Soup and Substance: Ryerson’s Campus Climate

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On February 23rd, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s Soup and Substance.  The event discussed campus climate in relation to events both on and off campus, centering the voices and experiences of students.

The panel consisted of 6 students with diverse identities but with the common experience of a hostile and unsafe campus climate at times.  Student groups represented on the panel included: The Trans Collective, Muslim Students’ Association, Indigenous Students’ Association, Feminist Collective and Students Supporting Israel.  There was also a student present who spoke about the experience of having a disability on campus.  Before I go any further, I would like to point out that this selection of student groups did not contribute to a safe space for all students to attend and to participate in the panel.

In my representation of the Feminist Collective, I spoke broadly about the structures of misogyny and sexism, and how those have played out for our members this year.  The events I chose to focus on were the threats against women, feminists and specific departments at the University of Toronto in the fall and the visible emergence of a Men’s Issues group at Ryerson.  I spoke about how these events impacted our collective in general terms with a few specific examples of the harassment we experienced.  While I did not use “I” statements, I’m really glad that fellow panellists did as it demonstrated the ways individual interactions contribute to an unsafe campus climate for students.

In discussions about social justice, both on and off campus, we often discuss the structural nature of individual experiences.  We discuss how addressing racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism, etc. at structural and institutional levels will impact individual experiences.  Many solutions to social injustice are based in eradicating these systems of oppression at systemic levels, as they should be, but this panel reminded me that all of these systems live in individuals.  With that being said, one of the ways we can create a safer campus climate is addressing the individual actions of students and faculty.

While the eradication of oppression needs to happen at a systemic level, there are very simple things individuals can do to change students’ experiences of campus climate.  Eradicating systems of oppression are long and hard-fought battles that will continue beyond our time at Ryerson; I commend all student activists who are fighting to address the heart of the matter which is systems of oppressions entwined in institutions.  Ryerson does not have a shortage of these activists, but if we want to see an improvement of student experience, individuals need to do some reflection and change their behaviours.  During the panel, I heard students share heartbreaking stories of their experiences on campus that ultimately reflect the individual choices of students and faculty in how they will interact with students.

Students with service dogs are being told to leave because their dog is scaring people; students without disabilities are taking the accessible seating in lecture halls and when asked to move, claim they got there first; trans students are being harassed for the clothing they wear and are concerned for their safety when they wear what they want; professors are using incorrect pronouns despite being told of the pronouns individual trans students use; students are being spit on and harassed while holding an event on campus; students with disabilities are being told to use the stairs to access the Student Learning Centre; students with disabilities that impact their vision are being told their eyes are scary; women who wear the hijab are being harassed on their way to class.  This is just a few examples.

All of these experiences which impact campus climate and a sense of safety at Ryerson are the result of individual actions.  While micro and macro manifestations of oppression are inherently related, one can change their individual actions.  Everything I described above manifests from the actions of individual people in the Ryerson community and they can change their actions at any time.

While the eradication of systems of oppression at institutional levels and the liberation of peoples affected by those systems is crucial, we can’t wait for widespread change.  Current students are unsafe now and they are impacted daily by the violence I described above.  A partial solution to a safer school climate lives within the individuals who hold privilege and attend/ work at Ryerson.  Those that hold privilege based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, ability, etc., are making this school unsafe through individual actions.  This is violent, unacceptable and we need to do better as a community at Ryerson.

Tie a Red Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree

In 1988 the world was so captivated by the sudden emergence and destruction brought on by an itty-bitty virus that they gave it its own international day, World AIDS Day. Every December 1 the world recognizes what has come and hopes for what will be for those living with and affected by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The World Health Organization (WHO) states that approximately 34 million people have died from HIV/AIDS and that almost 37 million people are currently living with HIV. Additionally, WHO states that there are 2 million new HIV infections each year.

