Anxiety, depression and isolation hits Northumberland queer community harder, says group leader

Pride Month Ashley O'Neil

PFLAG Northumberland Chapter Leader Ashley O’Neil at the 2019 Pride Parade in Cobourg carrying a Cobourg Queer Collective sign. The collective is a community organization that supports the LGBTQ2+ people living in Cobourg and the surrounding area.

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I got thinking as I was organizing this show. Isn’t it strange how the Canadian government made June National Indigenous History Month and Pride Month at the same time? These are two of the most marginalized groups in the country. Both fight for recognition by mainstream society. Both face bias, scorn, prejudice, and unimaginable barriers. Both have long histories of battling for their hard-won rights. And the government has both groups competing for recognition in a month dedicated to recognizing them.

It gets you thinking.

In this interview with Consider This Northumberland the leader of PFLAG’s Northumberland chapter. PFLAG is an organization for members, family, friends, and others who belong to the LGBTQ2 community or support them. The impact of the pandemic has hit this community hard, causing a lot of anxiety, isolation, and hardship. Ashley O’Neill, leader of the local PFLAG chapter will talk about these challenges and Pride Month 2021 celebrations.

Originally aired: June 25, 2021


The following has been edited for clarity.


Robert: I got thinking the other day as I was organizing today’s show. Isn’t it strange how the Canadian government made June national indigenous History Month and pride month at the same time? These are two of the most marginalized groups in the country. Both fight for recognition by mainstream society. Both face bias, scorn, prejudice, and unimaginable barriers. Both have long histories of battling for their hard-won rights. And the government has both groups competing for recognition in a month dedicated to recognizing them. It gets you thinking.

Today’s show is going to acknowledge these two unique communities in the county. First, there will be an interview with the leader of PFLAGs. Northumberland chapter PFLAG is an organization for family members, friends, and others who belong to the LGBTQ community or support them. The impact of the pandemic has hit this community hard, causing a lot of anxiety, isolation, and hardship.

Ashley O’Neil, leader of the local PFLAG chapter, will discuss these challenges and pride month 2021 celebrations. Here is my interview with the leader of the Northumberland chapter of PFLAG.


I’m so pleased to have with me today Ashley O’Neil, the chapter leader of PFLAG, an organization for family, friends, and others who support the LGBTQ community. Welcome to Consider This.

Ashley: Hi, thanks for having me.

Robert: The pandemic has been identified as being particularly difficult for people of the LGBTQ community. What do you see locally,


I’m seeing a lot of people that are struggling. Because if you already have maybe mental health issues, and a lot of people in the queer community do myself included, it’s just an extra, something extra to deal with the whole pandemic, lives are very different, but especially again, just kind of relating to the housing issue, not being able to leave situations where you might feel in danger. So because of the stay-at-home orders, people have to stay in living situations that might be really detrimental to their safety or well-being. So again, if you just want to use us as an example, especially not being in school, or being with friends, or maybe going to a friend’s house or having an outlet where you can be yourself, and you can be more clear, especially like in school, I find a lot of youth act a lot differently in school than they might act at home. They just don’t have this freedom or liberty to get out and be themselves, and then they might be stuck in their living situations with parents or other family members. They might not be so accepting or accommodating to their gender identity or sexuality.


Robert: The Public Health Agency of Canada identified a unique set of challenges to the LGBT community. One key issue was housing availability and affordability, especially for youth who may be forced to live at home with homophobic or bi-phobic, or transphobic family members. As someone who works closely with youth within the LGBTQ community, what do you see locally?


Ashley: Locally, there is an issue of affordability housing in Coburg or just Northumberland in general. The rents are extremely high, the availability is extremely low, and it’s making it almost impossible for anyone to be able to move out if they wanted to, especially if they’re in a really precarious living position. So it’s really unfortunate that our area doesn’t really have any centers or emergency housing centers specifically for LGBTQ youth, that would be really important, and I would actually like to see an initiative eventually get to that point because it’s something that is needed in this area too, I believe.


Robert: I know that housing is not just the only issue that the queer community face before the pandemic. The queer community faced inequalities when it came to income, financial security as well. So again, Can you shed some light on these areas and how it impacts this community?


