“French is a pretty binary language. It’s something you maybe don’t think about, but how do you become gender-neutral in a language that depends so heavily on a gender-binary?”
We hear a lot about ‘intersectionality’ these days, referring to the way social categorizations interplay with one another. An individual, or a group, can be connected to others based on their race, their sexuality, their gender, or their socio-economic status, among myriad further distinct, yet inextricable identities. As such, each person’s identity is unique, but each connects, intersects, and overlaps with others, leading to unique forms of oppression or stigmatization for some, privilege for others, or a mix of both for others still.
Such is the case for all of us, but few of us are as keenly self-aware of such intersectionality as is Kevin Prada – both personally and in his research. Kevin is a student in the psychology honours program at the University of Manitoba. A queer Franco-Manitoban, Kevin has long seen the gaps in the Manitoba mental health system for both the 2SLGBTQ+ community and the French-speaking community. This led him to collaborate on his first major research project[i], one that earned him the Ken Bowers Student Research Award from the CPA’s Clinical Psychology Section.
His research focused on both of those identities – 2SLGBTQ+ communities and official language minority communities in Manitoba. In the first study of its kind in Western Canada, Kevin and his colleagues launched an exploratory analysis into the needs of doubly-minoritized French-speaking 2SLGBTQ+ Manitobans. Initiated by the Collectif LGBTQ du Manitoba, whose first mandate was to collect data about the needs of this very specific community, this community-based project was conducted by researchers at Université de Saint-Boniface.
“Before we start doing anything for a community we’d better understand where they’re at, what their needs are, and what their experiences are in terms of discrimination and stigmatization. We know that minority Francophone populations in Manitoba have lower indicators of health than the general population. We know similar trends have been observed across the board with queer populations in Canada and abroad. When the two identities are put together, it stands to reason that those problems probably compound.”
This has always been planned as a multi-tiered research project. Kevin and his colleagues have completed Phase One, surveying 80 respondents over the age of 18. Phases Two and Three have already begun, focusing on school and family contexts, to determine both the needs of queer and questioning Francophone minors in school settings, and also to examine the transition to parenthood for queer families in an official language minority context. This has led to many opportunities for Kevin to speak at professional development days for Francophone and French-immersion schools and school districts, where he says,
“Many staff are ready and willing, and want to build proactively queer-friendly classrooms, but don’t always know where to start. Invaluable questions and discussions have ensued, which show me how important it is to discus these sometimes-complex issues with folks in an open and non-threatening way, especially with an eye toward the potential implications within school environments.”
When intersectionality is approached in the right way, there is often a ripple effect – sometimes one that is by design, sometimes an unintended one that comes as a surprise. For Kevin, these ripple effects have been overwhelmingly positive, affirming, and a reinforcement of the direction he wants his career to take.
“We now have folks in Alberta and elsewhere who are starting with our research project to create their own in their own province. So the impact has been even greater than we’d expected. And for myself, as a queer Franco-Manitoban student and researcher, to be able to have done this for my community was really life-giving. We also really put an emphasis on ensuring that this would be by the community, for the community, and from the community. Not only were community members involved at every step (myself included), but they were also the first to hear what we found. We conducted two community engagement meetings where only people from our community were invited. Following one of these, one participant emotionally shared that ‘this is what we’ve known and been saying for decades – now our experience is reflected in that data’. It was kind of a cathartic experience for a lot of people.”
Kevin’s big goal, overall, is to work with minority communities. To ‘hear the unheard and see the unseen’, as he puts it. This feels like a personal mantra to him, the kind of thing he says to himself before starting a project or taking the next step. The kind of thing that he will one day have embroidered and framed and placed on the wall across from his desk as a constant reminder of why he’s doing what he does.
“Using intersectionality as one of the major frameworks for this study was really important. Understanding that a French-speaking queer person cannot be understood by just looking at their Francophone identity, or just by looking at their sexual or gender diversity. It’s ‘both-and’. Those two identities AND their age, AND their socioeconomic status, AND their health, whether they are a visible minority, the list goes on. In fact, we found there was a fairly large group of respondents who felt welcome neither by the French-speaking community because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, OR by the 2SLGBTQ+ community in Manitoba because they’re French-speaking.”
Of course, there are many language minorities in Manitoba besides French. In a project completely unrelated to this research, Kevin and his colleagues Saeid Maghsoudi, Thilini Dissanayake, and Aman Mir started an initiative called ‘A Listening Ear’, where they set up booths around Winnipeg to converse with complete strangers in NINE different languages – enticing them to stop for a chat by displaying, for example, a Sri Lankan flag. The effort was a tremendous success, and you can hear more about it on the CPA’s podcast Mind Full.
This is the kind of outreach Kevin is making his brand. He felt first-hand, from a young age, how important reaching out could be and how lonely life could be when no one extends that hand. This is one of the reasons he chose psychology as a career path.
“I grew up in a home that had fairly significant psychological obstacles, especially with my mother. I saw a failure in the system when I was just this little boy who nobody bothered to ask ‘hey, how are you doing?’ In my household, there were multiple suicide attempts, manic episodes, and through it all nobody took a step back and said, ‘oh my God there’s an 8-year-old boy here – is HE okay?’ In retrospect, I saw all this and figured if I went through it I’m sure I’m not the only one. So my first desire to get into psychology was to kind of make sure that the collateral impact of mental health issues is top of mind, especially in families who might be struggling with issues of this nature.”
As he grew up, he saw more and more failures in that system – for 2SLGBTQ+ youth, for Francophone communities, and especially for those like him who lived at the intersection of the two.
“I never had a chance to speak to a queer person growing up, never mind a queer psychologist. The first time I ever met a queer counselor was a huge experience for me, and I only got to access this support when I was 27. So to be able to do something for a marginalized community, especially within the psych discipline which has historically not been super-friendly with queer folk, is exciting.”
Kevin’s ultimate goal is clinical work, where he can meet people, get to know them, and offer culturally competent clinical support. He does not know of any practicing French-speaking clinical psychologists in Manitoba, has not encountered any openly practicing queer clinical psychologists in his province, and highlights the extreme difficulties in the province just obtaining information on queer physical and sexual health in French. There is definitely a lack of representation and, as his research demonstrates, a need for more culturally competent services in Kevin’s immediate area. He wants to be one of the first to provide those services.
“With the right tools, mindset, and adequate understanding of trauma and minority stress, anyone can be a good clinical psychologist with a queer person. But it brings it to another level when you’re actually speaking from a place of personal experience.”
The French language, just by the nature of the language itself, makes some communication difficult for the 2SLGBTQ+ community. When even a table, or a propellor plane, or a block of cheese are assigned either a masculine or a feminine gender, it can create a bigger hill to climb for those people who identify as neither. In English, we use ‘they’ as a pronoun that can be understood by everyone. In French, they’ve proposed brand new pronouns, with ‘iel / iels’ being the most commonly used. However, to this day those new words have still not been officially accepted by the Académie Française.
Understanding our unique identity through an intersectional lens can be an empowering or disenfranchising, oppressive or uplifting, confusing or clarifying journey. In many cases, it is all of these things. Navigating those waters is no easy task, especially for those whose intersecting identities are both marginalized and in conflict with one another. Kevin’s personal experience, his direct involvement in affected communities, and his mantra - ‘hear the unheard and see the unseen’ – make him well-suited, and well-equipped, to be on the vanguard of the change Manitoba so desperately needs.
[i] Living in a liminal space: Experiences of 2SLGBTQ + official language minority Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic