of interest for local poly folk. The group holds regular PolyTalks as well as social events like potlucks and games nights. There’s a high representation of queer and trans people, and events are usually free and held in queer and trans-friendly locations, says Sheng.

The Winnipeg Polyamory Discussion Group on Yahoo!Groups is devoted to discussing the emotional, social and political issues related to being involved in mature, ethical, non-monogamous relationships. Its emphasis is on the Winnipeg community, and the group is inclusive of all styles of poly, all genders and all sexual orientations.

Seeing deep, heartfelt desires materialize because we are able to express them should be something anyone can do. Whether that looks like polyamory, monogamy, or something else, the lessons from polyamory can lead us all deeper into our own personal versions of freedom.


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Eight Things I Wish I’d Known about Polyamory: Before I Tried It and Frakked It Up, by Cunning Minx

Minx also hosts the popular Polyamory Weekly podcast, which is kink-positive and pansexual, and can be found at www.polyweekly.com.

 


 

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Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino

Part advice and part interviews with polyamorous couples, this book covers several styles of non-monogamy, including polyamory, swinging and poly for single people. There’s a companion blog at www.openingup.net.

 


 

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The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

The authors dispel myths and cover all the skills necessary to maintain a successful and responsible polyamorous lifestyle.

 


 

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More Than Two: A practical guide to ethical polyamory, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert.

Veaux also runs www.morethantwo.com, with links to many excellent resources.

 


 

First published in OutWords Magazine, Oct 2014

http://outwords.ca/2015/issue-winter-2015/queer-polyamory/


 

–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

 

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March 13, 2016 at 8:51 pm

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Tories in review: LGBTQ rights

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Looking back at the Harper Conservative’s nine years of attacks on LGBTQ rights in Canada

OVER THE PAST SIX YEARS, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has—surprisingly—become an outspoken champion of gay rights worldwide. In 2009, Harper arranged a private meeting with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to urge him to drop a controversial law that would imprison homosexuals for life. In 2011, Immigration Minister John Baird not only launched a pilot program taking up the cause of gay refugees, but took it upon himself to call out an entire meeting of Commonwealth leaders, 41 of 54 of which have anti-gay laws on the books. And so on.

Yet, at the same time, rights on paper don’t always translate into lived rights. And, despite our reputation as a supposed LGBTQ leader, Canada itself is still missing important on-paper rights. Over the past nine years, our federal government’s actions when it comes to LBGTQ rights have been inconsistent—even confounding.

Here in Canada, for instance, queer youth are grossly misrepresented amongst the homeless population, accounting for 25–40 percent. Members of the federal Conservative Party have also actively blocked the advancement of trans rights at home with endless delays of Bill C-279, which seeks to give transgender people basic Charter protections. The back-and-forth doesn’t stop there: The feds cut funding to gay organizations, such as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network in 2012 and Pride Toronto in 2010—yet a 600-person gay Conservative party called Fabulous Blue Tent was thrown in 2011 to bring gay Conservatives together during the Party’s convention. That same weekend, the Tories passed a resolution supporting religious organizations’ refusal to perform same-sex marriages. Previously, in 2005, Harper had campaigned on the promise to repeal same-sex marriage.

And, it doesn’t stop there. Here, we examine the Conservatives sad, confusing track record:

TRANS RIGHTS
Within the Conservative Party, there are LGBTQ-supportive caucus members, but they are in the minority, despite the now-biennial Fabulous Blue Tent party. When Bill C-279—to grant transgender Canadians equal protection under the law—passed through the House of Commons, only 18 of 155 Tory MPs voted in favour. Conservative MP Rob Anders called it a “bathroom bill,” insisting its goal was to give creepy men access to women’s washrooms. All other party MPs who voted were unanimously in support of C-279.

The bill is currently sitting in the Conservative-dominated Senate, and will almost surely be killed at election time—having to retrace its process through the House again. Now more than 10 years in the making, this would be the second time the bill was forced back to square one. Yet, if passed, it will give trans people legal recourse against things such as being fired and being denied housing, and will also make sky-high rates of violence punishable as hate crimes.

HARPER TRIES TO MOVE BACKWARDS
Opposing queer rights is nothing new for Harper. Early on in 1994, he fought plans to introduce same-sex spousal benefits in Canada. In 2005, after same-sex marriage was legalized, he promised to bring legislation defining marriage as “the union of one man and one woman.” When this plan was defeated shortly after his election, he decided to leave the issue alone, saying, “I don’t see reopening this question [of marriage] in the future.”

