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A more inclusive community is under construction

August 14, 2023

7 MIN READ

A network of agencies helped Evan explore his purpose—and now he’s building the foundation for safer 2SLGBTQ+ spaces

Winnipeg Jets Head Coach Scott Arniel, United Way Winnipeg Board Chair Donna Miller, and United Way Winnipeg President & CEO Michael Richardson visit Main Street Project with Executive Director Jamil Mahmood.

Evan is an architect—although his university diploma and email signature may say otherwise.

He’s someone who can imagine something from nothing. Like a person who turns an empty lot into a breathtaking building, Evan envisions new, welcoming spaces far before they become a reality—or even the sketches of a blueprint.

Where others see bareness, he sees possibility.

But Evan doesn’t design houses, restaurants, or skyscrapers. He builds community.

Since childhood, Evan has worked tirelessly to construct places of kindness and kinship where people can find connection and be their most authentic selves. People who may live in fear and face real danger every day simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

People like him.

Growing up in the 1990s, Evan always felt like he had to hide a part of himself from the world. It wasn’t until he attended an anti-bullying conference hosted by Red Cross* at age 13 that he felt truly and deeply seen for the first time.

“At that point in time, I knew something was different [about me]—I just didn’t know how to put a name to it,” explained Evan.

Yet at the conference, Evan listened earnestly to a speaker who worked at Rainbow Resource Centre*—a moment that changed everything.

“To hear them present on what gender is beyond the binary and what it meant to be a gay person . . . I thought, ‘That’s me right there.’ And that helped my journey of coming out.”

But that process wouldn’t be easy—especially in a heteronormative culture. Queerness wasn’t celebrated in the media and pop culture to the extent it is today. Nobody else was openly gay or trans in Evan’s high school.

Worse yet, the loneliness Evan felt was systemically reinforced by a school division policy at the time, where discussing anything outside of heterosexuality wasn’t permitted in the classroom.

Evan has been working towards building a stronger, more inclusive community for 20 years now . . . and he just turned 30.

Yet instead of sinking deeper into shame and silence, Evan turned his pain into activism—and his work as an “architect” officially began.

In grade 11, Evan began building a safer space for 2SLGBTQ+ youth in his school to gather and find community — a group which later grew into the first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in his school division. Despite enormous resistance and setbacks, Evan held steady and left a legacy still felt today.

“I’m proud to say that my former high school still has an active GSA to this day,” Evan declared.

“And the biggest thing for me is the very school division that banned discussion on homosexuality and tried to close our GSA—they now march every single year in the Winnipeg Pride Parade, leading GSAs from across the division together in solidarity.”

“If our basic needs of community and acceptance aren't there, nothing else is really possible.”

Evan believes safe, affirming spaces for 2SLGBTQ+ community members can improve every aspect of life—from mental and physical well-being to work and education.

“If you don’t feel safe, you can’t be yourself. You can’t learn. You can’t access education properly,” stated Evan. “If our basic needs of community and acceptance aren’t there, nothing else is really possible.”

He also knows inclusive spaces that celebrate diverse sexual and gender identities, orientations, and expressions aren’t just life-changing—they can be life-saving.

Across the country, 2SLGBTQ+ people are twice as likely to experience homelessness. 2SLGBTQ+ youth are 14 times more likely to be at risk of suicide and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers.

Deeply aware of these devastating realities, teenage Evan began volunteering with Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties (MARL),* a donor-supported agency that “envisions a society where diversity is valued, liberties are respected, and rights are lived.”

After graduating high school, Evan joined MARL’s Board of Directors in various roles and eventually became the President of the Board.

“It was thanks to MARL that I finally understood that gay rights ARE human rights,” shared Evan. “It was thanks to MARL that I was able to transform my shame into pride.”

“I deeply love this work that I do.”

“Coming out is something you’re never quite finished doing."

Toward the end of his high school career, Evan began to be recognized for the profound ways he was sparking change. In grade 11, he received Youth United’s* Student Community Service Award for pouring his time and energy into anti-bullying and inclusion efforts.

Also through Youth United, he received a Youth Leaders in Action Scholarship in 2017, funded with the help of United Way Winnipeg donors, which covered the cost of the training he needed to launch his dream career as a nonprofit fundraiser.

“I didn’t know fundraising was a job or career path, you know? I didn’t know I could do that,” laughed Evan. “But what I love about it is connecting people who are passionate about important causes with making real, positive change in the community.”

Newly equipped with a fundraising certification, Evan began working alongside front-line agencies enriching the lives of Winnipeggers.

“It was always my goal since high school to work in the nonprofit sector,” explained Evan.

For two years, Evan worked as the Director of Development and Marketing for Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS),* a donor-supported agency connecting youth of all genders with caring adults through mentorship and an array of inclusive programs.

