This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2019

We’re here. We’re queer. Now what?

For LGBTQ refugees, Canada is no land of unicorns and rainbows

Amy van den Berg@vandenba

Queer refugees to Canada

Driving back and forth along Wellesley Street in Toronto, Iris looks for a sign that she belongs. It’s late at night and raining, and she’s been blown off by a date. The woman she met on the dating website Plenty of Fish lives in Niagara Falls, and Iris rented a car for the weekend to see her, flowers and gifts she bought in the back seat. It’s the first time Iris is heading to Toronto’s LGBTQ Village—and she can’t find it.

It is 2008, and Iris has been in Canada for only a few months, on a visa from Saudi Arabia, here to learn English. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.) Her female teacher is openly gay, but Iris doesn’t feel comfortable being out herself among the students in her class, many of whom are also from the Middle East and not accepting of LGBTQ people. When Iris asks her teacher where she can meet women, she directs her to Church and Wellesley.

Living in a homestay as part of the program, Iris asks her host how to get to the intersection, unaware she was asking about the Village and that it might be a problem. The woman, a Canadian, asks why she would want to go there. (Afterwards, Iris says, she felt the host treated her differently, being “nasty” and accusing her of sneaking around.)

That weekend, she had been looking forward to getting out of the house, but when her date cancelled, she didn’t know where else to go. After asking strangers for directions, Iris eventually finds the Village. Her teacher had written, “Go to the bar,” on a piece of paper, and when she comes across a group of women she asks in broken English where she can find The Bar. They laugh and ask her what she is looking for, then tell her to go across the street where there is a place for gay women; they are going there later.

Iris sits alone at a table in the Japanese restaurant where she thought they had pointed to, after a while asking the waiter, “Are there any women here?” He smiles, but shakes his head. She gives up and decides she will drive to a hotel. But stepping outside, she notices a long line snaking around a restaurant. “What is this?” she asks. They tell her it is a lesbian bar. “This is the place I am looking for.”

Iris is one of likely thousands of LGBTQ newcomers in Canada who are searching for home, community, and their own image of settlement. Each of these journeys is made for a different reason, but barriers to accessing supports and services are commonplace and go beyond the existing challenges a refugee faces. Many are fleeing situations of violence and persecution because of their sexual orientation and gender identity and perceive Canada as a safe haven, a place where they can be themselves.

For newcomers, being open about their sexual orientation and gender identity can be difficult. “It’s been ingrained in them since birth, this shame and fear of being who they really are,” says Habibi Feliciano-Perez, who coordinates LGBTQ newcomer settlement services at The 519 community centre in the Village.

“That continues throughout their life in Canada as well.” Feliciano-Perez works with LGBTQ refugees at every level of their settlement processes, and has seen the difficulties they face in their first years of settlement, from finding a community to navigating institutions. “What I’ve noticed is there’s difficulty socializing with people and trying to find friends because of language barriers and cultural barriers, and they’re still in kind of a culture shock,” he says.

In 2017, the Canadian government welcomed about 7,500 refugees, with an additional 16,000 from private sponsorship groups. In 2019 the Canadian government plans to admit 9,300 refugees, with a further 19,000 via private sponsorships. By contrast, in 2017, the number of asylum claimants climbed to 50,000—up from 23,000 in 2016. It is difficult to know how many of these refugee claimants identify as LGBTQ, since not every person will disclose that information upon arrival, and what the government does know is not publicly available.

Recent data obtained by Sean Rehaag, an Osgoode Hall Law School professor, shows that 13 percent, or 2,371, of the 18,221 asylum decisions made between 2013 and 2015 were based on sexual orientation. While various organizations, particularly in urban centres across the country, do their best to aid LGBTQ refugees, they say the numbers keep growing—and don’t show any signs of slowing.

For a demographic who can be especially vulnerable in their resettlement—they’re often referred to as “minorities within the minority”—there’s a dire need for social care and access to programs as they navigate life in Canada. But the resources they need, in the abundance that they need them, often don’t exist.

AT FIRST, IRIS WAS SHY WHEN SHE STARTED frequenting Slack’s, the Village’s now-defunct trademark lesbian bar. She didn’t drink alcohol and was not used to so many openly gay women in one place. “It freaked me out. I told myself to stand near the door so I would have the option to leave.”

But she soon found it felt like a second home. The bar opened around mid-afternoon, where it was a casual hangout for women, before the crowds would gather at night for comedy shows, dancing, and dirty bingo. The venue closed down in 2013, but Iris remembers sitting and talking with other women after her language classes and watching television shows like The L Word, a drama that portrays the lives of a group of lesbian women. She would walk down Church Street and women would call out to her by name. The people she met there still remain some of her closest friends.

