Halifax transgender woman holds holiday open house to support others
'Some people are estranged from their families when they reveal that they're trans,' says Laura Shepherd
Each Christmas, Laura Shepherd holds a holiday open house at her home in Halifax for queer and transgender people who need a warm and inviting place to be.
Laura is a trans woman who transitioned several years ago. She has two sons and used to be married.
She told CBC Radio's Mainstreet there are many reasons why trans and queer people do not spend time with family during the holidays.
"Some people are estranged from their families when they reveal that they're trans — some people can't accept that," Shepherd said.
"Some people, you go home and you're expected to behave differently, fulfill a different role, and people come up with all sorts of reasons why they think that's appropriate."
She says those actions are counter to the spirit of the season.
"People get misgendered. They get their pronouns wrong, not respected. People, parents, siblings, family won't respect their names. And, so, you may choose not to subject yourself to that kind of an environment because it's harmful."
Holidays are 'about the people'
Shepherd says she's careful not to mimic a more stereotypical style of family Christmas when she holds her holiday open house.
"I find it's important to reinvent it. I put up a few Christmas decorations. I don't have a tree this year like I've had in the past. Sometimes that creates expectations and it places people in roles that you don't expect to place them in," she said.
"Maybe the holidays isn't about the decorations and the coloured lights. The holidays is about the people. You make the space available, you give people the opportunity and you support them when they come."
Shepherd says a typical gathering at her house over the holidays is quaint — often one-on-one or a small group. She says she was reluctant to give up the tradition of a large holiday meal, but she doesn't want to alienate anyone.
"I have the privilege of knowing a lot of people who are trans or gendered non-conforming who are younger than me," she said.
"And so my transition is made easier by their mentorship. And there aren't a lot of people my age who get mentored by people half my age. As far as experiences go, that's cool."
Youth need more than just 'lukewarm support'
Shepherd says there are several research projects in Europe and North America trying to quantify the trans experience — including a project in Ontario called Trans Pulse, which looks at the impact of social exclusion and discrimination on the health of trans people.
"These sorts of studies reveal that, unsurprisingly, those kids who don't have a lot of support experience a lot of struggle in their transitioning," Shepherd said.
"Those kids who enjoy full and unconditional support seem to experience far less of those kinds of challenges. But what's surprising is the ground in the middle — the lukewarm support."
Evidence is showing those kids end up struggling just as much as somebody with no support at all, Shepherd said. The greatest gift you can give someone is "unconditional respect for their self-determination."
Shepherd says The Youth Project in Halifax provides great support for queer and transitioning teens where parents and kids with gender issues can receive informed and effective support, but not everyone is aware of the programs.