Kids are more likely to complete post-secondary education, find stable employment, and pursue health lifestyles as a result of mentoring.

“The point of BBBS is really for youth to feel safe,” said Evan. “For them to have someone they can look up and relate to, without having to explain themselves.”

He underscores the value of BBBS initiatives like PRISM—an innovative, first-of-its-kind program in Manitoba, matching 2SLGBTQ+ children and youth with a trusted adult who has lived experience and identifies as 2SLGBTQ+.

That meaningful, one-on-one mentoring relationship might be the only place a youth has guidance as they explore their gender identity, overcome barriers, and feel supported in coming out—a process Evan says is ongoing.

“Coming out is something you’re never quite finished doing,” shared Evan. “Coming out is something you do every time you start a new job, meet someone new or make a new friend.”

He added, “I was lucky to have great, supportive people in my life—but not everyone is so lucky.

“And I think that had we been able to talk about it in school, things might’ve been easier. Maybe I would’ve had less shame in my life, and just maybe, I would’ve come out sooner.”

“[Older adults] were at the forefront of advocating for queer and trans liberation. It's important we rally around these folks who were there for us.”

It’s been 20 years since Evan started building the scaffolding for diverse Winnipeggers to find refuge, friendship, and belonging—and he’s only 30.

Today, Evan wraps community around 2SLGBTQ+ people across generations at Rainbow Resource Centre—the place that made him feel seen and understood for the first time at 13.

“We’ve been around for 50 years,” said Evan, the agency’s Director of Development. “That makes us North America’s longest-running queer and trans resource centre—and we’re right here in Winnipeg.”

With the help of generous United Way Winnipeg donors, Rainbow Resource Centre extends vital support to 2SLGBTQ+ Winnipeggers throughout their entire life span, from kids under 10 years old all the way to older adults age 55+—a group that may sometimes feel forgotten.

“We did a survey in Manitoba a few years back to see what the queer and trans community of this province thought we needed most, and the overwhelming response we got back was care for older adults,” said Evan.

Evan stands in front of a building under construction - the future home of a 2SLGBTQ+ housing complex for older adults.
Evan stands proudly in front of the building that will soon become home to older 2SLGBTQ+ Winnipeggers.

“This generation was at the forefront of advocating for queer and trans liberation and rights. And now that they are approaching their later years of life, it’s important we rally around these folks who were there for us.”

Currently, construction is underway for a first-of-its-kind affordable housing complex for 2SLGBTQ+ older adults, where they can create meaningful bonds with neighbours, easily access a variety of supports, and feel like they truly belong.

“For some of these units, we’ll specifically target those at risk of homelessness,” said Evan, explaining that 2SLGBTQ+ Winnipeggers may avoid shelters due to fear of discrimination.

“So, we’ll help create housing security around older adults in the community with a unique queer and trans lens.”

“You need community to make positive change in the world.”

Despite the historical progress made over the last half-century since Rainbow Resource Centre first opened, Evan remarked that our community—and country—still have a long way to go.

“It’s shocking we’ve come back to this place of trying to censor people’s stories,” said Evan, referencing recent backlash in schools and calls to remove queer content from libraries.

“It’s demoralizing to see people put so much effort into trying to dismantle an accepting and welcoming community. But that’s why Rainbow is so relevant and important in its advocacy work every day to make sure that queer voices are still present.”

These days, Evan draws hope from the overwhelming support and allyship he sees in the community. Winnipeg broke records this past summer as the largest, most well-attended Pride Parade in Manitoba history. And he’s comforted knowing a fiery new generation of activists is rising up to add momentum to the movement.

For people who wish to make a difference but don’t know where to start, Evan encourages them to find their own unique way of being architects of change.

“Ask questions. Get involved. Volunteer. Find community—find people to support you and your work, then leverage that to make change. What you put in, you’ll get back tenfold.”

He added, “And it doesn’t have to be seismic change. Everything helps. But you can’t do it alone. You need community to make positive change in the world.”

*The Canadian Red Cross in Manitoba helps strengthen the resilience of people in times of need. United Way Winnipeg donors support programs and services including emergency and disaster management; violence, bullying, and abuse prevention; and injury prevention education and awareness.

*Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties (MARL) is a human rights advocacy organization, focusing on education and training as a crucial starting point for sparking social change.

*Youth United, an initiative of United Way Winnipeg, is a volunteer council of Winnipeggers ages 16 to 24, offering grants, scholarships, and opportunities to support young people’s vision of a better Winnipeg.

*Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg helps ignite the potential of as many as 700 youth each year, connecting them with trained adult volunteers to build quality mentoring relationships.

*Rainbow Resource Centre offers life-changing support to 2SLGBTQ+ individuals and their friends, families, and employers. Supports include counselling, education, outreach, and programming for individuals ranging from children through to 55+.

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