Not long ago, an LGBTQ2S+ Kahnawa’kehró:non in need of a safe space might not have found one in Kahnawake.
“I think it’s something that so many people need, and I think the community doesn’t realize how much it’s needed,” said Tanner Phillips, a 31-year-old Kahnawa’kehró:non who came out as a trans man at 28.
When he was growing up, Phillips felt he didn’t necessarily have people with whom he could just hang out and discuss what he was going through.
“Everybody wants to feel like they’re not alone,” he said.
So this summer, when he attended an informal drop-in support group started by two psychology students interning at Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS), he voiced his interest in getting involved.
“I wanted to make sure that something like that was available to everyone or anybody who wanted it,” he said.
Nicole Withers, a support counsellor at KSCS who identifies as part of the queer community, saw value in the drop-in group. She recalls that in her work as a counsellor, a young person had asked her why they had to leave the community to find support.
A young Kahnawa’kehró:non may not have a way to get to Montreal or Chateauguay for a group like this, especially if they can’t tell their parents where they want to go or why. That’s to say nothing of the importance of connecting with other Kanien’kehá:ka who are going through the same thing.
“There are a lot of different things that non-Native people don’t understand about what it’s like to be from Kahnawake, living over here, growing up the way we grew up,” said Phillips.
Recognizing the group’s importance, Withers took it upon herself to figure out how to make it a more permanent fixture at KSCS and invited Phillips to be a community facilitator.
“We really wanted to provide this space where people do feel like they fit and that they are welcomed, and they are included,” said Withers.
That can involve discussions on gender and sexuality, but it’s also done through pumpkin carving and movie nights. Withers emphasized the importance of simply seeing oneself reflected in others, especially for young people who feel they don’t fit in anywhere.
The KSCS LGBTQ2S+ drop-in support groups – one for youth and one for adults – meet every second Monday. It’s currently scheduled through the end of the year, but Withers expects it to continue in 2022.
Cole Deer, a 13-year-old transgender teen, attended this week for the first time.
“I was really excited, and I’m really excited still because I get to go again, and it just feels good to have a safe spot, a safe place where I can express myself and not be bullied for being myself,” said Deer.
Deer, who uses “it” and “its” as pronouns, said there are people in Kahnawake who won’t accept those who are LGBTQ2S+, to the point that it can be difficult to be out in public for fear of being misgendered, deadnamed (called by a birth name one no longer uses), or otherwise insulted for expressing oneself.
“If we have more groups like this and more people who go to these groups, we can help each other come out more and express ourselves more,” it said.
“It helped me a lot to get out of my shell because there were people there that I could relate to, and they’re just really welcoming,” said Deer. “It’s like going into, say, a grandparent’s house, and they just baked fresh cookies. It’s like that kind of a vibe, and it just makes you feel so comfortable, and they’re really accepting there, and it’s really fun.”
Phillips is pleased to see young people attending and hopes more will join. He said he hopes community members will spread the word and encourage loved ones to attend.
“Sometimes it’s hard for you as a queer kid sitting there, like, ‘I want to go to this, but I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to tell my parents that I want to go. I don’t know how to tell my friends, Hey, let’s go,’” said Phillips.
“If you’re a parent or a friend of somebody that identifies as LGBTQ, then I think you should try and pass this along because it could save someone.”
The groups will next meet on Monday, November 1, at the KSCS White House. The youth session runs from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., while adults will meet from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Kahnawa’kehró:non in need of more information can contact Nicole Withers at 450-632-6880.
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.