FUNDING CUTS
After more than 20 years of federal funding, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network faced cuts in 2012 because it “may have used the funds for advocacy.” After receiving a “significant portion of its funding from Ottawa” over its entire existence, the organization sought renewal of the same funding but the Public Health Agency of Canada rejected 16 of its 20 proposals.

In 2006, shortly after taking power, the Conservative Party also cut the entire budget of a program called Court Challenges, which had made public funds available for individuals launching human rights challenges in court. Used by those making challenges on the basis of sexual orientation and more, the fund had helped homosexual couples secure spousal benefits and achieve equality protection. Harper’s chief of staff from 2005-2008, Ian Brodie, used his PhD to argue the program unfairly empowered homosexuals and other minority groups. The Conservatives had killed the program in 1992 originally, only to have it revived by the Liberals. Now the Cons have resuscitated it, but with a narrowed focus on only linguistic minorities.

PROGRESS, PR, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Canada’s immigration office under Harper worked with Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees to fast-track 100 gay Iranians into Canada, saving them from possible execution. Harper also personally lobbied Uganda’s president in 2009 over a law that would imprison gay people for life. Canada even gave $200,000 to Ugandan groups to fight the law. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has made repeated international public statements condemning countries that criminalize homosexuality, and during the 2014 Olympics Baird and Harper spoke out against the Russian “gay propaganda” law that makes it illegal for anyone to distribute gay rights materials.

Yet, speaking against the criminalization of LGBTQ people is not the same as active support. In regards to Russia in particular, Ontario Conservative MP Scott Reid, who chairs the Commons’ subcommittee on international human rights, said it’s an issue of freedom of speech. Saskatchewan Conservative backbencher Maurice Vellacott said he believes LGBTQ folks should have basic protections, but that he wouldn’t want his kids exposed to “homosexual propaganda.” These attitudes offer insight into the mixed messages of the Conservative Party when it comes to queer rights. Whatever its motives are for this dissonance, the fact remains there’s a lot of work to be done in this country before queer liberation becomes a reality.

 

First published in Sept/Oct 2015 issue of This Magazine

https://this.org/2015/09/25/tories-in-review-lgbtq-rights/

 

 

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March 13, 2016 at 7:01 pm

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Questionable Sex Ed: What’s being taught in Manitoba’s schools

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-december-january-2014-15/questionable-sex-ed/

Promoting abstinence in sex education is what Candace Maxymowich, a Winnipeg public school board trustee candidate, did during her campaign, before she lost by a wide margin in October’s election. But her discussion on infusing the value of Christian-style abstinence into education begs the question: what are kids learning in sex ed in Winnipeg’s schools, and are they learning anything about same-sex and trans issues?

Among all of Winnipeg’s school divisions—some more progressive when it comes to sex ed than others—curriculum is mandated by the province. The physical education and health curriculum are the sections that apply to sex ed. The province’s website details a framework on how schools are to deal with “potentially sensitive content,” of which sex ed is a part.

Requiring a planning process that includes parental involvement, school divisions make independent decisions about sex ed, including content, how it is taught, how it’s graded and what resources are used to teach it. Not teaching it at all is an option, as the framework gives school divisions the power to decide how much depth and breadth to give the topic. There is also an opt-out for parents who’d like their children to learn the subject by another means if they disagree with what the school’s doing.

Winnipeg’s schools are many, and range from Dakota Collegiate, which is hosting an upcoming national gay-straight alliance conference in May, to others that have faced controversies over Bill 18 and over transgender students.

When it comes to sex education, what is being taught varies widely as well.

“It’s division-to-division on what kind of language they use,” says Roselle Paulsen, program director at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC). She was consulted on the health curriculum when it was created and published in 2000. “There are different approaches to how people interpret the student learning outcomes. So if you see a word like ‘diversity,’ or those kinds of things, people are going to interpret them differently.”

Paulsen points to a couple of examples in the curriculum. The first, a learning outcome for Grade 7, tells teachers to “identify effects of social influences on sexuality and gender roles.” Topics like violence against women, media ads, gender equity and culture are generally covered under this topic, Paulsen says. But “Somebody who wants to take more latitude could say that when we talk about gender roles we could delve much more deeply into things like gender identity and social morays.”

