In 2009, a national gay and lesbian newspaper reported on Egale Canada activist Susan Rose’s tour of this province’s Northern Peninsula, where she conducted anti-homophobia workshops.
“It was unbelievable, because what I gathered from that [tour] is that homophobia is alive and well,” she reported. And while Egale has been working with the provincial government and school boards to address the problem, another Newfoundlander is preparing to launch an effort of his own to combat homophobia and transphobia throughout the province.
John Power, originally from Newfoundland himself, has spent the past several years volunteering and working with the Toronto-based ‘Youth Line’, a peer support phone line for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people 26 years of age and under. During one of his recent trips back to Newfoundland, it occurred to him that queer youth – and even adults – in his home province could really benefit from a similar service.
“I volunteered [at Toronto Youth Line] for two years, and then I worked there for two years as a relief shift supervisor. Part of my job was to facilitate training workshops. So I have this experience, and I guess it was a service that I thought was a really really good one, and have always wanted to see a similar kind of service started up here.”
“It’ll be a peer support phone line, which is basically not a counseling service as much as just an outlet for people to phone…This will be a safe space for queer identified people to talk to somebody who, on a broad scale, might have some shared experiences.”
“…it was mostly just kids questioning their orientation, wondering about their gender, everything from that to crisis suicide calls, sexual assault and rape calls.”
His experience working and training volunteers for the Toronto line exposed him to the wide gamut of concerns queer youth in Ontario had.
“There were all kinds of questions really, mostly from outside of the city. Kids from small towns or smaller cities that didn’t have any other resources to avail themselves of. But it was mostly just kids questioning their orientation, wondering about their gender, everything from that to crisis suicide calls, sexual assault and rape calls.”
Similar lines have been tried on a limited basis in the province. Newfoundland Gays and Lesbians for Equality (NGALE) offered a support number that could be called once a week, but that shut down some years ago. Power notes there are a number of such lines operating in Ontario and other provinces – for youth and adults alike – and although his initial idea was to provide a line for youth, he’s decided to keep it open for all ages. While the line will start up with a St. John’s number, he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to secure the funding to offer a toll-free line for province-wide access, for both the island and Labrador.
Power intends to make use of the wide range of experience he obtained on the mainland. In addition to Youth Line, he volunteered with the 519 Church Street Community Centre, which offers a range of community services and programming, primarily directed toward the queer community.
From the stage to the phone lines…
It’s an unexpected career shift for Power. A native of Paradise (“I got rocks in my pockets!” he jokes), he obtained a music degree from Memorial before leaving the province. He played in the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, as well as The Hidden Cameras (an Ontario-based “gay orchestral indie-pop band” with a wide following) and a range of other punk and heavy metal bands. He notes that in many ways, it was only once he moved to the mainland that he developed a fuller understanding of the complexity of queer identity, and he’s hoping the phone line will provide a sort of queer support and community that didn’t exist when he was going to school.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t really know what was going on. I wasn’t sure about myself, I wasn’t sure about a lot of things. So I didn’t really pick up on any outward homophobia, as much as just a lack of visibility of anybody that was queer in any way. In high school there was a couple of out gay guys, and I know that they got bullied a lot.”
“But I’ve talked to some people who live here and they talk about how there’s a huge number of people in the province who are queer in some way but feel that they can’t come out, so I mean there’s got to be some reason for people to feel unsafe in coming out, either be it the fear of losing friends, the fear of losing family, or the fear that work might get too much to bear.”
Often the product of ignorance
We discuss some of the cases of homophobia covered in local media over the past year, and although Power acknowledges that there are certainly some deliberate and malicious cases of violence and bullying, he feels a lot of the homophobia and transphobia in the province comes from a lack of awareness. He invokes the story of Lanier Phillips as an example.
“There’s that story about the black guy in World War II – Lanier Phillips – where they went out and rescued him from the boat, and how they had never seen a person of colour ever. And he was covered in oil, or at least they thought he was, and so he came to and they were trying to scrub the oil from his skin, but when he told them that he wasn’t white they were shocked. But shocked in the way that, they had just never known anything else, other than just being white. That might also have a certain connection here, meaning the lack of visible queer folks. Now I’m not saying that that’s the whole case at all, but I think that’s certainly a portion of it and that if there could be more visibility of queer folks in the province, and youth and adults that were out about it, then I think that that would really go a long way toward creating a community and a safe space for people to question, or come out about how they feel in terms of gender, orientation, and the whole gamut.”
The current challenge lies in finding money and volunteers. Power has approached all three levels of government seeking financial support, as well as Memorial University. He hopes to obtain private donations as well. The Students’ Union at MUN has expressed enthusiastic support for the endeavor, and they’re planning a recruitment drive to solicit volunteers at the beginning of the fall semester. Power has already scheduled training sessions for September: volunteers will need to undergo 30 hours of training. He’s already gotten some interest, but wants to launch the line with a strong and diverse volunteer roster.
“St. John’s and Newfoundland, it’s not the most diverse place in the world. But it is getting better, for sure.”
“Right now I’m looking for as many as I can get: any age, any orientation, anything! Lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, two-spirited, questioning: everything! Ideally it’d be really great if I could get a cross-section of all kinds of people, as diverse a crowd as I can get. Because St. John’s and Newfoundland, it’s not the most diverse place in the world. But it is getting better, for sure. But I would really like for the volunteers to have a super diverse background, because I find that diversity, especially with a setting like this where you’re actually engaging with a lot of people and talking about all kinds of things – oppression, ageism, ableism, all kinds of isms, and homophobia, transphobia – it’d be really good with a diversity. It’s much more conducive to learning about things that aren’t necessarily situations and ideas and thoughts that you might be that familiar with.”
Power – who will also be pursuing a social work degree as he coordinates the project – doesn’t see the task ahead as a challenge, so much as an idea whose time is long past due.
“I’m gonna make it work,” he says simply. “I don’t even think it sounds that big. People have said ‘oh wow that sounds huge’, and when I think about the outcomes and the change that I think that this will let happen, hopefully it will be huge…so far it’s been great. And nothing that I haven’t really enjoyed doing at all. People have been really supportive.”
As he searches for words, the professional musician in him falls back on a music analogy.
“I feel that it’s kind of like that Faith No More tune called ‘We Care a Lot’ where the old singer Chuck Mosley says “Well it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.” So there should be somewhere where queer people and youth can go to to talk about whatever they have to talk about, on a toll-free anonymous phone line.”
Members of the public interested in volunteering, or assisting with financial support and fundraising, can contact the organizers by email at [email protected] or by checking out the Facebook page.