Join me in Fredericton for The Walrus Talks!

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I always knew I would share my story publicly in some way, but I had no idea the places it would take me, the people I would meet and the ways I would grow. I've been privileged to speak on many stages across the country on the challenges and complexities of being a queer Christian woman of colour.

I'm excited to continue this dialogue when I speak at The Walrus Talks in Fredericton in April. From March to June, the Walrus Foundation is hosting national conversations across the country featuring 50 Order of Canada recipients and 50 young leaders.

As you may have guessed, I'm one of the "young leaders" and will be speaking on the intersections of sexuality, faith and race.

I've struggled deeply with these parts of my identity, silencing and hiding different pieces at various times. It has been exhausting to live a fractured life, wondering which part of me will be accepted.

As a result, I've spent most of my life trying to make sense of who I am. I no longer live in silence, and I want to encourage others to see the power of their stories and realize they aren't alone in their experiences.

But it has been a deeply painful journey.

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I recently went through some of my old journals, revisiting a chaotic and challenging time in my life, including the first time I admitted I was gay: "It makes me feel sick to actually acknowledge this part of me I've been trying to hide and push away, but it's eating at me. I can't concentrate. I'm getting headaches and I just need to get it out. I think I'm gay."

There were so many entries where I spoke about this part of me as if it was disgusting, broken and untouchable – as if I was disgusting, broken and untouchable. Shame and self-hatred filled many pages in my journals. I wondered if I would ever be okay with this part of me, let alone be proud and celebrate my sexuality.

My journals took me on a journey where I eventually got to witness healing, freedom and growth. One of those moments was sharing my story publicly on my blog several years ago: “I never thought I would get here. I’m happy with who I am. I’m proud of who I am. I’m free.

This was an important time where I needed to tell my story for me, to find and speak my voice again.

These questions and challenges have caused me to advocate for and with other LGBTQ+ people who are trying to survive their Christian and Catholic communities. Although I've seen many changes in schools, churches and the media, heteronormativity is still prevalent in our culture.

I've spoken to many other LGBTQ+ Christians who are struggling to make sense of their faith, sexuality and gender orientation. There are still many communities that aren't affirming or open to having this dialogue. For those of us who are also racialized, intersectionality is deeply lacking. We aren't represented in those spaces and our stories aren't included in these conversations.

But we are here. We exist and we will continue to fight.

If you're in Fredericton on April 24, I would love to have you join this conversation and hear from others who are doing great work around the country. You can get a free ticket here, and the talks will be filmed and shared online at a later time.

I can fully be myself: Windsor-Essex Catholic's first GSA conference

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"This is the first time I've come out as queer and can fully be myself."

I hold onto these words from a student who recently shared at Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board's first GSA conference, WEshine. It was a day to support and celebrate more than 100 LGBTQ+ students and allies across the board.

I saw the weight of this day for many LGBTQ+ students. I saw them relax. I saw them laugh. I saw their courage in showing up and being fully seen.

It was incredible to witness these moments and hear how much the culture has shifted in Catholic schools since I was a student. They could share their stories, including letting me know they were here because they were "really gay." I was amazed they could speak so nonchalantly in front of their peers.

A former student in the Windsor-Essex board, Eli, also shared his coming out story publicly for the first time. If he could share his story so openly only a few years after graduating, what would that mean for the next generation?

"Those who identify, you have an amazing community of support... You are loved by God and the community. We want you to feel that every day."

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It often brings me to tears to hear words like this and see educators stand in support of their LGBTQ+ students. Many educators, students and community members have been advocating and working tirelessly for years to have these spaces.

It matters for these students to know there are people who love and support them in their Catholic communities. This saves lives.

When I asked if they believed it was possible to be LGBTQ+ and Catholic, many students put up their hands. They shared stories about family and friends who are out and still practicing their faith.

These young people have representation in a way I never had.

But I know it's still hard for many of them. I know there were students there who are struggling deeply and haven't found the words to say their stories out loud. They're afraid of what their family, friends and faith communities will think.