It’s up to the interpretation of the school divisions. Another example is in grade five where the curriculum talks about celebrating all kinds of families—again open to interpretation. By Grade 9, sexual orientation is named explicitly. Since it’s included, Paulsen says there should be no reason for schools not to talk about same-sex issues within the context of sex ed, although some don’t. “The frustration with this sort of document, is on the one hand, sexuality education within the health curriculum is mandated. On the other hand, the department says, but each division in the province can determine, based on their own community needs, the depth and breadth of what they provide. That’s the problem.”

Vycki Atallah has also seen a wide variation between what is taught in sex ed. As co-ordinator of Klinic Community Health Centre’s Teen Talk program, she’s invited into schools to give sex ed talks when schools want more. “It can really look a lot different in different schools and communities. For some schools and communities, we’re really welcome, and come in, and some classes get multiple workshops from us; and other schools and school divisions simply don’t book us; don’t extend an invitation for us to come into their school.”

Teen Talk approaches sex ed in line with the provincial curriculum, but from an anti-oppressive standpoint, which includes education about healthy relationships, and the range of genders and sexuality. Their workshops make it clear that all types of couples are valued on an equal level and that body parts can belong to people of any gender, says Atallah.

She says Seven Oaks School Division and Winnipeg One are among the most progressive on these fronts she’s worked with.

Anastasia Chipelski, who works with service providers who talk to teens about sex in her capacity as health educator at Nine Circles Community Health Centre, says she doesn’t think the majority of teens are learning their sex education in schools anyway. The teens her clients are in contact with are way ahead of any adults who are teaching them about sex. “Who knows where the teens are learning it from?” she says. “They’re not learning it in schools.” One guess she has is they’re getting information from well-informed peers.

Perhaps one piece of the puzzle is that the curriculum schools are teaching needs updating, says Paulsen. “Everybody agrees that it [does],” she says. “Things have changed a lot.”

“We have a spectrum of how people identify and their attractions, and all of those kinds of things.
If we’re going to be inclusive and comprehensive and provide a safe space for all students, then it is time to be realistic and pragmatic, and let’s not pretend that this isn’t an issue.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Dec 2014


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Final countdown

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What athletes think about the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on the eve of the Games

http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-february-2014/final-countdown/

From Feb. 7 to 23, queer athletes – some out, some not – will compete in the Winter Olympic Games hosted by an increasingly GLBTQ*-hating Russia. The 22nd Olympic Winter Games will not only be the most expensive Games ever hosted, held in Sochi’s subtropical climate, but will also put athletes, trainers, spectators and others on an international stage in a place where skinhead gangs have lured and videotaped assaults of gay teens, a village has gotten together to kill a suspected gay neighbour, and where Orthodox priests have led assaults on gay rights demonstrations, among other events.

 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has confirmed its anti-discrimination mission statement, Principle 6, includes sexual orientation, yet the IOC has refused to speak out against Russia’s laws. Betty Baxter, a former Olympian in Canadian women’s volleyball who was later fired as head coach in 1982 for being a lesbian, said she thinks the IOC bears the brunt of the blame for not thinking about the impact of holding the Games in Russia. Openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who will be competing, said he thinks the way the IOC protects its athletes needs to change. Russian President Vladimir Putin has assured the IOC the Games will be “comfortable” for GLBTQ* athletes, but many are unconvinced.

Skjellerup, a who trains in Calgary and competes for New Zealand, said he will be wearing his Pride pin during Olympic ceremonies. “Hopefully more people will offer up a statement of support or some kind of sign of support – and not only for the solidarity of the GLBTQ* community in Russia, but for the solidarity of GLBTQ* people across the world.” Skjellerup came out shortly after the 2010 Olympics and has been a driving force in GLBTQ* activism in New Zealand’s schools. He said there is nothing he’s afraid of in Russia and that, “If anything does happen, then so be it… It would definitely expedite conversation in making sure that when Olympic Games do happen, they happen in countries that are safe for all people.”

Blake Skjellerup displays his Pride pin from the London Games.

Because he was already out, Skjellerup said he couldn’t shy away from the issue. “I wouldn’t have been staying true to myself.” But the gay friends he has who are not out are more focused solely on competition. Skjellerup said he sees an opportunity forthe Games to bring about change. “The person who has put on these Olympic Games, Vladimir Putin, is the exact opposite of what the Olympic Games stand for. It’s a great opportunity for the Olympic Games to do its part in highlighting those morals that should be showing during that time.”

