Standing and Studying Together
Laurier Researchers Focus on LGBTQ2S+ Issues
Laurier Researchers Focus on LGBTQ2S+ Issues
June is Pride Month and Wilfrid Laurier University is proud to highlight some of its students and faculty members studying issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and two-spirit (LGBTQ2S+) individuals and communities.
Robb Travers is a professor and chair of Laurier’s Department of Health Sciences. His research focuses on how discrimination and other forms of marginalization affect health. Travers co-led the OutLook Study, which surveyed more than 500 members of the LGBTQ2S+ community in Waterloo Region, asking them about their experiences with community safety, discrimination, social support, access to health care and more.
“Six years ago, Laurier was approached by SPECTRUM, a community space for LGBTQ2S+ people in Waterloo Region, asking for our help with collecting data. They wanted to create some new support initiatives, but their funding proposals were turned down because they didn’t have quantifiable evidence. I spent 15 years working in frontline community health agencies before I got my PhD. Now I’m an evidence-based health guy, so I said, ‘Let’s get them some data!’
“That initial needs assessment grew into the OutLook Study, which is the largest study of its kind in Canada to date. We brought together local community agencies including the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (ACCKWA) and Waterloo Region Public Health and Emergency Services, organizations that wanted to know how to serve their clients more effectively. Our research team grew to include many of my Laurier colleagues. Many of us were members of the LGBTQ2S+ community around that table. It felt special because we all had a stake in this – our lives are affected by what we find.
“The OutLook Study data is being used in so many impactful ways. We brought together decision makers from school boards, hospitals and government for a day-long policy think tank and the Rainbow Community Council developed a followup action plan for the region to create real, lasting change on the frontlines. At least 20 Laurier students have used OutLook data for research of their own and are now publishing papers from that work.
“Sometimes opportunities come about because the right people come to the table at the right time. When the university and the community work together like this, it’s really wonderful. It says to the participants, ‘this is our study being conducted by agencies that care for us.’”
Ruth Cameron is completing her PhD in Community Psychology at Laurier. She is the executive director of the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (ACCKWA), a non-profit organization working to reduce the prevalence of HIV, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted or blood-borne infections in Waterloo Region. Cameron’s research is focused on intersectionality and intersectoral health equity interventions for marginalized groups.
“My background is in not-for-profits, LGBTQ2S+ health and community-based HIV research. Other scholars have used me, a Black lesbian, as a token to get their research through the door. In getting my PhD, I am hoping to do research in the communities that I am a part of to get them the resources they need to thrive.
“Recently, we introduced some successful interventions at ACCKWA to promote holistic well-being for people living with, and at risk for, HIV. For my dissertation, I plan to evaluate these interventions and create a template for similar organizations to implement within their local community contexts, as they are likely facing the same challenges that we do.
“Through my research, I want to advocate for more interventions that are actually led by the communities who need them and are located where they live. We shouldn’t be expecting people to show up where we are; we need to meet them where they are.
“I was a co-investigator on the OutLook Study and partnered on a health equity-focused needs assessment for African, Caribbean and Black communities in Waterloo Region. Thanks to the data we gathered, we have been able to open a number of new clinics at ACCKWA, centrally located for the clients who need to access them. That is a great example of the outcomes we can achieve when we closely collaborate with communities.
“Due to colonialism, researchers often frame the most marginalized communities as ‘problems.’ I know what it is to be framed as a problem. I want to do research that is about liberation and re-frames marginalized communities as ‘experts’ who know what we need to live equitably with one another.”
“Through my research, I want to advocate for more interventions that are actually led by the communities who need them and are located where they live. We shouldn’t be expecting people to show up where we are; we need to meet them where they are."
Charlie Davis is completing his PhD in Community Psychology. He previously earned a master’s degree in Community Psychology and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Laurier. Davis is a trans activist involved in many community-capacity building projects. His dissertation research explores the history of trans-inclusive legislation changes in Canada.