Ashley: Yeah, of course. Um, so it is well known that members of the LGBTQ community usually struggle with gainful employment. But I’d like to point out, it’s especially hard for trans or non-binary people to get gainful employment, and they’ve, their median income has always been well below the poverty line. So that is an issue. It’s just really, really difficult in this area. Also, just job-wise, there’s a lot of part-time minimum wage-paying jobs. This can be not easy, especially when, you know, I think the average rent or maybe a one-bedroom apartment is between $1,500 to maybe $1,700 a month, if not more. So, on that alone, you know, working part-time minimum wage, you wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment in the town that you live in. Public Transportation is also an issue. The expectation is a lot of jobs that you need to have your license is a big issue. And all of this is, you know, again, affecting people’s mental health and well-being, and because we live in such a smaller rural community, the support systems just aren’t there. And I’m just apprehensive and concerned because I tried to provide as many resources as I can. But we are the organization’s piece like I’m in. We provide mental health services or support and counseling and just have pride events and make sure that people feel accepted and welcome in their community.


Robert: Now, Eagle is one of the leading Canadian organizations representing the community. It reported half or 52% of the queer community faced layoffs or reduced employment during the pandemic compared to 39%. So overall, in Canadian households, can you help us understand why this is and why this has occurred during the pandemic?


Ashley: Yeah, that’s a fascinating statistic. I would say that I’m not surprised because it just seems that queer people are usually at a disadvantage regarding any kind of, you know, employment, income, disparities support systems housing. I’m not exactly sure why cuz, as from a legal standpoint and a human rights standpoint, there shouldn’t be that disparity at all. Because you know, LGBTQ people shouldn’t be targeted, specifically in their positions, and, you know, be let go are laid off because of their sexuality or gender identity. So it’s really unfortunate. And again, it just puts us at a disadvantage, just because it’s so much harder for people in the queer community, like there’s, as much as you don’t want to make as much as someone might not want to believe that discrimination exists, it does, again, more complicated to acquire housing, more challenging to get sometimes employment. And even though some companies say that they are, you know, supportive of pride, especially during Pride Month, you know, many companies, especially big companies, change their avatar on Facebook to have like the rainbow flag and say, they’re supportive. And they put out a lot of marketing in June to say that they’re supportive of the queer community that I always like to ask them, are they? Do they have business practices that are indicative of them supporting the queer community? Do they support their queer employees if one of their employees who identify as queer is discriminated against? Do they take that seriously? Or do they try to brush it under the rug? Or do they end up, you know, eventually, yeah, firing them or laying them off because they don’t want to deal with it? It’s all part of performative allyship, which runs rampant in June during Pride Month through a lot of companies and whatnot.


Robert: What sort of advocacy is going on regarding this, and what efforts are being made to change that landscape?


Ashley: I think there’s a push of supporting queer and or queer-friendly, small businesses and local businesses. That’s something that I’ve been trying to do with PFLAG this month. I will continue to do just if companies have it’s of the small business owners if they feel comfortable and do identify as queer and are okay with broadcasting that I want to see a push in supporting the local, local queer own businesses because it’s essential to know what queer people run companies, especially like all the Coburg queer collective is another organization that I’m involved with. And we sell clear sweat like rainbow swag and like pride stuff and pretty much anything we can get. And we always make sure that we source it from queer-owned businesses.


Robert: Are you aware that the Northumberland Central Chamber of Commerce has an initiative during this month to have stickers and posters put up in businesses locally that say they are inclusive?


Ashley: Yes, I was contacted by someone from the Chamber of Commerce to write a statement about that. And I was happy to see that this initiative is happening because it was similar to an initiative I tried to start in the downtown Coburg around 2015 by putting rainbow stickers in doorways. After all, I noticed when I went to Toronto, a lot of businesses did that. And it just made me feel safe when I saw a business with a rainbow sticker in the doorway. And I think it’s an excellent initiative for the Chamber of Commerce to do because it’s really important, especially in rural communities, that people who live in these communities or maybe visiting these communities, know that the businesses that they are businesses and establishments that they frequent are providing a safe space for them.


Robert: Have you ever been in a local business or a local place where you have felt unsafe, or you have felt threatened? Can you share a story?


Was I just going to take a moment to think about that? Actually, yes, but it wasn’t regarding sexuality. Interestingly enough, it was. I won’t say what the business is. But I was in a retail business. And the person working at the cash commented that we became racist. The person, in particular, didn’t like the type of people that we’re moving into Coburg now. And they thought Coburg was becoming too urban. And it really, really put a damper on my shopping experience. And it wasn’t something that I wanted to listen to. I was on my lunch break at the time. And when I got back, I was just in a really bad mood. But this was over a year ago. And it made me realize that there’s still a lot of work to be done. You know, whether it’s the queer representation or just coming from an anti-racist or anti-oppressive framework, I would like to see more being done by local small businesses to kind of counteract that because I don’t want to go into a business if I’m going to hear some really hateful comments.