To give some context, HIV is a lentivirus that attacks the immune system and reduces it to the point where an individual cannot defend themselves from other pathogens. Once an individual has reached the last stage of HIV infection, as determined by an extremely low level of white blood cells that leads to the occurrence of more than one opportunistic infection (tuberculosis, pneumonia, etc.) they are diagnosed with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). HIV is obtained through sexual intercourse and blood-to-blood contact with an infected individual, such as sharing infected needles, blood transfusions, and during pregnancy. HIV cannot be contracted through common day-to-day activities such as hugging, kissing, and sharing objects such as food and water. This may seem silly to point out but less than 20 years ago it was still common to be confused about the transmission of HIV. It may still be confusing in certain parts of the world where people are not educated about HIV. All of the confusion that surrounded HIV/AIDS is what led to the paranoia and stigmatization of people living with HIV and in particular homosexuals, sex workers, and intravenous drug users as they were the majority populations the virus was found in early on. Thankfully, due to education and awareness initiatives the confusion and by extension the stigmatization has been decreased, at least in the minority world. In the majority world it can still be dangerous to reveal your HIV status as there is still heavy stigmatization. Fear, stigmatization, and a lack of education are the primary barriers to the treatment and prevention of HIV infection.

While the treatment of HIV has been a long and bumpy journey, the prevention methods have not changed very much. There are few prevention methods for HIV infection but they are very simple. Harm reduction techniques for intravenous drug users, such as sterilizing and not sharing needles, and proper sterilization and disposal of medical equipment will prevent HIV infection. Additionally, for sexually active individuals the best protection is the proper use of male and female condoms. However, there have been recent developments in HIV prevention. This is the use of antiretroviral medication for individuals who are not infected but may be exposed to the virus. A pre-exposure prophylactic, or PrEP, is a once-a-day pill that impedes HIV infection in those exposed to the virus. If taken properly and consistently PrEP has been found to be an effective prevention technique. PrEP works by supplying the body in advance with HIV medications that lower viral levels in the blood, in an individual who is not infected the medication will stop HIV from spreading if they are exposed to it. However, PrEP is not a replacement for condoms or other prevention techniques, it is to be used in conjunction with them as it is not 100% effective. There is only one prevention technique that can claim to be 100% effective and that is abstinence, at least in cases of sexual or drug transmission. Along with prevention techniques there is a psychological side to HIV infection and prevention and Ryerson has been playing around with it for some time.

The psychology department at Ryerson operates the HIV Prevention labs. Dr. Trevor Hart and his associates conduct research on how to prevent HIV transmission among high-risk groups and how to promote quality of life among people living with HIV. Their current research is dealing with how HIV negative men who have sex with men protect themselves from HIV and those men who use alcohol and substance abuse to calm sexual anxiety. Additionally, their research revolves around the psychological aspects of sexual interaction, such as the courage and strength it takes to say no to someone who doesn’t want to use a condom when you do. Sex can be intimidating and sometimes we go along with what the other person wants even though we feel differently. If you don’t know the HIV status of your partner you should use a condom, be selfish and use a condom.

It is not surprising that Ryerson puts so much thought into HIV prevention, it has been educating its students on prevention methods for some time. In the 1980’s and 90’s Lynn Morrison, a professor of anthropology, headed education seminars and workshops to educate students on HIV and safe sex. This included practical information and experiences such as how to properly use a condom. At one time Ryerson had an AIDS awareness week and even a mascot, Condom Man, a giant penis with a condom on walked our halls handing out contraceptives. There was also the AIDS Education Project, which was a peer service out of Pittman Hall that provided students with AIDS information and support for those living with HIV. This is something that has survived time and can still be found as part of Ryerson Health Promotion (JOR03 and JOR04). However, there is something that has not survived time here at Ryerson, at least not to my knowledge, and that is the outright promotion of safe sex. It may seem outdated and common knowledge but how many students really use condoms or think that they will contract HIV if they don’t? HIV doesn’t seem like a threat until it’s right in your face. Moreover, we wouldn’t need an HIV prevention lab if HIV were not a problem. HIV is still very much alive in Toronto and Canada; 21% of the HIV positive people don’t know they have it and everyday 7 Canadians are infected with HIV. We need to think about the implications of our sexual habits and we need to have safe sex.

I use the Ryerson Archives for my Ryerson related research and as I was sifting through the AIDS related newspaper clippings I came across an article about a man named Steven Bailey. In 1992 Bailey spoke as part of the Nursing Students Association AIDS Education Conference. Bailey related the feelings that he had when he was diagnosed with HIV and the pain that it caused him to be labeled as positive. At this time in Canada HIV was heavily stigmatized and considered a death sentence as there was no viable treatment available. In the beginning Bailey told people that he had cancer because he found that he got more respect that way, people treated him better thinking he was dying of cancer rather than AIDS. Bailey believed he would beat AIDS, at a time when there was no hope that was all he had. Everyone living with HIV or AIDS needs hope and they need support. Someone infected with HIV is not the child of a lesser God, they deserve love and they deserve life. Bailey was 31 when the article was written and all he wanted was to live to his 35 birthday. I cannot say what happened to Steven Bailey but I can say that I hope he and anyone living with HIV is able to live their life to the extent they wish. HIV is no longer a death sentence and should not be treated as such; we should not continue to stigmatize those who live with HIV.