“I always joke that I’m a very procedural, structured person, and unlike most people I enjoy digging into the nitty-gritty of policies. I believe that within the nitty-gritty is how we learn to play within a system, or to change the system.
“My dissertation is a historical analysis of pivotal legislation changes for trans rights between 1920 and the early 2000s and how those developments were discussed in the media. I want to study how societal perceptions influence public policy. There is a deep-seated notion that trans people are sick and deviant and, even when policies change, it seems to persist.
“During the 1980s, laws were passed in Canada enabling trans people to change their name and gender marker, but only if they could prove they had gone through ‘transsexual surgery,’ which we would now call gender-confirming surgery. Those surgeries left patients sterile, so you could change your gender but would be prevented from parenting.
“Today, you no longer need to prove you’ve had genital surgery in order to change your name and gender marker. But for trans men, if there is an ‘M’ on their medical files and they try to access female-only surgeries, it is often flagged as fraudulent. In Ontario, patients are being forced to pay out of pocket for procedures that should be covered by OHIP. These are likely processing errors, but we must understand how policies work and why they were created in order to move forward.
“When I conduct literature searches on public policies, the analyses seem to stop once the policies change. What about evaluating the implementation? We spend so much time and effort trying to create change and then we forget to followup and assess if the changes actually did we what we wanted them to.”
Judith Nicholson is an associate professor in Laurier’s Department of Communication Studies. Her research focuses on mobilities and race. Nicholson is collaborating on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded research project called Privacy Stories about young people's perceptions of digital privacy.
“Boundaries between public and private are different now, in part because we move with our digital devices and our content moves easily across media platforms. Privacy Stories was borne out of a curiosity about whether young adults care about online privacy. My collaborators and I built a Privacy Booth that invites young adults to step inside and make a video about privacy, and the stories we are hearing so far tell us that young people still care. We will use the videos to make learning resources on digital privacy.
“I didn’t collaborate on this project because I’m queer, but I hope that my contributions are informed by my identity as a queer, Black feminist. For example, while the concept of ‘public intimacy’ is used to describe porous public/private boundaries in online communication, I understand that it is also used to describe how public and private intersect in offline practices such as gay cruising in parks, public restrooms, bathhouses and bars. Intimate spaces and practices exist in larger, public contexts and, when they involve queer sex and sexuality, the coexistence can be fraught. This tension was among the sparks that fuelled the Stonewall riots.
“It matters who conducts research. There is no one queer community, no one Black community. We need a variety of voices in academia who recognize how our research can provide opportunities for queer and racialized communities, including young adults in these communities, to tell our own stories."
Simon Coulombe is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. His research focuses on understanding and reducing the inequities faced by stigmatized communities, with a special interest in the roles of housing and community mental health services. Coulombe was a collaborator on the OutLook Study.
“I am in the midst of a study about the impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian workers. We found that one month after social distancing measures first went into effect, approximately 30 per cent of LGBTQ2S+ respondents had lost their jobs, versus 18 per cent of non-LGBTQ2S+ respondents. Our sample is not necessarily representative of Canada, but it’s large enough to identify a trend and be statistically significant.
“This is not surprising. Research shows, for example, that trans people experience a lot of discrimination in the workplace. Getting jobs is harder, they are often overqualified for the positions they fill and they have less job security.
“The question we want to explore in our followup is how losing their job has impacted their mental health and well-being. Most marginalized people are used to facing stressors in their environment. They are likely to have developed some resilience. The danger with the concept of resilience, however, is that it can normalize the challenges LGBTQ2S+ people face. We need to achieve a balance between addressing discrimination and acknowledging that society is not going to change in one day. We need to equip people with strategies to build resilience.
“I hope to eventually use this data to advocate for better job security for LGBTQ2S+ people. I’m gay, so I have a personal connection to this research. I am lucky, personally, because it’s pretty easy for me. I’m a white, cisgender psychology professor. I am privileged. But I look around me and see friends – even other friends in academia – who it’s not that easy for. This is just one small study, but I sometimes use the analogy of academia as a brick wall. We are each adding one brick at a time.”
