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Being Who You Are, Inside and Out

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This month, contributor Erin LeBlanc, Director, Strategic Program Development & Accreditation at the Smith School of Business and Queen’s alumnae, discusses themes of identity, authentic self, and belonging. Ms. Leblanc is an advocate for LGBTQ+ people with a focus on education, awareness, and building community for transgender people.

If I can’t be me, who am I supposed to be?

This is a question that I hear time and time again in conversations with transgender people. And with June just around the corner and communities preparing to host Pride celebrations, I am reminded of these conversations. Some people may be perplexed by this statement in that they don’t understand why there is such a great deal of stress for those who suffer from Gender Dysphoria.

They don’t understand why there is any issue with someone being transgender.

Good for them. They get it. They are enlightened.

However, if you don’t suffer with gender dysphoria, it is hard to appreciate what it is like.

People in the LGBTQ+, in particular the Transgender community, are, for the most part, terrified of how they will be treated if and when they come out. Because society isn’t as welcoming as some people think, or hope. There is still a great lack of understanding and compassion out there. There are numerous examples of transgender people losing their jobs, being evicted from their accommodations, and being disowned from their families. Essentially, they are disenfranchised from society.

And for what? All they want to do is live their lives. Do their jobs. Contribute to the community. But society stills feels threatened by transgender people.

Why?

Usually, it is from a lack of understanding about what it means to be transgender, to suffer from Gender Dysphoria. With some education, they start to be more accepting and can, in many instances, become allies. But many people out there in society still harbor resentment and a sense of confusion, or even disdain, for transpeople.

They refuse to be exposed to any type of information about what it means. How many times have I heard people refer to being transgender as a lifestyle choice.

A choice?

Seriously?

Ask anyone in the community. The last thing I would ever wish upon anyone is to have gender dysphoria. It is something you are born with. There is no choice. Gender is separate from the sex you are assigned at birth based upon a physical attribute. Gender is who you are in your heart and soul and mind. And that too is assigned at birth.

Who would choose to not be congruent in your inner and outer being?

To look in the mirror every single day and not recognize who is looking back at you. To suffer from the depression and anxiety attacks that accompany the dysphoria. To be out of control of your life. To simply be a passenger on the bus that is your life, with no real control over where the bus is taking you. That is frightening and at times debilitating.

A choice?

Not even close.

Think of it this way. You have a can with a label on it that reads “Peas” along with a picture etc. But inside the can, it is actually peaches. On the inside, it is peaches, but to the outside world it is peas. Nowhere near close to being congruent. We can’t change the peaches to peas. Not going to happen. That’s what they are, on the inside. Peaches.

But we can change the label.

That’s on the outside and that can be changed. So, we change the label. We have congruency. Now, people see a can of peaches and guess what. That is what it really is on the inside. All transpeople want is to have the outside match who they are on the inside. To present in the gender they were born with. For some this means surgeries. In some instances, numerous surgeries. For others, it means simply having their external presentation in the clothes they wear, and the way the cut or style their hair etc. match their gender. This provides them with a sense of congruency and hence peace with who they really are.

We are fortunate to live in a country that offers protections by federal and provincial legislation. For many employers, there are official company policies regarding the protection of transgender people from discrimination and humiliation.

And that’s great.

But the work is not done. We can’t take our foot off the gas. There is still a lot that has to be done. Policies are great. But without the processes in place to back them up and implement them, they mean nothing.

Organizations have to look at all the processes they have when hiring, promoting and training their staff to ensure there is understanding and awareness of these policies. More importantly, how it impacts their jobs so they know what to do when a transgender person is asking for assistance or simply wishing to purchase their goods and services. This means front line staff must be trained on what it means to be part of a positive space. To accept all people as equal, to treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of their gender, race, religion, nationality etc.

Look, all the community wants is to live their lives, do their jobs and contribute to the community.

To live, love and laugh, just like everyone else.

 

That shouldn’t be that hard to accept. It’s not too much to ask.

 

The Road Less Travelled

Our October blogger is Hazem Ahmed. In his piece, Hazem looks introspectively at his own life and the choices he has made over the course of the last 15 years. Discover, how Hazem believes taking the road less travelled, has made all the difference.

