A Space to Feel at Home
Building Community and Connections within the 2SLGBTQIA+ Community
By Jenn Thornhill Verma
”When I interviewed to come to Memorial University in 2006,” begins Ailsa Craig, a professor in Memorial’s department of sociology, there was someone on my interview committee who could tell—clearly this is someone who is a member of the community. That person was also a member of the community, so they arranged to host—obviously not as part of any standard job interview—a tea party at somebody’s house. They said, ‘Find every lesbian you know, bring them here; show [Ailsa] everyone’s not straight here.’”
“2SLGBTQIA+ communities have had to rely on informal networks,” says Craig, “[But] access to informal networks is inherently inequitable. What if we had a hub where people can come together to help strengthen our communities?”
Enter, Quadrangle Community Centre, or Quad, a nonprofit turned charity launched by co-founders Ailsa Craig and Charlie Murphy in 2015. The centre is virtual, but its services fulfill real needs to address and prevent the systematic barriers faced by the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Informative webinars, informal tea times, opportunities for research, creative outlets—these are examples of how Quad has created a shared space with, and for, the community. The charity acts as a hub for community organizations and members across the province, while also connecting people to public education sessions, employment resources and social opportunities that are crucial for addressing systemic discrimination and supporting strong community.
Connections between Quadrangle and Memorial University of Newfoundland are particularly strong—Craig and several other board members are faculty, graduates or current students. Quadrangle’s work overlaps with the research, teaching and learning, as well as public engagement mission of the university, too. “Universities are centres of knowledge creation and learning." says Craig, "In my view, building a community centre helps support, build and spread the work and knowledge that we have as a community in this province, a way to make visible the knowledge we have and the work we do as a community. Having a public space changes the framework we have for understanding."
When it comes to supporting strong community, attitudes globally are improving, but there’s substantial room for progress and “Canada is no exception”—this finding from a March 2019 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) brief examining issues LGBT people face, as well as policies to improve inclusivity. While the report praises Canada’s legal prohibition of discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and the legalization of same-sex marriage, it finds structural discrimination still exists in the workplace and society at-large. There’s minimal comparable data for all members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community to understand how deep the discrimination goes. And Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) face racism within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community as elsewhere.
“The story Ailsa was sharing about the hiring committee, that’s a powerful story,” says Sulaimon Giwa, a professor in Memorial’s School of Social Work, and Quadrangle board member. “It’s powerful that somebody was able to take that responsibility on, to let [Ailsa] know, people like them also exist in the province. [But] with my own experiences, it also speaks to the lack of intersections. When I came in 2017, I was still feeling that absence or gap of people to be able to say, ‘We should find people in the community who are LGBTQ-identified to let [Sulaimon] know there is a community around him and he will not be isolated or alone.’ That wasn’t there. So it also speaks to the tension that exists within the LGBTQ-community, not just in Newfoundland and Labrador, but writ large, when it comes to issues of race and how that doesn’t get discussed.”
Giwa knows this all too well—his doctoral work at York University in Toronto (research he continues now at Memorial) explored the experiences of, and resilience of gay men of colour, to racism. “I’m not surprised I didn’t receive that kind of welcome,” says Giwa, referencing Craig’s tea party, “but it’s telling in terms of the absence and what that means for someone like myself coming into Newfoundland and Labrador.”
A year after Giwa arrived in St. John’s, some 500 kilometres west, the town of Springdale was making national news for all of the wrong reasons. While the town council would go on to support the community’s first Pride Week that same year, the council was receiving an overwhelming amount of bad press for twice rejecting its local high school’s pitch for a rainbow crosswalk to be painted in the town. Long recognized as a symbol of diversity, the rainbow would show solidarity with the LGBTQ community, argued the high school’s gender-sexuality alliance. This kind of visible marker can serve as a barometer for how far a community has come toward acceptance, and inclusivity too.
"That’s why it’s important Quadrangle finds a permanent home," says Charlie Murphy, its cofounder. When Murphy arrived in St. John’s in 2009 from Halifax, his activism helped him find his community. At the time, Murphy became involved in the St. John’s chapter of PFLAG, formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which refers to itself as “the first and largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies.” Today, Murphy is still a co-facilitator for the PFLAG-St. John's support group meetings.
But five years ago, when Murphy and Craig founded Quadrangle Community Centre, Newfoundland and Labrador was one of only three provinces in Canada without such a centre. “For me, having brick-and-mortar is validation: it’s validation of our city, of our province, of our community at-large. It’s basically saying ‘you exist’ and ‘you’re welcome, this is your space, it’s yours.’ We’re always seen as the marginalized, and having our own space would show we’re not marginalized."
That’s why something like a painted rainbow crosswalk matters. It’s a symbol of inclusivity that exists in everyday life in a shared space. When envisioning the kind of physical space Quadrangle could have, the centre’s name offers inspiration. A quadrangle is a shared space or communal courtyard created when a grouping of buildings back onto one another. Creating a communal space would go a long way to cementing Quad’s work in the province.
“A lot of 2SLGBTQIA+ services and support are directed toward crises,” says Craig, picking up on Murphy’s point about a community that’s often seen as marginalized. Without question, crisis supports and interventions are needed. A June 2019 report of the Standing Committee on Health (a Canadian parliamentary committee) examining the health of LGBTQIA2 communities in Canada found they face numerous health inequities. For example, they are more likely to develop mental health disorders, have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide. Compared to heterosexual and cisgender youth (those who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth), LGBTQIA2 youth are at greater risk of homelessness too. These health inequities are exacerbated when other identity factors and determinants of health—such as age, ethnic origin, income and access to health care—intersect with gender identity and sexual orientation too.
For its part, Quadrangle has adopted foundational anti-racism and anti-oppression measures, says Murphy.
And he envisions a centre that’s community - rather than crisis-driven. “Community isn’t something that’s there only in crisis,” agrees Craig, “community can be there on Tuesday because you’re going for a coffee. If you define a community through its crisis alone, then you have a definition of the community that contributes to them not being seen as equal participants in society.” Quadrangle is working to cut through the discrimination and stigmatization 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals face, while granting the community the opportunity to be at the centre of their own lives. “You can be a member of a marginalized community but be in the centre of your own life. But there’s not a lot out there, structurally, to support being in the centre of your own life,” says Craig.
With the sparsity of Newfoundland and Labrador’s population over a sizable geography (much of it rural and remote), having an online presence is integral. Before the charity existed, Giwa says, “I was disappointed with the lack of visibility of community representation and what that meant for people who identify as LGBTQ. If you can’t identify a space, then that leaves questions around how we’re perceived. I felt that, as a member of the community, but also as someone who is racialized.”
Craig says: “Quad’s role is to help support and bring together the fabulous work that is happening, and has been happening for a long time in this province. With all that work accomplished, having a shared space that makes the work of our community more visible is a logical next step.” Even without yet having a physical home, Quadrangle Community Centre offers the 2SLGTBQIA+ community a space where their diversity of voices is heard. With a physical space, the community can be more visible too.
Learn more and become involved by visiting https://www.thequadnl.com.
Still images of Craig, Murphy and Giwa were adapted by the author from video interviews. All other images are by Jenn Thornhill Verma.
Jenn Thornhill Verma is a freelance journalist, landscape painter and non-profit healthcare executive from Newfoundland and Labrador, living in Ottawa with her family. She is a proud descendent of a long line of fishers. She is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, holds a Master of Science in Medicine (Memorial University of Newfoundland) and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction and Bachelor of Journalism-Biology (University of King’s College).