I met Iris at a round-table event about LGBTQ refugees and access to housing last February. She spoke animatedly to a group of people about her first months in Toronto, illustrating her initial cultural ignorance to LGBTQ communities in Canada. Once, she told the room, she approached a woman on the subway because she was wearing a plaid shirt and had short hair.

“I was told that’s what lesbians look like!”

Today Iris is open about her experiences, and she talks about them with a smile and light-heartedness that belies the isolation and uncertainty she felt at the time. When we later met for a coffee, she told me the less humorous side of her settlement story. In the 10 years since she arrived, she has struggled to feel comfortable in Canada, finding herself pinned between two identities—being Middle Eastern and being gay—and her future dependent on a settlement system and society she believes is not set up to receive her.

Iris came to Canada knowing she might never leave. In Saudi Arabia she had advocated for women’s rights, and when she felt it was no longer safe, decided to leave the country temporarily. While choosing where to go, she Googled the top 10 countries with the best human rights records, and Canada came up on top. After living in Toronto for four months, she heard that her name was on a list of persons to be arrested and decided to make a refugee claim to the Canadian government to stay.

Saudi Arabia is one of 13 countries in the world where homosexuality may be punishable by death, and although Iris had been in relationships before in her country, she also knew there was no future for her there.

The different types of refugees in Canada can be loosely gathered into three categories: Government-sponsored refugees are hand-picked from camps and waiting lists in their home countries, and are invited into Canada with the promise of financial, housing, and other settlement support for up to one year. Private sponsorship works similarly, through which eligible groups or organizations are usually connected with a person on a list and raise money to fund their travel and first year of settlement. Refugee claimants, on the other hand, arrive in Canada without warning or invitation, and once on Canadian soil make their claim to a border officer. More often than not they arrive without knowing anybody and are faced with a government and system that is reluctantly required to aid them.

This last group of refugees is extremely vulnerable. Once their asylum claim is made, they are given a date for their hearing, where the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada will determine whether they will be given refugee status. Canada is a signatory to the UN’s Geneva Convention, which means it must allow any person the chance to prove their need for protection and sanctuary; they also have the right to housing, education, and employment until they can make their case.

To be considered for refugee status, the individual must have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country and be unable to go back. It is a rigorous process, one they must spend their initial months preparing for, and with such a backlog of applicants hearing dates may extend up to two years or longer. (As of July 2018, the average wait for a hearing is 20 months, four months more than the year before.)

During this period of limbo refugees are “claimants.” They are eligible to apply for a work or study permit, receive social assistance and basic medical care, and sometimes legal help (six of Canada’s 10 provinces provide legal aid free of charge). Otherwise, they are on their own.

When Iris went to the border services office to make her claim, she could hear the officer talking to another about her case, saying he was surprised she was asking for asylum coming from such a wealthy country; she must be in real trouble. It was a small but significant invasion of privacy. She was told to wait for a hearing date, which wouldn’t come for another two years. By that time she had experienced another side of Canada’s friendly image.

Refugee claimants have access to English-as-a-second- language (ESL) classes, and Iris soon found herself in one of these classrooms. Like her other English classes, the students around her were other refugees, many from other Middle Eastern countries. She hid that she was a lesbian, but she was still exposed to homophobia.

A classmate once told her he thought all gay people were sick, and that if he could, he would gather them all together and burn them alive. On another occasion, when the teacher found out she was a lesbian, she moved Iris to a different seat so she wouldn’t be sitting next to another woman.

Iris went to five different ESL locations before deciding to quit altogether. “I could not stand it. I did not feel safe,” she says. She decided she would rather pay for private classes than risk sitting in a classroom with other newcomers. She took language courses at both George Brown College and Humber College, where she hoped there would be more education around LGBTQ people.

Still, Iris didn’t always feel accepted. The courses were in the evening and students were allowed to bring their children. One day the teacher warned the class they might not want to bring in their kids for next week’s lesson because she would discussing “inappropriate” material. “I thought she was going to show us sex or something,” says Iris. It was about LGBTQ communities.

ON A WARM NIGHT IN OCTOBER 2017, CARLOS arrived at a bus stop in Barbados, where a group had already been waiting. He was alone. The group first called out to him, then surrounded him. They said people like him needed killing, and if they caught him by himself they would show him who was a real man. He had recently started hormone treatment and wearing more masculine clothing. Carlos, whose last name has been withheld to protect his identity, knew he was male at five years old, but it wasn’t until puberty when he realized he wasn’t allowed to be.

“Barbados is a very hyper-masculine place,” says Carlos. “They are very threatened by anything that looks like an infringement on their masculinity.” As he slowly began his transition, binding
his chest and paying a doctor under the table for hormone treatment, he experienced a great deal of transphobia and verbal abuse.

After the incident at the bus stop, he realized his life was in danger; within two weeks he quit his job and sold all of his belongings. He told his mom he was deciding between the Netherlands, Spain, or Canada. His mother suggested the latter, a place Carlos had been before.