It might sound a cliché, but looking back to my past 15 years, I apparently have been taking the roads less travelled whether consciously or perhaps subconsciously! Starting back in 2002, when I decided to pursue my undergrad studies in Computer Science – not Electrical Engineering (like many of my high school peers) nor Medical Sciences (like my siblings).  I enjoyed studying Computer Science so much so I earned my B.Sc. with highest honors (ranked first in class). Not only that, but I was also offered a full-scholarship to purse my graduate studies at Queen’s University, School of Computing, but again I chose a less-travelled road with a specialization in Bioinformatics, which is the intersection between Computer Science and Medical Sciences.

Studying at Queen’s was a truly life-changing experience although my first year as an international student was a bit challenging. I needed some time to adapt to the new environment, culture, and long distance from my family back home in Egypt. However, when I started participating in extracurricular and social activities at Queen’s (e.g., Elected Student Rep at the University Senate) and the broader Kingston community (e.g., Member of the Organization Team of the Kingston Multicultural Arts Festival), the challenges turned into opportunities.  I received several awards at the departmental-level (featured in the PhD Handbook of the School of Computing), University-level (Dean’s Graduate Award), provincial-level (Ontario Graduate Scholarship), and prestigious national-level awards (NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship and Post-Doctoral Fellowship).  I would not have had similar opportunities, if I did not push the border of my comfort zone, if I did not travel to study at Queen’s, if I did not take a less-travelled road.

During my second year at Queen’s, I participated in a Work/Study program. There were several on-campus job openings available at that time in the University library, cafeteria, Information Technology Store (ITS) and one at the Equity Office. I know many students already work in the University library, cafeteria, ITS store, but I did not want to choose a common road. I applied to the Equity Office. At the Equity Office, I had a unique opportunity to learn more about the equity issues in the workplace and the hiring process. A 6-month web developer position led to over a 6-year programmer/analyst position. I was recommending and implementing IT solutions to transform many of the office’s processes; therefore, producing a significant impact in the office and the broader Queen’s community.  I would not have made a similar impact, had I worked at a library or ITS store.  I would not have left a footprint, had I picked a common road.

After completing my graduate studies in Bioinformatics, the most common road was obviously becoming a University professor. But once again I did not take the obvious road. I moved to industry – I am now a Data Scientist at General Electric Aviation.  Aviation is a data-intensive industry, where data science has the potential to offer impactful insights and revolutionize existing traditional ways used to address their multifaceted business challenges. I feel honored to be part of the digital journey of one of the world’s largest companies and work on the most demanding problems of the world’s biggest airlines.

A former student of a Bioinformatics course (that I once taught before moving to industry), recently approached me asking for a career advice and whether he should go with the mainstream or pursue a unique graduate program overseas. I told him undoubtedly travel and explore your far-reaching options, not the easiest ones. But then I told him this is not an “advice”; it is perhaps a biased opinion based on my own personal experience. You should take the road that you think is better for you, not what somebody’s else “thinks” is better for you. The point is NOT to take the less-travelled road just for the sake of being different; the point is to take the road that you can make a difference through.  At least this is what I have been doing. This is what have made much difference in my career path.

It Takes a Native Student Association

In our final blog piece for the 2016-2017 year, we hear from Melanie Gray, a recent Queen’s graduate. In this piece, Melanie explores the concepts of belonging, connection and home through her experiences with that Queen’s Native Student Association.

I am incredibly honoured that I was approached to write a piece for the Together We Are blog about diversity and inclusion on campus. As a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) woman, I am aware of the adversity facing indigenous people in contemporary Canadian society – and Queen’s is not exempt from that. I would love to only explore the positive aspects of equity on campus as it existed during my time at Queens, but that celebration is not possible without acknowledging the hard work of the indigenous staff and students before me.

It has been a long road to finding equity on campus for not only indigenous students, but also those of other cultures, religions, and identities. While there are many positive things currently happening on campus that foster equity, diversity, and inclusion, it is important to acknowledge the passion that went into creating this present space. I would also like to note that there is still significant work to be done in this field.

