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Simcoe County communities making strides for LGBTQ inclusion

The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury is nominated for a Simcoe County Pride award, as part of Fierté Simcoe Pride, which runs July 30 to Aug. 12

With sweeping changes to the sex-ed curriculum still unclear and a municipal election on the horizon, this year’s Fierté Simcoe Pride is an opportunity to influence people and policy, said the organization’s president Brandon Rhéal Amyot.

“Hopefully over the course of Pride… I’m hoping we’ll be included in those conversations. While policy and legislation … is great, changing hearts and minds is what we want to do. (Pride) is a venue to a bigger conversation,” Amyot said.

“There’s a fine balance between the importance of celebration and advocacy. It can’t be one or another; it is, in fact, both.”

There are a variety of significant issues for the LGBTQ community that need to be addressed in the county, including sustainable funding for Pride and cultural organizations and for HIV/AIDS organizations and charities, as well as intersex surgeries, and the ban on gay men from donating blood unless they have been celibate for a year, Amyot said.

“We live, work and play just like everyone else does. We do exist in these communities, (but) just as easily for rights to be won, they can be lost. We have to maintain that balance,” Amyot said. “That work can’t keep on happening without the support of (government) at all levels.”

There is a trend around the world of “backlash” against the LGBTQ community, and trans and intersex people especially “haven’t gotten their fair share,” Amyot said. “Our work is never really done.”

Around Simcoe County, many communities have made big strides for the LGBTQ community, Amyot said.

Since starting Fierté Simcoe Pride seven years ago, all communities within the county, as well as Barrie, Orillia, Rama, Beausoleil First Nation and Canadian Forces Base Borden, recognize it with flag raisings or proclamations, Amyot said.

In 2016, the Town of Innisfil passed a new washroom and facilities policy so that people can use a bathroom for any gender with which they identify.

“As the Town of Innisfil increases in population, so to, will the diversity of the community,” read a town staff report, which was passed by council Dec. 14, 2016.

The new policy “is a means to having Innisfil put diversity and inclusivity into the forefront of our thinking so that being understanding and open to differences between people is an automatic, everyday occurrence.”

This year, Fierté Simcoe Pride runs July 30 to Aug. 12.

During the celebration on Aug. 4, a two-spirit Beausoleil First Nation Niizh Manidook powwow is happening for the first time at Springwater Park in Midhurst.

The event is being run by two-spirit people, but all are welcome to join.

The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury and the City of Orillia were nominated for Community of the Year in this year’s Simcoe County Pride Awards.

Amyot said BWG has long supported Pride, raising the rainbow flag before Fierté Simcoe Pride even existed.

There is a perception that small towns are more homophobic, which is not always true, Amyot said.

“That’s a bit of a misconception about small towns. Things have certainly changed, and there’s a ways to go. Homophobia, transphobia — these sorts of things exist everywhere,” they said. “In smaller communities, there’s a sense of camaraderie. People are open to listening even if they don’t understand. There’s a neighbourly feeling.”

BWG Coun. Raj Sandhu, who is a member of the BWG Diversity Action Group, said the town is welcoming but has room for improvement in its inclusivity.

“We still have issues. The younger generation is more welcoming (to the LGBTQ community) than the older generation,” he said, adding BWG is simply being recognized for something that should be done everywhere.

“It gives me great pride that Bradford is a leader on this. We’re being recognized for being a community that’s open, (but) it’s in our charter rights. We’re in the 21st century. Personally, to me, it feels like including everyone in the community is a given.”

The diversity group includes members of the LGBTQ community in its programming, including interactive workshops to educate people about Pride, and a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, Sandhu said.

The BWG Public Library has also held several LGBTQ-friendly events, including Drag Queen Storytime with Miss Atmos Fierce and Erin B. in June.

This spring, Bradford United Church became the first church in BWG to become an LGBTQ-affirming congregation.

That means the church will go beyond just welcoming LGBTQ people, but also work for justice and inclusion within its congregation and community.

In Barrie, Grace United Church became an LGBTQ-affirming church a few years ago, but it is having a celebration during this year’s Fierté Simcoe Pride to help better connect people with the Pride organization, said Jeffrey Dale, the church’s youth ministries co-ordinator.

Becoming an affirming congregation means anyone in the LGBTQ community can have a safe, fun place to worship, he said.

“They know they will not encounter judgment,” he said, adding it was a “no brainer” to connect with Fierté Simcoe Pride.

“Simcoe Pride … connects every single community in Simcoe County, urban and rural. (It gives people a hope) one day that this world will break down the walls and (allow) people to see each other face to face.”

At Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital, a special committee has been working to break down health-care barriers for LGBTQ people.

The hospital’s LGBTQ Committee is working to establish a trans health hub, in partnership with the Couchiching Family Health Team and other community partners, such as The Gilbert Centre.

The hospital is currently in the process of hiring a physician, nurse practitioner, social workers, administration support person, and a peer support person who is trans, with the goal to have the hub up and running by this fall, said Shannon Hunter, a nurse at the hospital and chair of the committee.

“Research is showing us that there aren’t a lot of services for trans people north of Highway 7,” she said. “Some of the barriers to access service is travel … and waitlists. We’re hoping people can access service closer to home.”

These services could include counselling, hormone therapy, and assessment for surgery, she added.

Initially, patients will be referred to the trans health hub through their doctors, and eventually it will migrate to a self-referral system, Hunter said.

The hospital is also in the second phase of a project to make all of its washrooms gender neutral.

So far, the single-stall washrooms in busy areas, such as the lobby and emergency room, have gender neutral signs, she said. All other single-stall bathrooms are now in the process of becoming gender neutral, and then all multi-stall bathrooms are next.

Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital received the Positive Community Organization award at last year’s Simcoe County Pride Awards, and Dr. Marissa Rodway-Norman, a trans physician who works in the hospital’s mental-health unit, is up for this year’s Person of the Year award.

“We want to make sure there’s a level of comfort for all patients who come to our hospital,” said Terry Dyni, the hospital’s director of community relations. “We want them to know they are certainly welcome in our hospital — excellent, compassionate care every day.”