How an Asian LGBTQ group in Toronto is helping youth feel comfortable in their skin

When You’re Ready is an eight-week-long culturally sensitive program held several times a year that prepares young LGBTQ Asians, 29 and under, for living authentically, giving them tools to handle the stress and navigate the repercussions.

When You’re Ready works with youth navigating being both LGBTQ and Asian

Pink Dot TO is a day to celebrate and showcase LGBTQ Asians, families and allies in Toronto. Asian Community AIDS Services adopted the model from an event that takes place in Singapore. (ACAS)

A program that works with LGBTQ Asians in Toronto called When You're Ready is helping youth embrace and affirm their sexuality through a culturally sensitive lens. 

The program, the only one of its kind across Canada, is run by Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS). It's a series of eight workshops where youth can ask questions and share stories in a non-judgmental space. The program is targeted at East Asians and South-East Asians ages 18 to 29, and runs virtually through the pandemic.

Dany Ko was a part of the 2019 cohort and uses the pronoun "they." 

"It meant the world to me to go through that program," they said. 

"I'm actually heavily involved in the LGBTQ community, but I've always felt very isolated due to being a BIPOC in a white, very white environment, " Ko said. "I've been in a lot of Asian spaces, but due to stigma, I've been too scared to come out. So having this space was really important to me."

Dany Ko went through the When You're Ready program, facilitated through Asian Community AIDS Services, before becoming the program's coordinator. (Manjula Selvarajah/CBC)

Ko is now the program's coordinator in its sixth and busiest year. Due to the uptick in interest, the workshop series is run four times a year now.

Topics include mental health, sexual health, harm reduction and "chosen family," a term for the people one chooses to be with, who may not be kin

According to the results of the last census, more than 20 per cent of Toronto identifies as East and South East Asian. More than three per cent of the overall Canadian population identifies as LGBTQ, according to Statistics Canada, but LGBTQ organizations put that number at more than 10 per cent. 

Manjula Selvarajah tells Ismaila about a unique program that gives LGBTQ Asian youth a voice and a community. 6:37

Group helps youth by increasing Asian LGBTQ visibility

Ryan Tran works with ACAS and When You're Ready. Growing up, he felt like he was the only gay Asian person in the room at Vietnamese community events.

"It was something that I couldn't talk about with anyone," he said. "That feeling continued even for me in college. I was part of the Vietnamese student group there,  and even with a younger crowd like that, I still felt like I was the only one."

He learned that his parents had sought help, struggling to find resources on how to parent a gay Asian teen. 

Ryan Tran's parents had a hard time accepting Tran's sexuality at first, but have since embraced him. They now march with him during Pink Dot parades. (Ryan Tran)

As manager of Education and Outreach at ACAS, Tran says those issues of invisibility and lack of resources are what he hopes to change. 

Every year, the organization throws a colourful parade called Pink Dot TO in Chinatown. It's an idea exported from Singapore where Pink Dot started as a show of support for gay rights in a country where gay sex is criminalized.

The Toronto edition is the group's effort to bring visibility to LGBTQ Asians within their communities and beyond. This year the festival is in June and will be held virtually.

Tran's parents offer themselves as a resource for other Asian parents going through the same journey they did years ago. (Submitted by Ryan Tran)

'Coming out doesn't save you' from racism, advocate warns 

ACAS also aims to address a disparity noted through its work. LGBTQ Asians come out later in life compared to other LGBTQ people in the city. 

Robert Diaz is an associate professor with the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto who researches experiences of sexual minorities in Asia and the diaspora. 

He says coming out within Asian families is not as black and white as the scenes that unfold on television sitcoms, where someone declares their orientation or gender at the Thanksgiving table.

Robert Diaz, an associate professor in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, says coming out isn't as easy in the Asian community. (Submitted by Robert Diaz )

Diaz says while youth worry about acceptance by their family and stigma in the community, when you're Asian, it comes with another layer of marginalization: racism. 

In a survey ACAS conducted this April, the organization received multiple reports of LGBTQ youth facing racial slurs to threats of violence during the pandemic.

"We put so much attention on coming out as a kind of act of resistance, but also an act of freedom ... we are setting youth up for the further hard realization, especially Asian Youth, especially queer Asian Youth, that coming out doesn't save you also," he said. 

According to the results of the last census, more than 20 per cent of Toronto identifies as East and South East Asian. More than three per cent of Canada's overall population identifies as LGBTQ, according to Statistics Canada. The When You're Ready program helps Asian youth feel comfortable in their sexuality and their Asian identity. (ACAS)

"No coming out and claiming yourself as gay can save you from the multiple violence that you will encounter as a person of colour."

Diaz instead describes coming out in the community as a fluid process with LGBTQ Asians slowly understanding their multiple identities and revealing their orientation in the rooms where they feel comfortable.

"One of the things that I think these kinds of spaces offer youth is the possibility to see themselves beyond the one dimension of what sexuality can be," he said.

"That they can see sexuality as something that is part of who you are. But you can also be Indian, you could be Filipino, you could be all of these things."

"To be in a space where you feel that if you're looking across from someone, and they look like you, it allows some sense of opening."

Program helps LGBTQ Asians connect with other generations

In the last session of a When You're Ready series, the organization runs what it calls a "human library." 

Elders and community leaders from the LGBTQ Asian community speak to the youth in the program.

"I think it's really important to that group, because a lot of people don't know other queer Asians," Ko said. "A lot of people are newcomers or people who have been isolated for one reason or another, sort of find this community."

Ko says it reflects the ethos of When You're Ready and ACAS as a place to meet and build a network of support.