Baxter takes a different, more cynical view of the Games. “The way the modern Olympics are is it’s really about selling product and proving your country’s dominance,” said Baxter. “The ancient Olympics was to keep warriors fit in between wars…. And then the modern Olympics were founded basically on the same thing.” While Baxter is critical of the endeavour, her main concern is always to look at how athletes can be supported. “The last thing we want to do is move some well-meaning political campaign in and take away from their opportunities. We need to condemn Russia, but we need to be very careful in our strategies so that doing that doesn’t take away from the athletes who have worked hard. Athletes have to take four, eight, 12 years of their lives to get [to the Olympics]. What my concern would be is if there’s too much action around the [GLBTQ*] issue in Russia, it’s a distraction.”

She said the reason more high-performance athletes don’t come out is because it takes away from their main focus, their athletic feats. “When you’re competing in something where it’s a hundredth of a second, or a psychological pause where you can lose what you’ve been attempting to do with your performance, you can’t be distracted by somebody saying, ‘I support you because you’re gay.’” Even a scene with supporters at the Olympics would be harder on GLBTQ* athletes than we would imagine, said Baxter. She’s glad the call to boycott the Sochi Olympics failed. Athletes like openly-gay figure skaters Johnny Weir and Skjellerup also condemned the boycott, saying it would have punished athletes more than Russia.

The 1968 Games saw an organized call by African-American athletes to boycott, but when that fell apart, two athletes memorably took their protest to the medal stand. Baxter said one strategy that would have worked should have been implemented some time ago. “Each Olympics has generally a beverage company, generally a telecommunications company and generally a petroleum company…. If we’d had massive boycotts for those companies, the Olympics would have been moved out of Russia, there’s no doubt.”

Outside the safety of the Olympic Village, tireless gay Russian activist Nikolai Alekseyev has announced a Sochi Pride March to coincide with the opening of the Games. Meanwhile, athletes like Skjellerup will be doing their part to raise visibility within the confines of the Village. “It would be nice to not have to stand up and to fight for who I am, but that is unfortunately the situation that I’m in. I have to speak out, and I have to be that voice, because there aren’t a lot of GLBTQ* athletes in sport. That visibility isn’t there, and that visibility needs to be there. GLBTQ* youth who are growing up need to see that you can be whatever you wish to be in life, and that your sexuality isn’t something that prevents you from doing that. Your sexuality is something that you should be very proud of, and it’s not something you should let in any way define who you are, especially when it comes to living your life.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Feb. 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Written by larkinschmiedl

September 3, 2014 at 3:23 am

Violence: Domestic abuse in the queer community

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http://www.outwords.ca/content/violence-domestic-abuse-queer-community

An issue beginning to come to light, domestic violence in queer relationships, is misunderstood by many. With rates comparable to violence in straight relationships, yet mired in a homophobic culture, queer people of all stripes who are living with abuse find themselves with fewer resources to draw upon, and fewer people on their side.

Services available for cisgender women are typically well-known, though not always welcoming to queer women. And services for men and trans people are less well-known and sometimes just don’t exist.  The issues facing the queer community revolve around police misunderstanding and minimizing same-sex relationship violence, making it difficult for queer people to get help.

Providing the only shelter of its kind in Canada, Winnipeg’s Men’s Resource Centre caters to all men regardless of orientation or gender history. According to Steve Sutherland, therapist and administrator at the centre, it can house men as they leave an abusive relationship and help them get back on their feet.

Dan, who will be identified by his first name only, was a client of the centre earlier this year. After being closeted in an abusive relationship for a number of years, married to a wife he was financially controlled by due to his immigrant status and who he felt he had to marry, Dan made his escape. “I would not have been able to do it without the Men’s Resource Centre.” The centre signed Dan up for unemployment insurance. It also helped him find low-income housing and spruce up his resumé.

“I didn’t have a place to go because of how isolated I had been,” he said. “I didn’t really know anyone well enough that I could ask them to crash on their couch. The biggest help was [that] they provided shelter.” While waiting for his first cheque to arrive, the centre provided meals. And Dan found emotional support. “They made it very easy,” he said. “Even as I was dealing emotionally with what I was going through and wasn’t able to think straight.”

Though resources available for women are more common, they aren’t available to all women. The situation for trans women seeking shelter in Winnipeg could be described as dire. Bradley Tyler-West, LGBT* program facilitator at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC), said, “I have heard of individual experiences of trans women who have gone into shelter and some have had a good experience there getting access to support and services, and some did not – and I think that’s really based on their ability to pass or be stealth.” He’s heard the problems have come from residents at shelters rather than staff. And the trans women he knows of who have gotten help have been in mixed-gender relationships, with violence coming at the hands of male partners. He noted that falls into the heteronormative pattern assumed of domestic violence.