Ann Marie Beals is completing their PhD in Community Psychology at Laurier. Their research explores the health and well-being of mixed Black and Indigenous communities and the effects of colonial legacies, ongoing structural inequities and the lack of acknowledgement of the existence of Indigenous-Black people.
“I am a two-spirit African Nova Scotian L'nu who is mixed-blood of the Mi'kmaw Nation. In my research, I humbly help to make real the presence of Indigenous-Black people on this land. Our history has been erased – people don’t know about us. I want to repudiate this colonial erasure and say, ‘Hey! We’re here! Loud and clear.’ It is consciousness raising. Each one teach one, pass it on.
“I am collaborating with my mentor, Ciann Wilson, on the Proclaiming Our Roots project, which collects and archives the stories of Indigenous-Black people on Northern Turtle Island. Part of that work is ensuring that there are stories of two-spirit Afro-Indigenous people. But I resist defining ‘two-spirit’ within colonial, binary terms. Our spirits are beyond compartmentalization; we don’t just leave parts of ourselves at the door. Two-spirits are part of our collective story – the sacred seventh medicine – so we share those stories.
“Some of my research takes place in Mi’kmaw territory called Nova Scotia. In my territory, there is this colonial academic notion that 'data' belongs to the researcher. For hundreds of years, researchers have extracted blood and knowledge from Indigenous and Black communities without giving back, yet make great careers from the work. In understanding colonial legacies, researchers must conduct research in critical, anti-oppressive, anti-racist ways that include accountability, build trust and respect, and truly benefit the communities with whom we work.
“Ultimately, if we want to go into these Indigenous and Black communities and conduct research, we need researchers who look like us. Yet it is difficult enough for Indigenous-Black people to get into higher-education programs. There are so few of us. If we look at who the professors and people in leadership and administration positions are, they are rarely people who look like us. That affects which students come to academia. Our institutional systems are embedded in a white supremacist ideology, which includes heteropatriarchy and colonialism. We need to re-examine who gets to hold the power.”
Tin Vo is completing his PhD in Social Work at Laurier. Vo is writing his dissertation on the inclusion and safety of individuals with intersectional identities in LGBTQ2S+ leisure spaces.
“We really need to talk about racism in LGBTQ2S+ communities. Because we focus so much on sexual and gender identities, we forget that people have other identities they co-exist with and how those identities can affect their experiences.
“I am studying community centres, rainbow centres, queer running groups, choirs, sports clubs, knitting clubs, et cetera. These are spaces of resilience. They are supposed to be safe spaces, yet people with intersectional identities sometimes feel marginalized within them.
“I have personally experienced exclusion in some of these spaces. I struggle with thinking, ‘Was that in my head? Am I overanalyzing it, or did that actually just happen? I’m supposed to feel safe in this space and I don’t.’
“This is a problem of living in a ‘colour-blind’ society: when we don’t talk about race, we don’t recognize our blind spots, which may cause or contribute to marginalization. When looking for partners, for example, we may not consider how race can affect our attraction.
“People find ways to cope, to adapt to the experience of exclusion. They find different spaces, new social circles. But ideally the focus shouldn’t be on asking the marginalized person to take responsibility for their own exclusion. It should be on addressing the structures that hinder their inclusion: how we advertise these spaces, the policies we set, the social norms we adopt.
“Standing together and making spaces that are welcoming for everyone would be the most effective way to address our community’s well-being.”
Karina Tassiopoulos recently completed her Bachelor of Science degree focused on Health Sciences. She conducted research for her undergraduate thesis on why HIV remains prevalent among gay and bisexual men.
