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January-February 2017

2017 Kick-Ass Activists: Geoff Wilson and Tim McConnell

LGBTQ substance users had few places to turn for support before Geoff Wilson and Tim McConnell created a safe space for them in Toronto

Al Donato@gollydrat

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 10.44.32 AMGeoff Wilson and Tim McConnell are close friends—the kind who don’t mind spending nearly every day for the past two years together. Sometimes it was to check out punk shows, go biking, or play pool. Most days, they were hard at work envisioning and building Pieces to Pathways (P2P), a drug addiction support initiative unlike any other in Canada. As of November, it offers services made for and by Toronto’s LGBTQ youth.

The idea for P2P came from a conversation between Wilson and McConnell, who saw a lack of resources for LGBTQ Torontonians coping with addiction. The pair, who both use they/them pronouns, understand addiction intimately. Wilson, 29, is a mixed Filipinx genderqueer zinester and identifies as a sober addict. McConnell, 29, is a transmasculine person who resided and worked at Portage, a youth rehabilitation centre in Cassidy Lake, N.B.

Coming from these backgrounds, the two trans youth shared a mutual frustration over addiction support woes faced by their social circles. Neither of them could recommend services to friends—no pre-existing organizations seemed culturally aware enough to care for the needs of LGBTQ users. And there are many: queer and trans people are up to four times more likely to experience addiction than the general population, according to Rainbow Health Ontario. No matter how inclusive a program could get, none were organized by queer and trans youth with lived experience, either.

For many service participants hoping to undergo treatment or recovery services, their ideal health care would be best provided by those who know exactly what they’re going through, because they’ve gone through it themselves.

Often, Wilson found that organizations valued peer workers with addiction experience less than workers from clinical backgrounds. “If you gave me a choice between going to a queer and trans program or a non queer-specific program, I will always choose [the] specific program,” Wilson says. “We built this program around lived experience and that being the central feature.”

Since that conversation, the duo have worked tirelessly to make P2P a reality. Their efforts resulted in a Toronto-wide survey of LGBTQ youth. It revealed that more than 65 percent who had gone to counselling or used services reported being treated negatively because of their LGBTQ identity. More than half surveyed didn’t feel safe coming out while receiving treatment. The survey precedes a pilot program and ongoing office space with Breakaway Addiction Services in the city’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

It’s important to Wilson and McConnell that P2P disrupts how addiction services are offered on a structural level. For one, they believe in harmony between abstinence and harm reduction groups, which are often viewed as contradictory recovery routes. Abstinence calls for cutting out drugs entirely, while those who practice harm reduction want to continue using on their own terms, aiming to reduce or curb unsafe consequences. To combat the clinical-peer divide, the group’s roster of staff members are all LGBTQ locals with addiction experience (with the exception of P2P’s project manager, who is McConnell’s mother and a seasoned professional in the addiction field).

Success for addiction centres and recovery for addicts isn’t linear. In the nine years since McConnell left Portage, they know of only one other person out of hundreds of fellow residents who remained abstinent. It’s why Wilson and McConnell are measuring P2P’s triumphs through personal goals set by participants, and not by industry-standardized relapse rates. “When I first got sober, therapists asked ‘What do you want your life to look like in a year? Five years? 10 years?’ I’m coming from an experience of just trying to survive every day. I actually can’t think that far ahead,” McConnell says. “I think folks coming in here get to determine what constitutes success for them. We can try to help them define themselves.”

For this new initiative, Wilson knows making a lasting impact for LGBTQ communities will come slowly. They cite the decade it has taken for homelessness researcher Alex Abramovich’s advocacy to finally bring about corporeal change, with the opening of two LGBTQ youth transitional homes in Toronto.

P2P doesn’t have permanent funding secured yet, and the group has had to close its doors whenever money ran out. Thanks to a large private donation, the program will be running for half a year in 2017. In that time, youth will be able to receive case management and individual counselling. Three weekly drop-in groups are also available, themed around abstinence, harm reduction, and one specifically for racialized participants. These services are based on the access gaps LGBTQ youth reported in P2P’s survey. On the basis of their race, 64 percent of LGBTQ youth said their needs were not met. Those needs, McConnell and Wilson hope, will be recognized by P2P.

“I knew the road would be bumpy and inconsistent, but knowing the clear goal is that we want to get this permanently funded,” Wilson says. “Being able to connect with people and hearing their stories with substance use has reminded me why I actually do this work.”

Al Donato is a writer and community organizer based in Toronto. Their work addresses intersectionality, LGBTQ2S issues, and independent arts. At any given moment, Al craves poutine and a good night’s sleep. They are currently running indie game workshops with the Hand Eye Society.

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