Robert: I’d like to go back to something you’ve alluded to earlier in our conversation, and that is mental health. Recent studies have been done by the University of Toronto and found that the LGBTQ community reported poor mental health and higher substance use before the pandemic. They were also known to have higher suicide rates among this group as well. Now, key concerns were raised in the study as the impact of isolation and the anxiety and the depression and exclusion that has taken place during the pandemic. What has your group done to combat this?


Ashley: So our group had to shift our meetings from being in person to just providing virtual meetings. And it’s been tough because I think a central component of helping or assisting those in the queer community, especially with their mental health and our organization’s, is having in-person meetings. It’s essential to get it there. It’s nice to be surrounded by like-minded people or being just present in a non-judgmental space. But that being said, I do like the positivity of a virtual meeting in the sense that it’s more accessible because at the same time, for all the people that want to come out and be in person at a meeting, there are lots of people who might not feel comfortable being out and in person and would rather maybe sit behind their computer screen and just be present in a virtual world where you don’t have to even you know, you don’t have to use your real name. You don’t have to put your camera on. I would never demand that of any type of meeting that I have. I mean, we all, we’re all on zoom calls all the time. And I’m sure many people don’t like being on camera. I don’t like it. But yeah, so we provide, and we will always offer, mental health services to the best of our abilities. I have a background in counseling. I’ve been facilitating the monthly meeting for PFLAG since 2016. It happens on the first Thursday of every month; I just want people to know that there is help out there. If they want, they can always contact our Facebook page. I’m always on my phone.

As if someone just wants one on one counseling, that is something that I can do. But it would be, you know, in the grand scheme of things, I would love to see the government step up because I think post-COVID mental health will be one of the top health priorities. And I just saw information stay that the Northumberland county like counseling services, I might have the name wrong. So I apologize if I do have hasn’t gotten more funding. So, unfortunately, they’ll be closing by the end of July. And that’s just another kind of kink in the chain here, because, you know, there now we service that was providing counseling for many people is not going to exist in about a month. And that’s not fair, especially for the individuals who are utilizing those services, because now they’re going to have to scramble to find alternatives. So yeah, I think moving forward, mental health support will be of the utmost importance in a post COVID world.


Robert: For people who might not fully appreciate just some of the challenges that people queer people face, there have been reports in the news media about the kinds of prejudices that young people face. One, in particular, was on BBC, where a young person was living at home with a very conservative religious parent who was very hostile towards him. Can you share any anecdotes with us without breaching privacy that might illustrate the conditions some queer youth in Northumberland are facing,


Ashley: Of course, for like, so. For the last few years that it’s been on, I’ve been asked to facilitate a mental health sharing search circle through the raise your voice youth conference, which is done through local school boards. And so I will say for that, a lot of youth there do still struggle with their sexual identity or gender identity. And what I’ve come to find is that a lot of their parents are accepting, and are they struggle with their home life. And again, it’s, there are not too many supports, I believe, for youth, especially LGBTQ youth. Because just having a place to go or someone to talk to would be beneficial for them. Like I, as much as I dislike, you know, telling students not to come in, that’s a personal choice to like, you don’t have to if you don’t feel like it. But if it’s mainly because of your safety, like they, these students want to be more themselves or want to explore their sexual sexuality or gender identities. And then they’re in a space where they don’t feel comfortable. That cannot be easy. And my heart goes out to these students.

Just because many of them, especially from religious backgrounds, and things like that, it was always hard to hear those stories, but at the same time, a lot of them were so strong and so intelligent and very well informed. And it does, it does give me hope for the future, that there’s so many youth center that are woke, as they say, and it’s just as much as it’s complicated. I have read studies that sound like, you know, whereas me being a teenager in the late 90s and early 2000s, like teenagers, now are just more encompassing, of sexual sexualities and gender identity then, like they were in the 90s. So like, even though there’s a more open space now, which is excellent. So that’s good for positivity, but at the same time, like home life can be upsetting. So it’s interesting that we’re creating positive spaces publicly. But I think we need to work on creating positive spaces privately as well.


Robert: There are cases where it can be dangerous for these young people. And we read about that. Is that true? Is it that dangerous for some people to be at home or to be around family?


Ashley: I think so. And that’s the sad thing. And that’s why I believe having kind of like an emergency shelter, specifically for you, would be helpful because sometimes it can lead to violence. You know, whether it’s emotional, verbal, or physical. And it’s just. I think it would help a lot of youth to feel better and probably ease their anxieties. Suppose there was a place to go locally, even if it was just a few days, like. In that case, I still hear stories, not as many, but like still listen to stories of people kicking their children out who have either connect to them or, you know, are looking into different gender identity is just because their parents or caregivers might not understand what they’re going through. But that’s again, one of the things that PFLAG works on is helping friends and family of LGBTQ people understand what it means, you know, to be LGBTQ, what it means to have, you know, gender fluidity, what it means to be looking inside yourself and figuring out who you are like that. So that’s a positive thing. It’s not harmful. And it’s, it’s always tricky, but it’s much harder on the queer people like when they’re when their families aren’t accepting just because it’s coming from a place of most of the time of ignorance.


