We’ve found ways to celebrate while staying apart to keep safe during the pandemic. From weddings over video to drive-through birthday parties, there hasn’t been a milestone or event that we haven’t found a way to enjoy with a COVID pivot – and that includes Pride, where Waterloo Region’s LGBTQ2+ communities celebrate the freedom to be themselves.

This month’s Pride is taking a different form – not just pandemic-related, but with Waterloo Region’s rainbow community space SPECTRUM taking the lead to organize and connect people across the community. TriPride led past celebrations, but this year, the team at SPECTRUM saw a need for a change.

“This is the very first year that SPECTRUM has decided to do our own independent Pride celebration,” said Kristy Skelton, acting Executive Director at SPECTRUM. She joined the organization in January as its previous Executive Director, Jim Parrott, was getting ready to retire.

“There was a lot of opportunity for us to shake things up a smidge,” Skelton said. “A lot of organizations are struggling to get enough volunteers and to get funding, so we thought, ‘We have capacity right now – we’re going to build our own schedule.’ ”

This year’s Pride celebration includes a mix of virtual events for people of all ages. Skelton said the team is aware of how the isolation during COVID-19 has affected the LGBTQ2+ community.

“We have all kinds of different things going on that allow folks to be connected during Pride and during a time when there’s really an intense sense of isolation,” she said. “You felt isolated before, maybe, as an LGBTQ2+ person, but now you’re also physically isolated from people, particularly during a time when you want to connect and socialize.”

During June, you can participate in education panels, explore Waterloo’s queer history with the Waterloo Public Library and more. “We’re trying to hit a lot of areas that are different from traditional Pride parades and parties and do things that connect people a bit more personally,” said Skelton.

SPECTRUM’s approach to Pride goes beyond trying different events. The team has made an effort to understand the needs of the LGBTQ2+ community in Waterloo Region, to create a more inclusive experience. 

“We did a number of surveys at the beginning of the year to understand how SPECTRUM is seen in the community,” Skelton said. “Out of that came some information and we decided to use some of that to put a focus on Pride.”

Across the responses, Skelton said SPECTRUM noticed a large number of respondents sharing experiences of feeling unwelcome in the larger LGBTQ2+ community. “Situations where, because you are maybe a bisexual man but you are in a relationship with a cis woman, that you’re not seen as queer or gay enough to really exist in the LGBTQ2+ community,” Skelton said. “Or folks who are aromantic or asexual, those folks who sort of feel like they’re gate-kept into participating in certain ways because they’re not the gold star types of gays.”

SPECTRUM has partnered with the Waterloo Region Rainbow Coalition to host discussions with community members to create a more inclusive LGBTQ2+ community.

“We have three different focus groups to allow people to have a roundtable discussion about those feelings and what it’s like to be someone who is not queer enough or is perceived to be not queer enough. It isn’t something that’s really obvious, but it definitely does happen. We’re just bringing awareness to that and providing an opportunity for people to expand their knowledge and to talk about those feelings.”

Expanding our awareness of what it means to be queer is the subject of an internal workshop at Communitech this month. Led by author and professor Lee Airton, the workshop is designed to introduce Communitech employees to the spectrum of gender diversity and create a workplace climate that welcomes all the ways people live gender.

Brett McNeil, International Programs Manager at Communitech
(Communitech Photo: Alex Kinsella)

It’s an area that Communitech’s International Programs Manager, Brett McNeil, has been exploring over the last.

“A couple of months ago, I got to the space where I understand my own sexuality and gender, which is great because now I can explore other things in the community and have more of an understanding of it because I understand myself more.” 

One of those areas, in particular, was gender. While looking for books on the subject, McNeil discovered Airton’s work and reached out to them to learn more.

“They do work with companies to make their workspace more gender friendly from an internal perspective and also an external perspective.”

Since Communitech works with member companies to help them scale, McNeil thought the workshop would be valuable. “There are a lot of people here who deal with external stakeholders,” said McNeil. “I hope this workshop will help us all be more gender friendly – not only internally with staff, but externally. I’m really, really pumped for it.”

Helping employees understand gender and other LGBTQ2+ issues is the goal of some upcoming sessions at Sonova. The Swiss-based global hearing care solutions company has employees in Waterloo Region, including Julie Dopko, Sonova’s Senior Director, Human Resources, Americas and Michael Clewley, Director of the Sonova Innovation Lab at the Communitech Hub. 

Dopko said Sonova has partnered with Egale Canada to deliver sessions for their team across North America and Brazil. Egale is recognized as a leader in research, education and legal advocacy for human rights and equality across Canada and the world.

“Participants are going to learn essentially about LGBTQ2+, Pride history and gender pronouns,” said Clewley. “It’s a lot to pack in, but it’s going to be something that people have the ability to learn, get more familiar with it and hopefully continue to recognize gender and pronouns and how to treat people with respect.”

The sessions are part of a larger initiative at Sonova focused on diversity and inclusion. “We have a big focus on education and inclusion. We also plan to do a few other things, like all the offices in the Americas will fly the Pride flag,” added Dopko.

Having a Swiss parent company has allowed Dopko and Clewley to help educate their leadership in addition to employees here in Canada and the U.S. “In North America, we lead the way in terms of D&I initiatives,” said Dopko. 

LGBTQ2+ rights in the country are not at the same level as they are in Canada. Same-sex marriage was legalized in December 2020, but critics of the law have collected over 60,000 signatures to force a public referendum on the issue later this year. According to Clewley, the use of preferred pronouns isn’t common there, either.

“I don’t know if it’s a translation issue, but a lot of times when the Swiss tend to talk about something or someone, they’ll default to ‘he’,” said Clewley. “He or him should do this. There’s not even this thought of could it be a she as well.”

The sessions this month aim to educate on pronoun usage and more.

“We’re talking about why pronouns matter, why you should use pronouns in your email signature and things like that as well,” added Clewley. “We’re just making sure that from a competitive standpoint, that Sonova Americas is in line with what people should come to expect from it and we want to encourage all types of talent to come to the organization.”