People living with HIV or AIDS do not need pity they need support. I call on Ryerson and its health committees to be vocal on campus. We should be informing students and helping them to be confident and safe in their sexual practices. We should also be supportive of those living with HIV, why make it harder for someone to find support? Lastly, I want to know what happened to Condom Man.

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Honouring with Silence, Shouting for Survivors: Discussing the Trans Day of Remembrance

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Last week, the RSU Trans Collective hosted the event, Honouring with Silence, Shouting for Survivors:  Discussing the Trans Day of Remembrance.  The Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) takes place yearly on November, 20th.  These days are often marked with vigils to honour those taken by transphobic and transmisogynistic violence.  More recently, these events have moved towards honouring those lost by celebrating their lives.

The event was an opportunity to come together for a meal, panel and discussion about what the Trans Day of Remembrance, what it means, what does it do, what does it fail to do.  The panellists included: ki, Rosalyn Forrester and Jasbinda (Jassie) Sekhon.  All of the panellists spoke eloquently and honestly about their experiences with the Trans Day of Remembrance.  While the panellists come from different places and backgrounds, all expressed complex relationships with the Trans Day of Remembrance, and how this event impacts their communities.

A big contention about Trans Day of Remembrance can be brought forward in a single question; what about the other 364 days of the year?  The City of Toronto held a flag raising this year with councillors speaking to the issue of violence against trans people.  Toronto needs to be talking about this violence more than one day a year and make efforts to prevent these deaths.  Toronto being in allyship is more than raising a flag and gathering once a year, it’s actively dismantling and challenging the systems and culture that allow transphobic and transmisogynistic violence to occur and continue.

With that being said, many losses in the trans community are not from blatant transphobic and transmisogynistic physical violence at the hands of another person.  Many of these losses are at the hands of systemic issues those outside the trans community may fail to see on a daily basis.  Transphobia runs in more than just individuals, it runs in the very systems that dictate peoples’ lives.  Transphobia in systems results in unemployment, poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health issues, suicide, isolation, etc., all of which kill people.  All of the panellists reiterated the need to honour those who are murdered by systemic issues, not just by individuals.  While these losses to the community occur in different forms, they are lives taken too soon and losses to the community.

Several Trans Day of Remembrance events have moved towards a more celebratory space that focuses on healing.  One of the panellists described Trans Day of Remembrance as a “slit your wrist” type of event, one that is depressing and leaves little hope or healing in a world full of transphobia.  The event also brought up many questions I would encourage my fellow cisgender people to consider when they attend, post or tweet about Trans Day of Remembrance: why do we only talk about trans people when they’re gone?  Why aren’t we celebrating all of the amazing things trans people are doing in the present?  Why are we only centering trans experiences once a year?  Why are we not making changes to prevent these deaths?

It’s time to celebrate, honour, and ally with trans folks for all 365 days of the year, not just one.

It’s a Devastating Thing to Forget

It seems September is always about mixers; a party that every student association wants you to go to and wants you to partake in. Ironically I went to my first mixer in my last year at Ryerson. RyePRIDE, an Equity Service Group, represents the voice of the Queer and Trans community at Ryerson, hosted a mixer this past week as part of the Equity Services Orientation Week. If this mixer is just a taste then I like the way RyePRIDE parties. Dirty bingo with dirty prizes, drag performances by Church St’s Divine Darling, educational trivia, and everyone’s favourite: free condoms and food. The dim lights, loud music, sounds of sex, and group swearing made for an exciting night. And buttons! So what else does a student party need? Rainbow coloured penis shaped shot glasses? They had those too! Unfortunately, I didn’t win anything but I’m hoping they will have those shot glasses at their next event because that’s what I need, and maybe the vibrator.

 
There’s more to RyePRIDE than just fun parties, they are trying to create an inclusive and open community that is safe for all its members and have been doing so since 1977. They make this well known at their events by pointing out that discrimination towards anyone is not tolerated. RyePRIDE works with the Queer and Trans community at large to provide support, advocacy, education, and a little fun for Ryerson students. In addition, RyePRIDE has an open door and ear, so if anyone wants their help they are available for assistance.