In order to accurately discuss diversity and inclusion in the context of Queen’s, and because I was a member for four years, I would like to explore the development of the Queen’s Native Student Association and the work they have done to be recognized by the institution. I would also like to acknowledge that Queen’s University sits on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee land.

I was fortunate enough to become a member of the Queen’s Native Student Association during my first year at Queen’s. Over the course of my undergrad I had the honour of maintaining several roles in the association – everything from general member to president. Due to the resilience of the members before our time, the QNSA I joined had a lot of strength and opportunity when it came to engaging with the community outside our space at Four Directions. The members in the years before me had done so much work to give future generations of indigenous students – QNSA members or not – a voice on campus. The generation before my time at QNSA had a significant role in the instigation of the reorganization of the Aboriginal Education Council at Queen’s. They were politically active in representing not only their members but all indigenous students. Their work allowed me to enter an inclusive and welcoming space in tune with indigenous student’s needs. A space where I grew as a person, battled the worst occurrences of my life, and enjoyed the fondest memories of my undergrad.

You see, I entered Queen’s at the height of my anxiety diagnosis. I was struggling with social situations and was not comfortable with my body or mind. On top of my personal struggles, my mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma first semester. If it had not been for the support and traditional teachings I received from QNSA and the greater indigenous community I would not have graduated. It is as simple as that. Having a space where I could explore my indigeneity made a whole world of difference in my Queen’s experience. I found a community that helped me foster my identity and was (hopefully) able to have the ability to do so for others. I also want to give a shout out to the indigenous students who graduated before me for challenging the traditional cap and gown graduation expectation in favour of wearing traditional regalia to the ceremony. Due to the actions of these resilient and passionate students, I was able to collect my BAH diploma wearing my first ever set of regalia. Here’s to the past and future generations!

When to Stop Talking

In the April edition of our blog we hear from Jeff Brown, a former Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) for the Alma Mater Society (AMS). In this blog piece, Jeff explores the meaning of allyship. Using examples from his personal life and time with the AMS, Jeff demonstrates that sometimes being a good ally means listening rather than talking.

Being asked to contribute to this discussion is a tremendous honour. I’ve honestly been churning over in my mind what to offer to the blog for a few months now. Then I remembered, I’m white, I’m 5’11 (6Ft on a good day), and I’m a man…. People listen to me most of the time whether I have something really inspiring to say or if I just raise my voice or ask for the floor.

So with the above in mind, I’ll share the biggest lesson I learned at Queen’s working as the Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS: how to stop talking. Learning to stop talking is about using the privilege you have to magnify the hard work of others who have the lived experience to make the biggest impact.

I first learned to stop talking at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI). My Mom was admitted to TRI after a stroke that impacted her speech with Aphasia. It’s been over 15 years since my mom’s stroke and she’s thriving; I’m constantly driven by her grit and humour. My Mom and I were sitting in a windowless room waiting for a Doctor. My mom was raw from surgery, I was in my early teens and I was terrified. At the time my mom’s speech was very limited – knowing her habits and being similar people, I had a knack for helping translate for her. The Doctor walked in and started talking directly to my mom… asking her specific and important question with incredible patience and a palpable caring bedside manner. Trying to help, I tried to voice for my mom – I’d interrupt a bit – then the Doctor kindly but firmly asked me to stop talking……..I could have flipped a table in that moment. This is my mother and I’m trying to help her! I would later come to understand that the Doctor was really trying to help my mom, too. The Doctor gave my mom agency and time and the space to express herself even though it took longer and was the tougher road.

In 2007, I was chosen to serve as Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS. I was thrilled and I also knew… for sure… 100% …that I knew everything I needed to know about Diversity…. I grew up in midtown Toronto … after all I had tried falafel.

In 2003, a report came out that shocked many people at Queen’s but validated a lot of concerns that had been raised for years by racialized and Indigenous students and staff: The Henry report galvanized a lot of important conversations. Intelligent, organized, and driven women of colour and others from the Queen’s Coalition against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination easily saw through platitudes and demanded action.
If it wasn’t obvious enough before – I knew nothing, really, about racism. Between 2007-2008 amazing professors like Audrey Kobayashi and incredible staff, most notably Stephanie Simpson, gave me a lot of their time and were very patient. They both taught me to stop talking.