Robert: We have talked a lot about young people, but what about the parents in the family and the friends, where can they learn more get support,


Ashley: They can definitely contact our page because our meetings are open to not just LGBTQ people, but also parents, friends, and family of LGBTQ people that are looking for maybe answers to their questions, or perhaps just looking for space where they can immerse themselves in kind of like a queer culture, and see, like, just the type of fun that we have, like are coming out to events. But again, circumstances have been tough to orchestrate in the last year or so because of COVID. But we still like to do our best and try to have an online presence. And I’m starting to like, develop more kind of webinars, or specifically targeted to specific issues, like, recently, I did one, I’ve been doing one of it pronoun usage, which I think is essential. Because just using someone’s preferred pronouns, or and their new names, is important and can help the mental health of an individual who is expressing their gender identity or trying to figure out their gender identity and whether it changes frequently or not, it’s just, it’s just respectful to the individual, and, and encompassing in welcoming to their expressions,


Robert: For those who may not understand what you’re talking about when you talk about pronouns, could you just give us a basic outline of what that is?


Ashley: So Yes, I can. So usually, when someone is experimenting with their gender identity, they might change their pronouns. So they might, you know, if they were he him, they might identify as she heard now, or there’s a multitude of gender, gender-neutral pronouns, as well, it depends on the individual why it’s always appropriate to ask someone instead of assuming what their pronouns are. And what I see too is spreading the word of pronoun usage is just making sure that it’s normalized just to introduce yourself with your pronouns, like now, you might see if you, again, go to a function, or I guess I see it a lot in zoom calls like someone will have their name. Then I do this as well in brackets, I have my preferred pronouns, or when you’re doing a meeting and introducing everybody, you also include your pronouns. And it’s just it’s good just to normalize that because that is, for some reason, it’s a point of contention for many people, where they, they just don’t want to because they don’t want to use someone’s pronouns because they don’t want to use someone’s personal pronouns. After all, they, this person, feels like they shouldn’t be doing that. So when it’s just easy, it’s hard. I will say it’s hard if you’ve known someone and their pronouns change, and you might mistakenly refer to them as different pronouns. Still, you can quickly remedy that situation and, just moving forward tried to take the initiative to change. I understand it from that point, but it’s imperative to an individual to use the personal pronouns of their choice.


Robert: Can we talk about Pride Month? It began with the usual items, you know, the flag raisings, the rainbow crosswalks? What has it been like trying to commemorate this part of our community in the face of the pandemic? What’s been different?


Ashley: It’s been different because, again, it’s one thing I always like to their pride was just like putting on a lot of events. It was beautiful seeing people coming in and talking to them and dressing up and just having fun. So it’s tough to do that on a virtual level. But at the same time, you know, we can do what we can, and I think it’s crucial to still kind of be present. But yeah, like, it was tough for me personally, to get into the spirit of pride this month, even though there was a lot of significant initiatives going on in a lot of, you know, local municipalities and small businesses like I’ve been taking it on themselves to be supportive of pride, which is excellent. But at the same time again, it started with the painting of the rainbow crosswalk in Coburg repainting for Pride Month, which was great. But then I was subjected to so many comments on various social media platforms, just like blatant homophobia.

Lots of people saying that they wanted to destroy the rainbow crosswalk was if people saying that they were going to do burnouts on it because I don’t know why it offends them like a rainbow crosswalk, it’s just charming to look at I would like it if all crosswalks per rainbow. It’s just like, nice. The children enjoyed it. Because rainbows are pretty like it just looks nice. And just seeing all the homophobia in the comments made me upset because, like, every year during pride, we deal with homophobia. But this year, it just seemed to be so much more and so much hatred and just not people not understanding or getting it or and then it just makes me realize or makes me wonder, like how much more works do we have to do? What do you attribute that to? I’m not sure. So I think what a part is, I think because we are a rural community. And there is a common perception that, like pride, or I’ll say quote, gayness is celebrated more in urban centers like Toronto or Montreal. You know, gay people don’t exist around here, which is not valid. Because I feel that representation and visibility of the queer community and rural communities like ours is critical, and it would be wonderful for me to see if this message of recognition and acceptance would be spread threatened with Cumberland County because that’s the first step is visibility. As a community education component, like everyone, threatened, Northumberland County needs to know that queer people do exist and live in these communities. We support the local economy, whether it’s because we have a business or consumers of specific businesses. People like to buy houses here. Especially there is a lot of new people coming to the community. And it’s just really important to know that queer people exist everywhere and that being blatantly homophobic is not okay. And I guess maybe we’re just going to have to spread messages about why it’s not like creating just an atmosphere of hatred is not acceptable, especially during Pride Month.