 
One support service that Ryerson offers for students is their Crisis line (416-979-5195) and Centre for Student Development and Counseling in Jorgenson 07, where any student can get immediate support if they are in a crisis. There is also a lesbian, gay, bi, and trans youth line (416-962-9688), which is a local crisis line that provides peer support to youth. In addition, the Sherbourne Health Centre (416-324-4180) provides comprehensive health care to the LGBTQ community. The services offered by Ryerson and RyePRIDE came about as a response to the rampant homophobia that plagued Ryerson’s campus in the past which still affects students today.

 

Digging in the Ryerson Library Archives (on the third floor of the library) reveals some horrifying realities. While skimming through 30 years of Ryerson newspaper clippings I found far too numerous accounts of dangerous homophobia on Ryerson’s campus. From the beginning, with the first meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Men’s Club in 1980- which received bomb threats and forced the group underground- you will see a history of hatred that tormented Ryerson. In 1982, the club received a new space in Jorgenson and this was met with vandalism and ultimately set fire to. Throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s and into the 2000’s the queer students of Ryerson were terrorized by peers- verbal harassment, hate mail, threatening phone calls, destruction of queer rights material, and death threats were day-to-day occurrences.

vandals paint gay office in fourth attack this year, dana robbins ryer, apr 6 82In the fall of 1991 the homophobia pot began to boil over with three physical attacks of students on campus. The first, in a library washroom where a female student who was putting up posters for the new Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians of Ryerson club (BGALOR) was cornered by three girls and assaulted verbally and physically. The second, another female student was physically assaulted by four men outside her classroom after admitting to being gay in a class discussion. Details about the third attack were lost in the files, but needless to say these three attacks were the catalyst that pushed then Ryerson president Terence Grier to initiate a study of the homophobia on Ryerson’s campus. A study led by George Bielmeier, a social work professor and head of the Advisory Committee on Homophobia, which was also created as a response to these attacks.

img002After eight years of research, the study was released and everyone knew the realities of homophobia at Ryerson. The finger was pointed in the direction of business and engineering students, however, all of the faculties shared responsibility in spreading homophobia, even the university itself. Ryerson had a hand in the homophobic attitudes that were present on campus, but this was the attitude of the time and Ryerson made strides to remove homophobia from its grounds and still does. However, the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world and when a gay students’ association has to boycott its own school’s department for harassment and discrimination because they dismissed their complaints, there is a problem. When a school newspaper is allowed to publish anti-gay commentaries and quotations that attack and hurt members of its own community, there is a problem. When staff are denied health benefits for being openly gay and have to watch their partner die because they can’t afford medication, there is a problem. When students are terrified to be who they are because they are afraid of their peers and don’t feel protected by their school, there is a problem.

ryer nov 27 92Ryerson has its share of problems and thankfully they take care of them. Throughout its history, Ryerson has tried to change the attitudes on this campus. In 1986 Ryerson became the first university in Canada to offer a credit course on gay and lesbian studies as well as being one of the early institutions to offer same-sex health benefits in Ontario. Ryerson acknowledged the homophobia that had taken root and now every student and staff are established the same rights. Because of this we are fortunate enough not to experience the level of day-to-day violence that once occurred within Ryerson. That being said, homophobia is still a part of our world and with the vandalism of the RyePRIDE offices in 2008 and the hate crimes against Ryerson students in 2011, it is clearly still a problem.

img015One event in particular that shocked the Ryerson community was the violent murder of graduate Christopher Skinner in 2009. Christopher was an openly gay man and his murder was speculated as being a hate crime. Christopher was an active member of Ryerson’s community and now RyePRIDE offers a bursary in his memory – any self identified gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or trans student who feels they have contributed to challenging homophobia or transphobia can apply for the $500 Christopher Skinner Memorial Bursary.

img014This truncated journey through Ryerson’s history has taught me something, for which, I am very fortunate. I live and love in a place that fought and changed public opinion, a place where we can feel safe. I still look over my shoulder because it’s not over yet, but there’s hope that it will be. Going through the 30 odd years of Ryerson’s history has exposed to me and hopefully to others events that we can never forget. The work and pain that has occurred on this campus is too important to be lost in a dusty file at the bottom of a drawer. Thank you to the people of history, who rallied not only for their own opportunities but for mine and for every lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans, queer, two spirited, questioning, asexual, intersex, and any other student. To all of your stories that will not be lost or forgotten to a bottom drawer.

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