I learned that you can support important action without being the centre of attention. I’m proud of the strides the SIC made that year – we launched a mental health publication and made strides in other areas of Anti-Oppression but QCRED did the critical and hardest work around anti-racism: including unearthing important history around Alfred Pierce – and they were a group without paid staff or meaningful student government funding.

Working on Bay Street in Toronto, I’ve learned now when to start talking. There’s an important role allies can play. Sponsor and mentor people who are different from you for jobs. When your gay friends question the validity of Black Lives Matter’s approach to Pride or carding, bring up the Toronto Bathhouse Raids and remind your white friends of the demographics of incarceration rates- and why the numbers don’t make sense. Speak with your wallet and give money to organizations that deliver essential services that aren’t popular on election platforms. Be a role model, in as many little ways as you can. Learn how to stop talking and how to give the floor to people with something really important and inspiring to say.

Indigenous Studies is not a Ghetto

In the latest edition of our blog, we hear from Dr. Adam Gaudry. In this piece, Adam explores the historical and contemporary tensions that exist between units like Indigenous Studies and the academy. Perfectly timed, Adam’s piece draws our attention to the calls to Action in the recently released Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Indigenous programs are here to stay and it’s time to accept that

 At a 2013 university town hall at the University of Saskatchewan, then-president Ilene Busch-Visniac suggested that Indigenous-specific programming should be amalgamated into “mainstream” university programing over the long term. There was immediate push-back, from both those on-campus and off of it. A concerned Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations interjected, along with numerous faculty and student groups, forcing her to walk back the statement and reaffirm the permanence of Indigenous focused programming at the university. However, underneath this controversy is a pervasive logic shared among many university administrations, one that believes Indigenous programs exist primarily to facilitate student transition from their communities into post-secondary education, and to ultimately give way to the more venerated disciplines of old world education. In short, Indigenous academic units—like Indigenous studies and Indigenous education—are treated as if it were a kind of equity uplift meant to temporarily “bridge the gap” by providing Indigenous students with less competitive (that is, easier) programming.

I hear variations of this kind of thinking a lot, (although rarely from my current administration). Indigenous academic programs are rarely understood as creative, important sites of resistance by Indigenous students and scholars, intended to engage and empower our communities by confronting the violent colonial contexts in which we live. Certainly, Indigenous programs are seldom seen as standalone “disciplines” with their own intellectual traditions, pedagogies, methods, community of scholars, and agreed-upon process for judging the efficacy of scholarship. Many times, I’ve also heard people casually refer to my own discipline, Indigenous studies, as a kind of ghetto, a place where Indigenous students are supposedly denied the knowledge and rigour of the “real disciplines.”

Treating Indigenous academic units as if they are mere equity programs is rooted in three flawed assumptions. First, there has been a normalization of non-Indigenous majorities in post-secondary education, so much so that high concentrations of Indigenous people are treated as abnormal. The presumed goal of much of post-secondary education is the integration of Indigenous students into the mainstream, and while one rarely hears the word assimilate any more, the end effect can often be the same. Second, there is a widespread assumption that European intellectual traditions are superior to Indigenous ones. Indigenous-majority programs, which usually privilege Indigenous experiences and problematize Euro-centric assumptions, are interpreted as inferior. This separate educational path is then said to ‘ghettoize’ Indigenous students into an inferior education path. Third, as a result of the first two assumptions, Indigenous programs are seen by many as a kind of easy leg-up, as if their purpose is to facilitate the integration Indigenous students into the normal (non-Indigenous, Canada-oriented) education system, rather than leaving them confined to (inferior) Indigenous-majority spaces on campus.

While these attitudes may become less pronounced in light of the Calls to Action of the recently released Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s, they certainly continue to exist and therefore need to be addressed if Indigenous people are to have a meaningful place in the universities and colleges of the 21st century.