Sutherland refers trans women to Sage House. “They’re very LGBT friendly,” he said. “But that would be the only shelter I know in Winnipeg that would be providing services to that segment of the population.”

Sage House could not be reached for confirmation.

There are resources available for women in lesbian relationships. Yet if shelter is needed, sometimes a lack of sensitivity can limit access. Glenda Dean, executive director of Winnipeg’s Alpha House, said she sees a “real gap” in lesbian and bisexual women utilizing shelters. Although she said she doesn’t know why that gap exists, she said perhaps shelters have not reached out enough to the community.

According to a workshop for service providers presented by Saskatoon’s The Avenue Community Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity Inc., lesbians often experience a lack of understanding about the seriousness of abuse when violent incidents are reported to therapists, police or doctors. Because of homophobia, queer relationships are sometimes seen to be inherently unstable or unhealthy.

When abuse happens, police will sometimes be called to domestic violence scenes. Both Tyler-West and Sutherland have heard in their work with men about police incidents where violence was minimized or male victims of abuse were even mocked. Myths such as that abuse doesn’t happen to men, or for men in relationships with women that it can’t happen because the man is bigger or women aren’t aggressive, lead police to sometimes misunderstand abusive situations, said Sutherland. He said discrimination can be especially bad in First Nations communities.

But he added that police are making steps, and so is the Province of Manitoba. A GLBTQ* domestic violence working group was launched in November 2012 and began distributing posters and brochures addressing the issue of queer domestic violence last month. Part of the group’s mandate is to provide GLBTQ*-sensitivity training to staff at service organizations. According to Beth Ulrich, executive director of Manitoba’s Status of Women, who the group is hosted by, shelters are working on some of their issues.

“That’s a commitment where I think some shelters are probably more ahead of others perhaps. I think that there’s a willingness and an awareness now that ‘OK, we need to make sure we’re being respectful’,” she said.

The Rainbow Resource Centre is another place victims of abuse can receive counselling and support. Located at 170 Scott St., the centre has pamphlets for those who are wondering if their relationship might be abusive and has counsellors trained in helping fill out protection orders. Tyler-West said, “We are hearing more conversations… so that is encouraging—a small light at the end of the very dark tunnel. It’s nowhere near where it needs to be, but it is definitely better than it was, say, four or five years ago.”


– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist from Vancouver, B.C. He’s an LGBTI contributing editor with rabble.ca, the former host of a queer-issues radio show called Gaydio, and loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Published in Outwords, December 2013, Volume 206

HIV: unlocking some of the stories behind the numbers

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http://www.outwords.ca/content/mystery-hiv

Unlocking some of the stories behind the numbers

HIV is a charged topic for many because of the stigma, history and reality that surround it. But for gay men in Manitoba and nationwide, it’s a topic worthy of attention. Gay and bisexual men and other MSM continue to make up the greatest proportion of new infections: over 46.6 per cent in Canada in 2011. And MSM (a category created to be inclusive of behaviour rather than just identity) represent 50 per cent of all people living with HIV in Canada according to CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.

While numbers in many other populations are going down around the country, those for queer men continue to rise. In Winnipeg, HIV prevalence among MSM is 19 per cent, states the M-Track survey.

After decades of scientific research, public education and detailed knowledge on how to prevent infection, it may seem confounding that infections are still on the rise. It’s a very complicated issue, according to Olivier Ferlatte, research education director at Vancouver’s Community-Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health. He’s worked in HIV research for about a decade. “If there was a very easy answer, I guess we would have probably resolved the epidemic,” he said. Government funding, or lack thereof, as well as approaches used to address the issue are both factors.

The need for a targeted strategy

Ferlatte said there is a lack of funding for HIV prevention that is targeted toward gay men in particular, despite the fact that they represent nearly half of new infections. “Also what we’re seeing is that the efforts that we have are perhaps not really addressing all the causes of the epidemic.” Ferlatte’s research shows HIV risk among gay men is connected to both mental health and substance-use issues. The approach often used for educating gay men about HIV and encouraging changes in behaviours isn’t bad, but it isn’t addressing connected issues that actually increase HIV infection. “One of the shifts in the last several years has really been shifting from dealing only with HIV… to basically looking more at health more holistically and running services that are about gay men’s health,” said Andrea Langlois, manager of community-based research at the Pacific AIDS Network. “And so yes, HIV is within that, but so are other STIs, so is depression, so are all of those related issues.”