Arriving on a visitor visa and making an asylum claim, Carlos’s experience was much different. “I expected a red carpet, everyone dancing around with unicorns and fluffy bunnies, rainbows everywhere! Because that’s the kind of picture Canada puts out there,” he says. Instead, he says, it felt empty: “I was alone and knew nobody and had nothing.”

After clearing the border and making his initial claim, an officer asked if Carlos had anywhere to go. Carlos had been in contact with The 519, who had told him they would help him find a safe place to stay upon arrival, but they weren’t picking up. “The guy looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘Look, I do not want to detain you. That’s not a place for you to be in.’”

Carlos was given a number for the Canadian Red Cross, who are often the first contact for refugees landing on Canadian soil. To find him a shelter, they asked if he was a man or a woman. He told them he is a man, a trans man. And they said, “So what does this mean?”

The Red Cross First Contact program does not have a specific policy on how to communicate with LGBTQ persons. A representative of the organization expressed in an email that their goal is to be the first point of contact for refugees when they arrive at the airport, where they try connect them to information and resources, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Carlos was taken to a refugee shelter in downtown Toronto, but when he got there nobody knew what to do with him. He was told they could not put him in the women’s shelter, but he wouldn’t be safe staying with men, either. “I think the hardest thing for me was being told that Canada was going to protect people like me, and the first person I had a conversation with blatantly said there is no safe space for me here,” he says. Carlos would remain there until his hearing.

In refugee hearings, a board member listens to the claimant’s explanation of their need for Canada’s protection. Refugees who are LGBTQ face unique challenges when preparing their cases. When the basis of claim is their sexual orientation or gender identity, individuals are expected to prove they are in fact queer or trans, and must describe in detail why this puts their lives in jeopardy. This can be extremely difficult, especially for those who haven’t come out yet, or have been living in fear of violence or rejection if they were open about their identities.

In effect, the purpose of the hearing is its danger; individuals are re-traumatized over the same circumstances that would buy them protection. The more open and specific they are about their experiences back home—especially when describing stories of violence or social exclusion—the better their chances of convincing the board they deserve asylum.

“In the best situation it’s more delicate; in the worst situation it feels more invasive,” says Elizabeth Wozniak, an immigration lawyer in Halifax.

Nova Scotia is one of the provinces that doesn’t provide legal aid to refugee claimants, and Wozniak sometimes works pro bono. “We definitely have to prepare the person for the kinds of questions they will get asked and sometimes it can be a bit harsh, but you have to get them ready for it. You don’t want them to be blindsided at the hearing when in the hearing the judge asks them why don’t they have a Grindr account.”

After the hearing, which can extend from two hours to multiple days, refugees will either be granted a positive decision, meaning they become a “protected person” and can apply for permanent residency (usually granted), or they must wait for a written decision—“which usually means ‘no,’” says Wozniak. The current rate of acceptance hovers around 65 to 70 percent, the highest since 2012.

Carlos says he was lucky: His hearing took place after only a year. After successfully convincing the board and being granted refugee status, his energy turned to finding a new place to live. He was receiving $733 a month from social assistance—$390 of which was meant for housing.

This amount varies throughout Canada, but not by much, and is not adjusted according to the region. A single refugee claimant in British Columbia will receive $710 in a comparable market—even in Vancouver, one of the country’s most expensive cities to live in. In Quebec where prices are much cheaper, claimants would receive $633 a month; in Manitoba it is $820.

For Carlos, searching for a home in Toronto, where rental prices averaged almost $2,000 for a one-bedroom last year, the task felt insurmountable. Carlos wanted to be open with landlords about his gender identity—he didn’t want there to be any surprises if they saw needles lying around. He looked at multiple places across the city, but nobody was calling him back.

He eventually found a room in an apartment with three cisgender men. It was way above what he could afford to pay, but it was close to the refugee shelter, whose staff had become the closest thing to family he had in Canada.

In the house Carlos kept to himself. His roommates didn’t know he was trans, and he lived in constant fear of them finding out. Two of them were from Jamaica, a country with a culture that is notoriously anti-LGBTQ, and he wasn’t sure how they would react. They all shared a bathroom, and he would change in there, or dart to his room before they saw him in a towel.

“The public has a general understanding of LGBTQ communities, but transphobia and homophobia are still very prevalent,” says Darae Lee, acting senior manager of settlement and integration programs at the Vancouver-based charity Mosaic. “So when we put those two identities together it is even more difficult to find safe, welcoming housing.”

Lee names affordable housing as one of the most pressing issues for LGBTQ claimants in Vancouver, something that can also affect mental health and community participation. Few shelters in the city are LGBTQ friendly, and what is available is overrun; Lee says most people in Mosaic’s I Belong program, which serves LGBTQ newcomers, rely on social media and word of mouth for safe places to stay.