Lost in this conversation is what exactly Indigenous communities want from universities, a consideration that effective university administration must be focused on. What if the goal is to carve out spaces at post-secondary institutions where Indigenous students can learn skills to be used in service of their people, to work alongside other Indigenous students to hone these skills, and collaborate with Indigenous faculty to integrate traditional and contemporary knowledge aimed at returning power to Indigenous communities? In my experience, Indigenous studies is exactly this, a place for Indigenous peoples to work with Indigenous and allied knowledges to address the needs of their community, in an atmosphere of support from academics and community alike. Students may choose to do this in Indigenous studies, or elsewhere, but they should be encouraged to choose what is best for them and for achieving their goals, not some old colonial metric on what constitutes a “real education.” For many Indigenous students and scholars, this is actually the end goal of Indigenous presence in the academy: transformational social and political change with Indigenous people at the helm and the freedom to chart our own futures.

If universities accept this reality, much more energy can be put towards creating enriching intellectual spaces for Indigenous and supports for a robust and self-sufficient Indigenous intellectual community on campus. This, I believe, is the more important consideration, and is one that gets to deeper truths and a more hopeful future in which Indigenous students and their knowledges are treated with the respect and dignity they are due.

Advocacy: Inspiration and Practical Advice

In our February blog post we hear from Maria Aurora Nunez. In this blog piece, Maria explores advocacy through the lens of strength, courage and determination. Reflecting on real life experiences, Maria provides practical tips and strategies for achieving your own advocacy goals.

Feeling discouraged one day, I asked my professor, “Can the law make a difference?”

Hello beautiful reader! ¡Hola! Bonjour! Привет! My name is Maria. I am an artist – I oil paint, write songs and poetry. I am a “dreamer” and an “idealist.” I am also an advocate. Coming from a family of political refugees from Chile, I have had an interest in supporting equity and a diversity of causes since I was a child. My law degree and personal experience have taught me that advocating can be difficult. The important thing is to not give up and to keep following your goals!

For the longest time, I felt embarrassed, but now I don’t care, to say that I required disability accommodations in school. Obtaining these accommodations proved to be a barrier to my participation in school. For example, despite a history of accommodations and supporting documentation, my request for accommodations for the law school admission test (LSAT) was denied by the American Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT in Canada. I didn’t think that my request was treated in a procedurally or substantively just manner, so I had to be an advocate for myself and, in so doing, advocated for disability rights generally. I went through an “appeal process” unsuccessfully, was told that there was not¬hing further that I could do, and was advised to consider alternate career options. Instead, I explored my legal rights. I spoke with a human rights lawyer, spent months building my case, identifying problems, anticipating counter positions, and meticulously reviewing documents. Sometimes, I wanted to give up and questioned the point of pursuing law school. After all, if applying was so burdensome, what does that say about inclusion in the profession generally? Nevertheless, I made it to law school!

I pursued law school in the first place because I wanted to help people. I didn’t wait to graduate to get started. In my first year, I founded the Queen’s Disability and Mental Health Law Club, which aimed to reduce stigma associated with disability and mental health issues. I received a Women’s Law Association of Ontario/Aird & Berlis LLP Advocacy Award and the club received a professional excellence award from the Law Students’ Society. Most importantly, the club was making a difference. Students, professors, and professionals, even in faculties outside of law, connected to share their experiences of dealing with disability, mental health issues and stigma.

In my second year, as club chair, I was deterred from starting a scholarship to support prospective law students with disabilities. Even though the club generally received support, it sometimes experienced opposition behind the scenes. However, I believe that when one door closes, another opens. Feeling defeated one day, I asked my professor, “can the law really make a difference?” After a characteristic lawyer answer of “it depends,” she offered encouraging words and urged me to focus on the positive and what I was good at: writing. I wrote a paper that was accepted at the Canadian Law Student Conference (I could not go until the following year because of issues getting accommodations that year), and I took on an independent study project about the LSAT. Through facts and statistics, I made a strong case that law schools in Canada could be more accessible by re-evaluating their admissions processes. Staff at the Ontario Human Rights Commission read my paper and, ultimately, a condensed version was published in the Canadian Legal Education Annual Review.

