A Seat at the Table
In my Grade 8 yearbook, someone wrote, “You should sit with your own people at lunch”. Reading that message today hurts more than when I read it as a youth because I didn’t really understand why people didn’t like me. Reading it now, I’m reminded of the difficulty that I faced in finding a community that accepted me for who I was.
As a kid, I was often bullied for being different and was constantly reminded that I was unwelcome. I was aware of my failure at being “normal” and tried my best to fit in and be accepted. I changed my walk to be more masculine, spoke with a lower voice so I wouldn’t be called a sissy, and avoided speaking Mandarin in public so I didn’t have to answer questions about where I “really came from”.
But it didn’t matter how hard I tried to belong–on the sidewalk and on the playground, kids would still call me homophobic slurs. They would joke about how cheap Chinese immigrants were and how terrible our English was. Besides that, kids often ignored me because I talked too much and told jokes that only I found funny. Apparently, I gave my peers a lot of reasons to want me to sit a few benches away at lunchtime. At school, I was too annoying, too Chinese, too gay, too myself and just too different to have a place at the table.
Unfortunately, there was no solace to be found at home, either.
When I came out, my mom told me she couldn’t accept me: being straight was the Chinese way and being gay was not. What’s more, she threatened to stop helping me through university and said that she would disown me for choosing a gay lifestyle.
Even at the one place where most hope to be loved and cared for, I was told that I didn’t have a place at the family table.
Due to this inability to find support and a community that could understand my struggles as both a racial minority and an LGBT individual, I felt alone, lost and rejected by those who were supposed to love and protect me.
Thankfully, I was able to find help through LGBT support and advocacy organizations at university, LGBT-friendly psychologists and counsellors, and friends who accepted me just the way that I was. They listened to my struggles and offered me guidance to tackle the mental health issues that arise from such discrimination, showing me that there is space for me to be fully myself.
For these reasons, I was immensely disappointed and upset that organizations like Moose Jaw Pride have been actively excluded from the Motif Multicultural Festival, a place where newcomers, refugees, people of colour and the broader community come together to celebrate diversity. In my past, it was only through finding out about support organizations like Moose Jaw Pride that I was able to find guidance and support as an LGBT person of colour.
Like me, many people of colour identify as part of the LGBT community and face the same difficulty of navigating the rejection from within the LGBT community, their racial community and the general population that comes with being a person of colour and LGBT. In fact, many LGBT refugees flee persecution and violence in their home countries to the relative safety of countries like Canada in order to live and love freely.
However, they often arrive just to face LGBT-intolerance, racism, or a combination of the two in their new homes. Many LGBT people of colour in Canada are not out, are rejected by their family and friends, and fear for their safety and wellbeing. On top of that, they may lack access to information and resources including community services that can respond to their unique needs.
Agencies and festivals that support and celebrate cultural diversity, newcomers and refugees don’t always think of diversity in terms of sexual and gender difference. They often focus on traditional ideas of diversity in terms of differences in language, clothing, food, music and dance.
But for me, when I was bullied and mistreated, all I wanted was for someone to accept me for my differences–as an LGBT person and a person of colour–at the same time.
It’s time for all agencies and festivals that support, advocate for and celebrate newcomers, refugees and racial minorities and their “diversity” to recognize sexual and gender diversity as a key part of their mandates. From inviting LGBT community service organizations to be represented at their events, to training front-line community service staff members on proper LGBT-vocabulary, agencies and festivals can do a lot to be more inclusive.
When we provide the necessary information, resources and advocacy to LGBT people of colour, we tell them that we are interested in the complex individuals that they are.
When we recognize a person’s full diversity, we truly welcome them to have a seat at our table.
Nan Chen is the Summer Festival and Program Coordinator at Moose Jaw Pride. Click here to read more from Nan.