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Pushing rural organizations to be more welcoming to trans and gender-diverse people

Pushing rural organizations to be more welcoming to trans and gender-diverse people

Behc Jax-Lynx and Cara Tierney both work with a small organization called Building through Education and Community Knowledge (B.E.C.K.), which uses educational approaches to push organizations in rural and suburban Ontario to do better when it comes to equity for transgender and gender-diverse people. Scott Neigh interviews them about the barriers that trans and gender-diverse people face, about their work, and about their broader vision for the kinds of social change that they are working towards.

Before starting B.E.C.K., Jax-Lynx worked mostly as a social worker, predominantly in mainstream social service organizations. They have long known – from their own lived experience and from the many youth that they have worked with – that the dominant model for how mainstream institutions deal with transgender, two-spirit, and gender-diverse people was, and is, seriously flawed. Even the most supportive parents of gender non-conforming kids are likely to seek support either directly from medical professionals or from social workers who pass them along to medical professionals. Under this model – based as it is in social work and medical practice – gender non-conforming youth are medicalized, pathologized, surveilled, assessed, and regulated according to standards that trans and gender-diverse people themselves have played little or no role in shaping. Even though the days of trying to force young people into the gender they were assigned at birth is largely past, they are still treated, in one way or another, as problems to be solved, rather than as selves to be celebrated. And Jax-Lynx knew that they needed to find ways to use their skills to make things better for trans and gender-diverse youth.

Cara Tierney has been a working artist for a decade. They are also doing a PhD in an interdisciplinary program at Carleton University in Ottawa, doing work related to art, education, and trans studies, and they are an instructor in the history and theory of art at University of Ottawa. Despite their own journey around sexuality and gender facilitated in large part by engagement with art, and their many years of reading queer and trans scholarly work, Tierney felt the need to develop a better sense of how these issues are playing out on the ground among trans and gender-diverse youth and their families, and to be part of working towards something better.

Jax-Lynx and Tierney met at just the right moment. Jax-Lynx was just leaving their job as a social worker and Tierney was just starting graduate school. The two of them hit it off, and pretty soon they began working together.

Given their respective skillsets, they predominantly do educational work.This work is not generally with trans, two-spirit, and gender-diverse youth themselves, however. Partly that is because youth often have a pretty solid instinctive grasp of gender politics already, even when they don't yet have the language to express it. But mostly it is because it is the adults and the institutions that have power over the lives of trans and gender-diverse youth that need to be challenged and changed. It is both the leadership and the staff in such organizations that are the focus of most of Jax-Lynx and Tierney's educational work.

The nature of their workshops varies with the context, but in general it is their goal to go beyond the kind of tokenistic education that many organizations do just to be able to check off a box on a diversity checklist. In their experience, a key barrier to organizations doing the work to become more welcoming places for staff and for patients or clients who are trans or gender-diverse is the discomforts, the fears, and the deep-down gut-level prejudices that a lot of cisgender people – including a lot of liberal-minded and nominally supportive people – have about them. So the first part of their workshops involves drawing out those intense feelings from participants in order to process them and begin to work through them. Once that hard emotional work is done, or at least well started, then they can begin the relatively easier work of identifying ways the organization can become more welcoming – which often involves relatively minor changes in policies, forms, bureaucracies, language, washrooms, and so on.

A key feature of Jax-Lynx and Tierney's work is that they focus their energies on rural and suburban areas, which are often underserved when it comes to the needs of trans and gender-diverse people. They caution, however, that while the work is definitely necessary in those places, it is a mistake to assume that things are any worse there for trans and gender-diverse people than they are in big cities. In fact, they say, the kinds of fears and organizational barriers that trans and gender-diverse people face are much the same everywhere, and doing this work in small towns is not really much different than doing it in a major metropolitan area. Everywhere, organizations need to be working through the fears and discomforts of cisgender staff and making the relatively straightforward administrative changes that can do so much to make an organization more welcoming. And everywhere, according to Jax-Lynx and Tierney, we need to be working towards a future where transgender and gender-diverse people do not have to submit to being medicalized and pathologized to be recognized and supported for who they are.

Image: The image modified for use in this post (original found here) is used with permission of Behc Jax-Lynx.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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