“I think if we were a different agency and hadn’t taken such a social entrepreneurship look at things, the Trans Programs would not be as vibrant as they are today. We wouldn’t have trans sex worker outreach, or if we did, it wouldn’t be run by three women who all have sex work experience, two of whom are current sex workers.”(Morgan Page, Community Services Coordinator)
The Trans Programs at “the 519” is a multi-service program that serves the transgender, transsexual, and Two-spirit community, with a focus on lower-income, street-involved, homeless, sex-working and marginalized members of the trans communities. The Trans Programs grew from a strong base of community advocacy which mobilized in response to the murders of three Toronto sex trade workers on Victoria Day in 1996. For many trans people in Toronto, Trans Programs are a lifeline, providing information, referrals, peer support and employment opportunities in a social climate that does not otherwise embrace trans identities.
“When you look at the majority of transsexual, transvestite, and transgendered people who are attacked, raped or murdered, being a prostitute and being part of that specific social and cultural context seems to be a common denominator.” (Mirha Soleil-Ross, Founder)
The Trans Programs grew in large part from the reaction of Mirha-Soleil Ross, performance artist, sex worker, and activist, to the murders of three sex trade workers in 1996. The victims, two of whom were trans, were Brenda Ludgate (25), Shawn “Junior” Keegan (19), and Tom “Deana” Wilkinson (31). These murders catalyzed Mihra-Soleil’s views that there was a desperate need to provide services to marginalized trans persons in Toronto. She approached the 519 Community Centre, an organization with a lengthy history of providing services to the LGBTQ community, advocating for the development of trans-specific programs that better met the needs of the marginalized and weren’t a “middle or upper class support group culture.” She was hired by the 519 to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the needs of the trans community, which led to the establishment of Meal Trans, a drop-in program that offered a safe, supportive space and healthy meals. From that point, based out of and supported by the 519, Trans Programs grew in a process both reflexive and tied to the community it served. Always evaluating and incorporating community perspectives, blurring boundaries between the community service and the service provider, and driven by an activist stance, the Trans Programs grew to a portfolio of services that effectively meets the needs of the marginalized trans community in Toronto.
“I feel that a lot of activists, in trying to build partnerships with other agencies, tend to leave the positive parts of their anger behind. And that this can lead to a sort of loss of vibrancy of the program that we create and the projects that we do because everything becomes about making sure that everyone is happy with this or the funder will be happy with this.” (Morgan Page, Community Services Coordinator)
Trans Programs has developed from its first program Meal Trans, a food drop-in with a legal clinic and a housing worker, to include: Trans Youth Toronto, a drop-in for youth; Trans Sex Worker Outreach, providing safer sex education, condoms and lube to trans sex workers; and Trans Access, a trans awareness training program for service providers. Over the past decade, Trans Programs have also participated in several research projects and short-term programs such as Getting Primed, a training project for AIDS prevention workers who work with trans men, and the FTM Safer Shelter Project, which explores access for trans men and FTMs into the hostel and shelter system. Trans Programs staff work toward improving accessibility for trans people in social services agencies, serve on governmental committees to ensure new policy includes trans people, and advocate for the human rights of trans people across the country.
There are a number of factors that have led the Trans Programs to grow as they have, despite the complexity and intensity of the discrimination faced by those they serve. The core mission, built on the activism and advocacy mobilized by the murders of two trans persons, pervades all of the various programs, the work of the staff, and the relationships with partners. Further, they have continued to reflexively build programs after careful consultation with the communities they serve. They do not, however, stop at consultation. The Trans Programs demonstrate action on the input of the community and, more importantly, are of the community – using their knowledge, involvement, and investment to effectively reach out to those they serve. An example is their consistent employment of people who have or are working in the sex trade – who have a clear knowledge of what is needed.
A critical component throughout this work has been the relationship between the Trans Programs and the 519. While the Trans Programs have regularly competed for and received project funding, without a cohesive framework within which they can work they would not have been able to maintain the level of engagement that they have to date. The 519 has provided a foundation of organizational support, but has consistently given the Trans Program staff the mandate and leadership to develop programs the community needs and operate in a way that works for the marginalized trans community. That freedom has allowed for the reflexivity and community involvement that would have been impossible in many settings. Additionally, the degree of separation from organizational bureaucracy has made the Trans Programs more effective. Having to focus less on negotiating process and more on work has led to achievement lauded by funders such as their training 3000 community service staff in trans issues rather than the projected 300.