Proud to Shine: Lee Thomas
Fredericton-based therapist advocates for trans people in health care system
Published by CBC Communications
Note: This is the final in our Proud to Shine series shining the spotlight on 2SLGBTQ+ folks who are making a difference in their communities, industries and everyday life in Atlantic Canada.
Run by therapist Lee Thomas, it was created in part to address what they view as a gap in the health care system and their commitment to care for trans patients.
"I ended up working with a lot of trans people as well, because people want to work with people who understand their experiences," Thomas says.
As a non-binary person, Thomas understands the importance of catered, kind health care all too well. In 2018, a poignant essay they wrote about an experience with a transphobic doctor was shortlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize, shedding light on the difficulty of navigating what they feel is an outdated health care system.
When they realized reporting might not be enough, they shifted gears after graduating, writing the LSAT and looking into law school. Systemic change was still at the forefront of their mind: they had the lofty ambition of challenging flawed systems from within, making good care easier to access and the mistreatment of patients less acceptable.
As they explain it, there currently isn't a good way to hold health care practitioners accountable when they misuse their power or are transphobic towards patients.
"We can do all the education in the world about providing good care to people," Thomas says. "But a lot of the time, people are being mistreated because there are absolutely no consequences to mistreating people."
They were eventually hit with the harsh reality that legal and medical systems are hard to change — and they're often not willing to budge. After realizing that going to law school might not impact people as profoundly as they hoped, Thomas shifted their focus towards working within individuals.
"I was like, 'If I'm just trying to change things on a very structural level, I'm gonna get chewed up and spit out,' " they say.
Thomas worked in the mental health field in a variety of capacities after their undergrad, including as an employment counselor and a motivational speaker. Working in clinical therapy is a new chapter in their career: in 2020, Thomas graduated with a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Calgary, and has been working with clients since.
By opening a practice that welcomes everyone, they're able to impact lives directly.
Thomas, who grew up in Northern Alberta, returned to New Brunswick after finishing their masters, feeling a sense of community in the city and wanting to build a life there.
"This is where my community of friends is," Thomas says.
Now, Thomas primarily works with clients who have eating disorders and body image concerns. They value meeting clients where they're at, placing comfort and compassion at the forefront of their sessions. The therapist says that, while their work is fulfilling, it's frustrating to practice within the constraints of a flawed healthcare system.
Thomas explains that even the best-intentioned health care workers can't necessarily advocate for their clients the way they'd like. Queer and trans-informed health care workers are still faced with a lack of resources, and systemic barriers can make accessing care difficult for those who need it.
"I would love to be working as a therapist in a mental health unit in a hospital where my services are publicly available. That just doesn't exist for me," they say.
Thomas spends Pride each year with their queer community: the close friends they've made in New Brunswick throughout the years. For them, Pride doesn't need to be celebrated at an event or formal gathering — celebrating can be as simple as being comfortable with a group of close friends you love.
Proud to Shine highlights 2SLGBTQ+ folks who are making a difference in their communities, industries and everyday life. Throughout the summer, we shared some of their stories. You can also find the stories shared on the CBC East Coast Instagram channel.
- PROUD TO SHINE: Mi'kmaw educator and advocate ensures two-spirit representation is present at Pride events
- PROUD TO SHINE: Co-founder of The Black Collective Media finds joy in P.E.I.'s BIPOC and queer communities
- PROUD TO SHINE: Founder of St. John's Gay Men's Chorus lifts voices in LBGTQ+ community
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER - GARY WEEKES
Gary Weekes is a freelance photographer based in Fredericton, N.B. His commissioned work is varied, working with clients such as: CBC, RBC and The Fredericton Playhouse. Gary's Fine Art Photography is represented by The Gallery on Queen. You can find him on Instagram at @garysweekes.