However, one of the challenges with this new approach is how to bring services into smaller communities, since a gay men’s health clinic would depend on a dense population to make it worthwhile. Langlois said partnership organizations within smaller communities are one way people are talking about making it work.

Sané Dube is membership co-ordinator with Nine Circles Community Health Centre in Winnipeg, a community-based non-profit specializing in HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) prevention.

Dube acknowledged the HIV program in Manitoba is very Winnipeg-centric, and many patients have to travel to access specialized care. An estimated 25 per cent of new diagnoses are in people living outside Winnipeg. In 2013, three outbreaks of HIV occurred in Northern Manitoba, where communities are often under-resourced. An estimated 1,100 people in total are living with HIV in Manitoba, said Dube.

And, aboriginal Manitobans are disproportionately affected. “In 2012, 61 per cent of all newly-diagnosed people were aboriginal,” said Dube. The effects of race and class on HIV infection rates are well documented in Canada and the U.S. A Fenway Health report released in January found that among MSM, black men were especially impacted in the U.S.

The report from the Boston-based GLBTQ* health and education centre also said that in the U.S., HIV prevention is largely targeted toward heterosexuals and other risk groups, despite MSM representing 64 per cent of new infections. Only 27 per cent of HIV education and risk reduction funding in the U.S. was targeted toward MSM. The director of the Centre for Disease Control’s HIV centre, Dr. Kevin Fenton, even acknowledged funding for gay men was half what it should be due to stigma and homophobia cascading down and resulting in underfunding.

Environmental factors come into play in HIV infection and prevention

The U.S. report also named “resiliency factors” linked to lower rates of HIV-risk behaviour among GLBTQ* youth, such as having openly-gay role models among teachers or family, anti-bullying policies in schools and parental acceptance. Dr. Sean Cahill of the Fenway Institute wrote, “Public health departments should fund campaigns and interventions that promote parental acceptance of gay sons as a resiliency factor that can be protective against HIV infection.”

On the flip side, health disparities affecting gay youth, such as bullying and social isolation, can play into higher risks for HIV. “If we don’t address those epidemics, we’ll really never resolve the HIV epidemic.

We need a holistic strategy that addresses many issues, many health disparities that gay men are facing, because HIV is only one. And we don’t have that. I think it’s getting even worse,” said Ferlatte from Vancouver.

The Sex Now survey Ferlatte helped conduct showed gay men today are experiencing as much discrimination as previous generations, and sometimes more. “[People think that] in today’s age, homophobia and discrimination are less of an issue for gay men. Although we have now perhaps made most of the gains we could have made from a legal standpoint, we’re seeing the climate in which young gay men are building their sexual identity, and it’s hostile to that,” he said. “Things like workplace discrimination…. young gay men still feel they’ve been discriminated against, even though they started working at a point when workplace discrimination was [a] protected [grounds]. This has an impact on their mental health, which has an impact on HIV infection.”

The risk of not knowing

In Vancouver, a shocking one-in-five gay men are HIV positive, found a 2008 sexual health survey called ManCount. That’s in contrast to the general population in the city with a rate of one in 100. Numbers are comparable across Canada. Dr. Terry Tussler worked on the survey and said numbers alone are a big part of the increasing infections among gay men. Being in a fairly fixed population means the percentage of HIV-positive men will increase each year as people within the population sleep together.

The survey also found that 2.5 per cent of men surveyed were HIV positive but believed they were negative. Tussler believes rising infection rates are partly driven by men making decisions under the false assumption they are negative. People who are newly infected have a higher chance of passing on HIV, since they will have a high viral load.

On Dec. 1, this World AIDS Day, it will be 32 years since the first diagnosed case of HIV. An estimated 71,300 Canadians were living with HIV as of 2011, according to ACT. And a quarter of Canadians living with HIV aren’t aware they’re positive. A common mental image of the illness harkens from the late ’80s, but HIV and its treatment have changed drastically. Canadians with access to adequate shelter, food and treatment often live long, healthy lives. HIV today is seen as a chronic illness, rather than a death sentence.

Factors such as class, cultural background, refugee status, type of work, trauma and more can play large roles in people’s access to health care, and thus affect how HIV influences their lives.

This year, the first-annual Prairies HIV Conference by Manitoba and Saskatchewan took place Nov. 4 and 5 in Saskatoon.

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He’s a GLBTQ* contributing editor with rabble.ca, hosted a queer-issues radio show called Gaydio, and loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Published in Outwords, November 2013, Volume 205

Written by larkinschmiedl

November 10, 2013 at 10:41 pm

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