Year of the Queer: Strut Vancouver and Rainbow Refugee Society offer a lifeline to oppressed LGBT people

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      Imagine a walk-a-thon in stilettos. It sounds painful, but that's the point of the Foundation of Hope's annual Strut Vancouver fundraising stroll. 

      According to the foundation's vice president, Chad Wilkinson, the goal is to "walk a mile in somebody else's shoes"—namely LGBT people in other countries facing vicious persecution for their sexual orientation and gender expression.

      "For them, doing something like wearing a heel could be very dangerous," Wilkinson told the Straight by phone. "It could be lethal in some countries."

      This year's walk from Sunset Beach Park along the seawall takes place on June 9.

      By donning heels to benefit groups that serve LGBT refugees, Vancouverites might experience a bit of discomfort, but Wilkinson sees this as a way of acknowledging those who are suffering abroad.

      "At the same time, the stiletto represents a metaphor for us," he noted. "Even in our own society, it wasn't until last year that we actually made it illegal for employers to force women to wear these shoes in the workplace."

      There's plenty of fun and laughter for those who participate in Strut Vancouver, but there's also a serious underlying message.
      Craig Takeuchi

      That's not to say there aren't plenty of laughs at Strut Vancouver, as well as heart-wrenching tales about the plight of LGBT people in countries like Russia and Uganda. The event begins with a welcome from a member of the Squamish Nation.

      Since its inception in 2014, the Foundation of Hope has distributed more than $150,000 to various organizations serving LGBT refugees across the country. It's mostly thanks to its popular flagship event near English Bay.

      "In fact, Inland Refugee Society received a grant from us to assist them with their safe house that they established in Richmond for LGBT housing for newcomers," Wilkinson said. "That's one example of housing that we have contributed for."

      Rainbow Refugee Society helps make connections

      Wilkinson and his friends at the Foundation of Hope are big supporters of Rainbow Refugee Society, a Vancouver registered charity that oversees the Rainbow Refugee Assistance Project.

      This is a "blended private sponsorship agreement in partnership with Immigration, Refugees Citizenship Canada", according to the society's website, which has resulted in LGBT refugees being sponsored in more than 14 Canadian municipalities.

      Rainbow Refugee Society was cofounded by lawyer Rob Hughes and Chris Morrissey, who had to take the government to court because it wouldn't allow her partner to immigrate to Canada.

      According to a city staff report, the Rainbow Refugee Society is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

      It's one of 15 groups being honoured as part of Vancouver's "Year of the Queer" as they commemorate milestone anniversaries.

      In addition to helping groups sponsor refugees, Rainbow Refugee Society offers support to LGBT people who've come to Canada. This includes those on student visas, temporary foreign workers, and those lacking documentation to be in the country.

      "We've had folks tell us that they slept on the beach for the first three nights because they didn't know what to do or where to go," Morrissey told the Straight by phone.

      The Rainbow Refugee Society encourages people to form a "circle of hope" to sponsor a refugee. These circles of good Samaritans raise money, complete application forms, create a settlement plans, communicate with the person prior to their arrival, and offer encouragement and emotional support.

      The circles also assist the refugee once the person has made it to Canada. This can involve teaching the person about the transit system and community resources, going shopping with the person for household goods and food, and assisting in finding employment.

      "Some circles are all gay men, some are all lesbians, but we also have mixed circles," Morrissey said. "We have allies. There is one circle, for example, where all the women are straight and all the men are gay."

      She estimated that about 25 people have been sponsored to come to Vancouver and about 120 people across the country since the program was launched in 2011.

      Coun. Tim Stevenson and former Qmunity executive director CJ Rowe helped bring about a new home for Vancouver's LGBT resource centre.
      Craig Takeuchi

      Coun. Tim Stevenson delivers much-needed housing

      One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that housing is available to a sponsored immigrant for 12 months after their arrival. That's a requirement of sponsorship.

      "These days, most people in our circles either have one-bedroom apartments or one-bedroom condos, so it's impossible for them initially to provide housing for them while they look around and try to figure out where they would like to live," Morrissey said.

      To address this issue, she sought help from Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson, who's long been an advocate for the LGBT community.

      Several years ago, council approved a $50,000 grant to the LGBT support group Qmunity to explore how it could create a new centre in Vancouver.

      That was followed up with a $7-million grant last year, which mostly came from a community amenity contribution from the rezoning of Burrard Place. On top of Qmunity's centre will be 100 units of affordable housing at the corner of Davie and Burrard streets.

      At Qmunity's 14th annual breakfast for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia on May 17, Stevenson revealed that this subsidized housing will be operated by the McLaren Housing Society.

      "I can now also announce that some of this subsidized housing will be given to the Rainbow Refugee Society for permanent housing for GLBTQ refugees fleeing homophobic countries," Stevenson said. "Upon arrival, refugees will have temporary one-year housing while sponsors look for permanent housing. It means we can guarantee immediate housing for refugees when they escape queer-hating countries."

      The McLaren Housing Society already provides housing for HIV-positive people and others with complex health needs at two other buildings near St. Paul's Hospital.

      Prior to his speech, Stevenson told the Straight by phone that he knew Ted McLaren, who died of complications from AIDS in 1986 and for whom the society is named. The met at UBC when Stevenson was the president of Gay UBC.

      "I used to visit him in hospital," Stevenson recalled. "So when he died, his parents, who I got to know, said 'we want a legacy.' I said 'great'."

      After Stevenson became an NDP MLA in 1996, he worked behind the scenes to obtain provincial funding for the McLaren Housing Society, as well as for the Dr. Peter Centre. This has dramatically improved the lives of many Vancouver residents living with HIV.

      For Morrissey, Stevenson's work will not only help alleviate the housing crunch for LGBT refugees, it will also put them in close contact with Qmunity. This can help these newcomers make an easier transition to living in Canada.

      "Yes, we had a lot of struggles, back in the '90s especially, and we organized," she said. "We did what we could but at that stage, we were not being threatened with imprisonment or death."
      However, in many other countries, she added, they can face horrific consequences.

      "So I think it's incumbent on us who have this privilege of being here and living safely—and more or less freely here—that we look beyond our own borders," Morrissey said.