“Using data from the OutLook Study, I analyzed how gay and bisexual men’s understanding of HIV transmission influences their sexual risk-taking. There were true or false questions in the survey asking the definition of ‘viral load’ and what it means to have an ‘undetectable’ viral load. Studies have shown that HIV-positive men who are taking antiretroviral medications effectively can have a viral load so low that it can’t be detected in their blood. With low detectability, it is nearly impossible to transmit the virus during sex.
“We found that 37 per cent of respondents had moderate HIV knowledge. What I found most interesting is that the men with greater knowledge about HIV transmission were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviours. I think there are two potential reasons. One is that the more you know, the less afraid you are. The other is that those who perceive themselves to be high-risk proactively seek out education to make sure they protect themselves.
“It's clear that we are in dire need of education. In my literature review, I read studies which found examples of men who still believe that they can contract HIV through hugging. Based on our results, we are publishing quite a few recommendations. Instead of only targeting education at people who have high-risk sexual behaviours, we need to start targeting low- to moderate-risk groups. We also need to be educating gay and bisexual men about the effectiveness of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and working with the government to make it more attainable. Most insurance companies don’t even cover it.
“It is also essential to start educating non-LGBTQ2S+ groups. I have a friend who is HIV-positive and by many he is no longer seen as an individual with characteristics and hobbies and dreams. He is seen as a gay man with HIV. I see how misinformation and stigma really affects his life. I looked at this study as an opportunity to educate myself and to contribute in some way to what is still an epidemic.”
“Some trans people are anxious about visiting places that most cisgender people take for granted. We found that seventy-three per cent of trans respondents felt unsafe at their doctor’s office."
Todd Coleman is an assistant professor of Health Sciences. His research is focused on population health and research methods. Coleman also explores health issues as they differ according to sexual orientation and gender identities.
“As someone who counts themselves as part of the broader LGBTQ2S+ community, I became aware early on of the differences in health outcomes depending on your identity. That became a driver for me to find out what we can do to change that.
“I was a collaborator on the OutLook Study and one of the findings that stood out was the notable differences in victimization between cisgender and trans individuals. On average, trans people felt higher levels of victimization and lower levels of safety.
“There is a concept we’re exploring called ‘anticipated discrimination.’ Some trans people are anxious about interacting and visiting places that most cisgender people take for granted. Fifty-seven per cent of trans respondents in the OutLook Study avoided public washrooms. Eighty-three per cent felt unsafe at gyms. Seventy-three per cent felt unsafe in medical offices, including their doctor’s office.
“We just wrapped data collection for a qualitative study looking in more depth at the discrimination that trans and non-binary individuals experience in the Waterloo Region. We are collaborating with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council to help influence policy at a local level and to help us disseminate our findings.
“The more research on these topics that takes place, the more people become familiar with concepts and the health disparities that exist. We are encouraging more education for health-care providers so they understand the nuanced differences between patients and how to treat them effectively and respectfully.”
Emily Cox is completing her master’s degree in Laurier’s Community Psychology program. Teneile Warren is the Stride service coordinator at Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) in Kitchener. The Stride program helps women in prison build support networks as they reintegrate back into the community. Cox and Warren collaborated on a study about the well-being of LGBTQ2S+ newcomers to Waterloo Region.
Cox: “Simon Coulombe, my thesis supervisor, was assembling a research team that included people from Laurier, the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (ACCKWA) and the Rainbow Community Council (RCC). I started meeting with members of the Solidarity Alliance, a subgroup of the RCC that is working to address gaps in services and essential resources for LGBTQ2S+ newcomers, refugees and immigrants to Waterloo Region.”
Warren: “One of the team members reached out to me. I have experience in research and community building, so they asked for my help with recruitment. Recruiting openly queer newcomers in a small community presents challenges. Many LGBTQ2S+ immigrants come from countries that violently criminalize homosexuality. For a research project like this, we need to build trust in order for them to feel safe enough to share. It was very, very difficult to find participants for the study. People were hesitant to share their experiences and were really concerned about anonymity. Some people have never had these conversations, even with themselves. It’s a significant personal step for them to open up.”