In 2014, LSAC agreed to pay $ 7.73 million in penalties and damages to compensate 6,000 individuals who applied for disability accommodations. LSAC has since significantly changed its accommodation request processes. These changes resulted after the United States Justice Department intervened in a lawsuit, alleging widespread and systemic deficiencies in the way LSAC processes requests by people with disabilities for testing accommodations. So, can the law make a difference? Yes. Can YOU make a difference? Yes!

Here are a few recommendations that may help you in achieving your advocacy goals:

  1. Be curious and follow your intuition. Coming from a family of artists, I am very curious. In school, I was once told to stop questioning things, to just learn the law and apply it. However, blindly following traditions and rules without question isn’t how my mind works. If something does not feel right, speak up. Question the status quo.

 

  1. Find like-minded people. If you are passionate about something, someone out there is passionate about it too. Keep networking and searching until you find them.

 

  1. Share your experience. As an equity seeker, you have useful insight into how systems operate in practice and how things can be improved in the future. Only by sharing your experience may you find that others have similar experiences.

 

  1. Take risks and step out of your comfort zone. Whether you speak to a professor or a judge, voice a concern, or propose a new initiative, outcomes are often uncertain. However, we mostly regret the risks that we didn’t take.

 

  1. Ask for help. Finding long-lasting supports can make the passing discomfort of asking for help worth it. (My favourite place at Queen’s is the Ban Righ Centre — a little home away from home).

 

  1. Be open to feedback from others. There’s no one of us that has all the answers. We can learn from one another to collaborate.

 

  1. Stay positive. It takes courage, imagination, time, and energy to identify a concern, think of ways to make things better, and try to make change. Be proud of each accomplishment. Be optimistic about how far you have come and how much further you can go! You never know what positive changes your efforts may create.

 

  1. Be creative. Strive for win-win ways to improve systems. “That’s just how things are” is only true until someone like you changes it.

 

  1. Do not take it personally. Change often makes people uncomfortable and reactive. Sometimes, politics, ego or differing perspectives can get in the way of fixing issues that could otherwise be easy to fix. If you encounter this resistance, try to not take it personally.

 

  1. Be patient. Change and results rarely happen overnight.

 

  1. Be persistent. Try, again and again and again. If you face a barrier, re-route. Even if someone tells you that there is nothing more that you can do, respectfully take their advice with a grain of salt. Maybe you can create a new option.

 

  1. Play fair. Let your emotion and passion motivate your work, but always treat others, even people on seemingly opposing sides, with respect, dignity, kindness, and courtesy.

 

  1. Focus on your strengths. You could be an excellent advocate, just as you are. My favourite example of this is David Boies. Despite having dyslexia and self-describing as a slow reader, he is one of the top lawyers in the United States. He was lead counsel for Vice-President Al Gore (1998-2000), was named “one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time Magazine (2010), and “Litigator of the Year” by Who’s Who Legal (an unprecedented seven times).

 

  1. Do not get complacent. Equitable policies are only as good as they are followed in practice. Continuously examine how systems around you operate.

 

  1. Believe in yourself. Respectfully listen to advice but make your own decision. I was encouraged to not attend law school because I learn in a ‘different’ way. In law school, when I had some struggles, I was ‘kindly’ encouraged to leave the program at one point and questioned constantly by people about why I was studying law. I questioned myself many steps along the way, why I cared so much about certain things and whether it was a waste of resources to put myself through equity battles. In hindsight, I am glad that I ignored naysayers, some of whom may have even had my best interests at heart. If you believe that you can do something, and people tell you that you can’t, then give yourself the satisfaction of proving them wrong by not giving up.

More work needs to be done to protect equity rights, even in our modern day, and not only for persons with disabilities, but for all equity-seeking groups. Whatever your advocacy goal, I do believe that YOU can make a difference and be a good advocate. Although things may not always run smoothly, any reward will be that much more satisfying, when you can tell yourself that you followed your dreams by being unstoppable. Today is your day to start not stopping. Thank you for reading this! Gracias. Merci. Спасибо.