“They are really lucky if they have a friend who can share their room, but in most cases that’s very rare,” says Lee. “They just don’t have the connections.”

In these cases, refugee claimants are forced to hop from shelter to shelter—there is no maximum but stays rarely exceed 10 days. In extreme situations, newcomers are forced to sleep in abandoned storefronts and on park benches. Canadian cities only host a handful of shelters that specifically serve refugees or LGBTQ communities; none are designed to shelter both. In most cases those seeking asylum are placed wherever there is space—which in itself is a big feat, as emergency shelters in Canada’s major cities continue to burst at the seams.

The last national shelter study found Canada’s shelters were operating at over 90 percent capacity—Toronto is currently at 96 percent with their handful of refugee-specific shelters running wait lists. In June 2018 it was estimated that more than 40 percent of those in the city’s shelters were refugees, propelling the City to house the increasing number of refugee claimants in motels and temporary shelters erected in parking lots—makeshift buildings that are little more than glorified tents.

Even when there is space, these can be rough environments, where newcomers live in close proximity with those experiencing substance abuse and mental health issues. For a refugee who is LGBTQ the first few weeks can be dangerous and upsetting, and securing a roof over their head can make a world of difference on the path to settlement.

BY THE TIME I SAT DOWN WITH ZULFIKAR FAHD from Indonesia, he had been in Canada for just eight months but had already secured a job and apartment, started a blog, and had plans that weekend to drive to Oakville, a suburb of Toronto, to buy a dog, a cockapoo. He planned to name her Phoebe, after the character in his favourite show, Friends.

Fahd took a different approach to settlement. Three weeks earlier he posted an ad to Toronto’s Bunz Home Zone, a popular Facebook group where members upload posts offering or looking for vacant rooms and spaces for rent. In his post was a photo of himself, a picture of a cockapoo, and a paragraph of his story coming to Canada as a gay Indonesian refugee.

It is not illegal to be gay in his home country, but police and neighbours often punish queer men and women with public whippings. Last year in Indonesia, while he had another man over at his apartment late one night, there was a knock at his door, which turned out to be multiple neighbours and a police officer there to kick him out of his home.

Fahd moved but experienced other instances where he felt unsafe, eventually quitting his communications job and making his way to Canada, a place he heard was welcoming. He says he hasn’t experienced any of the roadblocks to settlement other gay refugee claimants may have, and much of that has to do with his proficient English and the money he brought with him.

He was able to avoid the shelters and had a few friends in the city who let him stay in their homes until he could find his own place. He also studied law in Indonesia, so he didn’t require legal assistance. His only qualm, he says, is that he has to wait for his hearing—it’s been pushed back indefinitely for reasons unknown, but he wants to start his life, and is confident Canada will accept him.

By the time he wrote his Facebook post, he didn’t consider his refugee status as a negative thing. “When you want a better life and when you work hard, I don’t think that’s something you have to be ashamed of,” he says. “That’s more like a superpower.”

UPSTAIRS IN THE TWO-BEDROOM APARTMENT IN Toronto where he now lives, Carlos is lounging in basketball shorts, playing FIFA ‘16 on his Playstation 4. Soon after arriving Carlos met another trans refugee at the Metropolitan Community Church while he was volunteering. Desperate to get out of his housing situation, Carlos jumped at the opportunity when a friend told him there was a vacant space in the building. He invited his new friend into the lease and today they are best friends.

Around the time of Carlos’s “Manniversary”—the six-month mark since he started taking the right dose of testosterone (in Barbados he was just using what he could get)—Carlos started
the process to a full transition. First on his list: top surgery. He has also been seeing his girlfriend for a few months, and they recently went camping together. Sitting on his couch beside a
window, I ask him if he feels more at home now. “I always felt at home,” he says, “I’m starting now to not feel as displaced.”

Iris, meanwhile, met her partner online, and two years ago they decided to have a child, her partner giving birth to a baby girl. The couple has since separated; Iris is now fighting for
shared custody of their child. To be close to her daughter she moved out of Toronto to the suburb of Mississauga, a place she says doesn’t have much of an LGBTQ community.

But she’s finding life easier, and she says she’s become more comfortable in her own skin. The Village has remained her safe place, but outside of the city she uses Facebook groups for gay and
bisexual women to stay connected. She has friends across the world, and she was recently speaking to a woman who lives in Miami, Florida.

As her English improved she also began volunteering at the Metropolitan Community Church. That eventually led to a job at another organization, where she works with other refugee
claimants and newcomers, drawing from her own experiences to help with the settlement process.

“People will come here with this idea that they can be themselves, so when they come here it is like this picture is breaking in pieces,” she says. “When they come here they don’t have family. They try to build family but it is so hard. They have been lonely in their countries but now they’re truly alone and lonely.”

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