Robert: The town of Brighton is looking at creating a rainbow sidewalk. What’s your reaction to that news?


Robert: I think that is a good step. Again, I’m a big proponent of visibility in communities, and I’m sure Brighton could be some residents there that might not like it or appreciate it. I also see a lot of rhetoric around people thinking it is a huge waste of taxpayer money, but I don’t understand. Maybe they don’t like I don’t think it doesn’t cost like 10s of 1000s of dollars to paint a rainbow crosswalk. So it’s unfortunate that people kind of always go to the negative when they can’t see the positive because there could be a few people in Brighton that will see that and then they’ll feel much better about themselves and just happy to know that they live in a very like a relatively small county. Unity, but there’s representation there for them. And that’s really what it is the representation is important for people just to feel acceptance. And maybe then they can be more open if they felt like they couldn’t be open before.


Robert: Our local MP for Northumberland Peterborough, South, Philip Lawrence, introduced a petition into the House of Commons recently from a local pastor asking to exempt religious leaders and similar organizations from a bill that would ban conversion therapy and conversion therapy is an attempt to convert someone who is gay into being a heterosexual. What was your reaction to this news?


Ashley: I was appalled. I found out about it recently. There. Yeah, I’m really upset. I won’t say that. I’m surprised knowing his background, just with religious affiliations and what’s not. But it’s the same again. The rhetoric around these bills for conversion therapy is that many organizations, especially religious-affiliated ones, are sharing a lot of information. That is not true. One thing I saw was that they’re trying to say that with this bill, that they’re going to make private conversations that parents have with their children illegal, which makes no sense because there’s no way that can even happen unless every single place in Canada was like. So he could actually be like, hear your conversations. But conversion therapy in and of itself is abusive and really detrimental. And there are so many horror stories about it. And a lot of the times, it does turn violent and abusive towards the individual who’s in conversion therapy. And I would like to see, like, I would like to see the Criminal Code change to include conversion therapy, and I do not believe that there should be religious exemptions from it because it is abusive towards LGBTQ people.


Robert: How do you balance the person’s religious freedoms with your rights as a queer individual?


Ashley: I mean, I respect a person’s right to be religious. But when it infringes on the rights of queer people who might not even have a choice, if they’re, if these are used, they don’t have a choice, whether they can attend this or not, because it’s something that their parents want, and might not be something that they want. So I think it’s it comes down to the individual who is in the therapy. And it’s just, it just really makes me upset, because this has been a talking point within the queer community for numerous, like, for many, many years, because it’s been happening pretty much forever. And it’s just. It’s just really upsetting. I wish, like, I don’t understand why it’s so important to make someone something they’re not.

Robert: What’s next for PFLAG. What’s next for PFLAG is I am excited and looking into starting a youth group because I feel that that’s a significant need in the community. So I’m going to be posting things in the next few weeks, and I would like input from the community, specifically use and from parents as well, just to get a feel for what is needed. But I’m thinking of running on top of our monthly meeting anyway, which is inclusive of everybody and all ages. But I guess what I’ve heard recently as people are looking specifically for youth groups, like yeah, so I would like to start that—and continuing with our meetings. Once we can meet in person again, that will be great because another significant component of meeting in person is that LGBTQ people are so disadvantaged, whether economically or with housing, we like to provide food. So at our meetings for people, we want to offer other kinds of things. We have something called the hassle-free box, which has some it has food in it. It might have gift cards in it. It will have toiletries like menstrual products, condoms, pregnancy tests, anything that might be difficult for people to acquire who might be financially disadvantaged. So we have it for people, which we haven’t been able to do again because of COVID, but we like to do just provide things that may be difficult to come by. But again, though, as much as I would like in-person meetings, I’m going to continue probably doing virtual meetings as well, just because of the accessibility component of that because it is important to provide services kind of in all facets just to make sure that everyone can access the resources who can do that.


Robert: Ashley O’Neil, I want to thank you so much for talking to me today.

Ashley: Thank you so much.

Robert: That was Ashley O’Neil, leader of the Northumberland chapter of PFLAG.


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