-Written by Judy Piercey
Corey Wyness is grateful to be a cultural navigator, helping other REACH Immigrant & Refugee Initiative (RIRI) cultural navigators understand the challenges of LGBTQ people, especially youth, living in Edmonton.
But he's also grateful to be part of the cultural navigator group himself because it's a learning experience for him, too.
"For me, it has been such a beautiful learning experience about those cultures. I was worried when I got there. I was the only white person and sometimes that can be a little intimidating because we have some strong personalities here. And, just to top it off, I'm gay. At first, I was defined by my sexuality. But after the first meeting, I knew it was going to be OK. Right from the get go, that insecurity went away."
Through his role as a cultural navigator with the RIRI project, Corey has learned what information he needs to provide, and how to provide it, which in turn has helped him develop training presentations for Muslim clergy, community leaders and social serving agencies.
The training he provides is designed to prevent stigma and discrimination against LGBTQ members of immigrant and refugee communities, especially young people. He knows his presentations are a success by the immediate feedback he receives from people who work with agencies serving those communities. They tell him they don't know how to respond to LGBTQ clients and are relieved to know they can call on him as a resource.
The impact of Corey's training, and the fact that it is highly valued, is a testimony to the deep connection the cultural navigators enjoy with their own communities. They invite Corey to speak, present, and train, because they know what will resonate with their communities and with whom.
"It's kind of a hot topic. I'm getting the gatekeepers to help me with presentations so that they can see that it's not me, a non-Muslim," he says, explaining that the cultural navigators' own track record of community leadership and the respect they have earned in their communities, open doors for him that he, as an outsider, would never be able to approach. "Whenever I make a presentation, somebody always comes up to me and says 'we'd like to talk with you.'"
The other cultural navigators admit that the topic of LGBTQ is one of the most sensitive and difficult in almost all of their communities. They stress the message that LGBTQ people's rights are protected by law in Canada.
One cultural navigator asked not to be identified, explaining that his community doesn't even want to mention the subject. "It's a no-go area. A no-go area. Anyone practising that faces isolation."
"The isolation and fear that an LGBTQ youth will bring disgrace to the family often leads to the breakup of the family," Corey says. He estimates that about half of the 300 homeless youth in Edmonton are LGBTQ who were either kicked out of their homes or forced to leave because of name-calling or violence. He tries to intervene for the sake of the youth's safety.
"If they get on the street, there's crime, there's violence. They get into the sex trade."
The worst outcome is suicide. "This year alone, I've lost about 17 people to suicide. And my interventions since January, I'm up to 31. It's so under-reported. It's just not talked about."
His goal is to work with families to try to accept their son's or daughter's sexuality, even though their religion and culture may consider it taboo. He's very proud to have kept an Ethiopian family together after a series of conversations that started with dinner at the family's home.
"I made them ask me questions. I said 'Ask me. What are you afraid of?' They asked 'Is he sick? Will he go to jail?' On the second visit, more questions. We just let the youth talk."
Corey credits the cultural navigators with helping him keep that family together. "The RIRI project is so networked and connected. They have a resource in me just as I do in them. That part for me would not have happened if I had not had that support. We're keeping families together. We're keeping people from killing themselves. The suicide rate is huge in those communities."
One of the cultural navigators credits Corey with helping him to change his own attitude. "We had good conversations where we talked out acceptance and feelings. Those conversations really helped settle things down," he says. Nonetheless, he requests anonymity in discussing the topic because he fears backlash from his community.
"I used to think that [LGBTQ] was a choice, that people chose to live that way. But then I started to think, 'Maybe it's not a choice, maybe they are really meant to be like that.' Now, I say that we should all practice tolerance, respect, so that we should all be able to get along."
Corey relies on cultural navigators to help him serve LGBTQ clients who are double-marginalized: by race and sexuality in mainstream society and then again by sexuality within their own communities.
"Just being LGBTQ is often hard. Then the racism piece comes into play. That's two strikes against you. So, you already feel oppressed. And then when they're in their own culture, being queer goes against their religion. It's 'Here we go again,' and it's just so hard on your mental health."
One of the young men that Corey supports is originally from Lebanon and is struggling to talk with his family because he knows that his parents and their community will be ashamed and hurt.
"I know that my dad will blame himself," he says thoughtfully. "He will think he wasn't a good enough father or that he wasn't around enough."
The young man, now in his 20s and living on his own, admits that when he was younger he considered hiding his sexuality and marrying a woman to protect his parents from the shame of having an LGBTQ son.
"My parents don't know anything about [LGBTQ] people. It's just not something that they have ever encountered," he says. "I love them and respect them so much for the love they give us. They worked so hard, every day, for over 20 years to provide for us. I'm so grateful. But part of me wishes that they hadn't worked so hard. I wish they had integrated more into Canadian society so that they would know other parents with gay sons."
Corey finds hope in the success of their work, even though he knows there's a long way to go. He tells a story of a neighbour who threw rocks at him when he visited a family to help a youth communicate with his parents about his sexuality.
"We've got over 150 LGBTQ youth living in the river valley under bridges. They are amazing kids and they shouldn't be there." He pauses. "We've got Syrian refugees coming who are LGBTQ. There has to be some kind of support for them. We can't just get them here and give them a winter coat."