For LGBTQ+ immigrants and refugees arriving in Canada, the journey to feeling at home in a new country is as much outward as it is inward. Despite the relief of a fresh start in Canada, many arrive alone and are at higher risk of social isolation. For those coming from countries with conservative social values, rejection and discrimination from members of their cultural community in Victoria is still a reality. COVID-19 has made it more difficult to connect and build community given restrictions and limited access to support systems back home.
“Most queer spaces in Victoria try their best to be inclusive. However, the queer community is not immune to the social forces that shape our society,” says Joban Dhanoa, co-facilitator at the Q+ Crew. “Racism and discrimination can persist, making it additionally challenging to feel like your whole identity is honoured and seen.”
Enter the Q+ Crew. Started in September 2020 by the ICA’s Youth and Family Services team, the Q+ Crew offers weekly support group sessions for LGBTQ+ immigrant and BIPOC Victorian youth. They aim to build community, process experiences and emotions while envisioning a more inclusive city. The idea came from a need to overcome a gap in mental health services specifically for LGBTQ+ immigrants and refugees, as well as recognizing the same need existing within the wider queer and trans BIPOC community in Victoria
“We really want to prioritize having a space where our participants can show up and have their voices are heard and honoured, without them having to compromise any part of their identity,” says co-facilitator and Settlement Youth Worker, Robin McGeough.
Finding the right language to describe emotions and experiences can be difficult, especially when talking about identity, community and sense of belonging. By using art, the group encourages participants to move beyond analysis towards embodying and feeling their emotions through creating and collaborating.
“At the Q+ Crew, the process is just as important as the final product,” says Joban. “Regardless of what the product is, it’s beautiful because it comes from the heart and tells your story.”
For many participants coming into the program, art has already found itself an important tool in their mental health kit. “It’s one of my favourite coping mechanisms,” shares one participant. “It’s really helped me through my depression, learning about my ethnicity and my sexuality. I’ve learned a lot through it.”
In other sessions, group members spent time making collages, ‘identity portraits’. Using the metaphor of an iceberg, the group reflected on the parts of themselves they reveal and hide in different spaces.
Through art and group discussions, the group makes a concerted effort to break down ideas of what being queer and trans ‘should’ look like. Instead, the group focuses on validating participant’s own ideas of what their identity looks like.
“At the Q+ Crew you can be your own kind of queer, whatever that looks like for you,” Joban adds.
Local queer artists have also joined the online program to share their stories, inspirations and tips when it comes to processing their mental health. Victorian Two Spirit drag performer Eddi Licious shared how performance helped them reconcile their understanding of their gender and cultural identity – a theme many participants touched on in their pieces.
Both Robin and Joban are grateful for cohesion the group has developed over time and the role art has played in their programs. What started as a huddle of strangers on Zoom has become a community of joy and support. While home and belonging are not always synonymous, the group hopes to continue to serve as a place for immigrant and BIPOC LGBTQ+ Victorians to build community, process and support their mental health.