Cox: “Ultimately, we recruited ten racialized LGBTQ2S+ newcomers to interview. We asked about their experiences in the community, ways that they maintain their well-being and the barriers they have faced while accessing services in the region. Our respondents generally reported positive experiences. Representation was commonly mentioned as a negative issue. It is hard for LGBTQ2S+ newcomers to find representation in the local spaces they occupy.”
Warren: “The main issue is having multiple identities. Being a Jamaican lesbian is very different than simply identifying as a lesbian. People are searching for commonalities within the LGBTQ2S+ spaces that exist in Waterloo Region, but these spaces are predominantly white. They don’t necessarily embrace the cultural practices of different ethno-racial groups. So that presents a situation where newcomers think, ‘If I’m being ‘queer’ tonight, I’m probably going to be in an all-white space. I have to make a choice.’ Those groups are not recognizing the difference and trying to reach across the aisle.”
Cox: “We focused on strategies to improve well-being. In my thesis, I suggested that it would be beneficial to create a tool related to self-management strategies. Service providers often don’t feel equipped to help without having a mental health background, but we need a more holistic vision of well-being. It’s about so much more than just accessing mental health resources.”
Warren: “I am now checking in with participants who are open to followup. I want to learn more and see if anything is new since our original conversations.”
Cox: “We want to make sure our results match their experiences accurately.”
Warren: “I myself am an LGBTQ2S+ newcomer to Canada. When I moved to Waterloo Region almost two years ago from Toronto, identifying queer spaces that were welcoming to a black woman was challenging. Aside from university campuses, I find the LGBTQ2S+ community here to be pretty old and pretty white. I didn’t feel comfortable in my other identities within those spaces. I became involved in trying to create even one event a year for racialized newcomers and it has proven quite difficult. There is a significant fear of being outed here. It’s been a learning experience for me as an openly gay person to see how you can find refuge in a new community, but you have to choose what to silence.”
Cox: “As a queer person, I want all LGBTQ2S+ people to feel comfortable in the spaces they’re in so they can thrive. It is clear from our results that this is not happening, especially right here in our own community. Queer newcomers have a worse experience than other queer people. We need to shine a light on what’s happening. The quantitative numbers are essential, but it’s the qualitative interviews that really show us what’s going on for these people.”
Warren: “Research helps because data talks, gets funding and support, and then agencies often do retrospective work to see if they are providing their services effectively. Data has greater power than the voices of individuals.”
Michael Woodford is an associate professor of Social Work. A former social worker, Woodford is co-leading the Thriving on Campus study, the first Ontario-wide study of LGBTQ2S+ university students’ experiences, well-being and academic development, and a similar national study called Querying Higher Education in Canada. Woodford was also a collaborator on the OutLook Study.
“We know how crucial post-secondary education is today. For the average undergraduate student, their university years overlap with some critical phases of development. The data is clear that LGBTQ2S+ students face greater mental health challenges overall, so as universities we need to have responsive policies and supports. Academic success is closely tied to a student’s holistic well-being.
“In the Thriving on Campus study, we did a scan of the services and policies that exist at every university in Ontario, conducted surveys and interviews with LGBTQ2S+ students, and then prepared reports for each university with findings from their respective students. We have received very positive feedback and several schools are moving forward with action planning to strengthen their services for LGBTQ2S+ students. We are currently working on survey reports to give a picture of students’ experiences province-wide.
“Our research team made sure to focus on more subtle forms of discrimination. If we only ask about physical assaults and verbal harassment, we’re ignoring everyday microaggressions, which matter. Even though attitudes toward LGBTQ2S+ people have become more accepting, microagressions are common. Things will not improve for LGBTQ2S+ students until we understand the prevalence and consequences of microagressions and schools address them. We need to start addressing the heteronormative and cisgender biases that exist on university campuses and create policies that specifically name microaggressions as discrimination.”