There were also students who struggle to see themselves represented as queer people of colour. Several racialized students approached me to talk about the challenges of being in predominately white communities.

How do they share this part of themselves? Who are the queer and racialized Christians and Catholics they see?

I was impressed they were already thinking about intersectionality, exploring these different parts of their identity in such a nuanced way. I was never in a place to come out in high school, let alone think about how my racial identity intersected with queerness, gender and faith.

The culture is shifting in these spaces. Sometimes, it feels really slow. Other times, I'm shocked at the changes that have happened since I was in high school.

It's exciting to be part of this movement and to see the ways LGBTQ+ students can be seen, heard and fully be themselves.

You can see what happened at WEshine in this video by CTV Windsor.

Huffington Post: from tears of shame to proudly existing at my first Pride

Toronto Pride (Caro Ibrahim). Imagine this: you're on Church Street for your first Pride and find yourself crying in a sea of people, "I don't want to be gay." Let's just say I had a lot of internalized homophobia to work through and I've come a long way.

Going to my first Pride in Toronto helped me see what was possible, especially being at a dance party with many people of colour and seeing lots of women in dresses. At the time, I didn’t realize the multiple ways I could present as a queer woman and it was still okay to wear dresses.

There were people who looked like me. It was possible for me to exist. I didn’t have to change.

I hope this Pride helps other LGBTQ+ people see possibilities and experience solidarity (especially after Orlando), and the beautiful ways they can exist. Check out my latest piece in The Huffington Post, as well as some of my thoughts on Orlando.

Catholic educators stand in solidary with LGBTQ+ students

Educators standing in solidarity. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk) Imagine this: you go to an all-girls Catholic high school and you identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Maybe you're out or perhaps it's something you're too afraid to say out loud right now.

Before the keynote speaker goes on, your chaplain and six other teachers and youth workers are standing at the front of the atrium. They tell you if you're LGBTQ+, there's nothing wrong with who you are and they are here to support you.

You've heard about gay-straight alliances (GSA) before, but don't know much about them. You find out it's a student-run club that provides safe spaces for LGBTQ+ and straight-identified students to meet and support each other.

I couldn't believe what I saw last week before I gave the keynote talk at Loretto College School's Health and Wellness Day in Toronto. Although I have done a lot of work in Catholic schools and have seen support for LGBTQ+ students, this felt special.

Staff were standing in solidarity with LGBTQ+ students at the front of the school.

Sharing my story. (Fatin Chowdhury)

I was deeply moved and quite emotional before I had to speak. I kept thinking, "I can't believe this is happening right now. How would my life be different is this happened at my Catholic high school?"

But that was a long time ago.

Before I addressed the all-girls high school of more than 500 students, I thought I'd break the ice by having them guess how many years have passed since I was in high school. They shouted out responses from one year to four years. When I told them I started high school more than a decade ago, they couldn't believe it.

Forget being gay, my age was the shocking news of the day!

After they recovered from finding out I was no longer a teenager, I shared some spoken word poetry, the challenges of coming out and the importance of GSAs. I told them how different my high school experience was more than a decade ago. There was no GSA and the students perceived of being LGBTQ+ were bullied and tormented.

A great crowd! (Fatin Chowdhury)

GSAs are so crucial to help LGBTQ+ students know it's possible to live their truths. Even if I wasn't ready to come out in high school, it would have changed my life to know I could exist and there was support for people like me.

After I spoke, students had the opportunity to sign a rainbow flag in solidarity with their LGBTQ+ classmates. Dozens of students came down to sign the flag and after the talk, several students wanted to start a GSA at Loretto.

There was so much light and warmth in the room and it was an honour to be in that space. This is the start of something beautiful and will impact generations of students to come.

Your words feel like home

But you were never meant to stay hiddenDespite those years spent in claustrophobic, concealed and confined places Seeing the beauty, life and creativity that happens when light enters in Needing to remind yourself that ambiguity and being lost is just part of the journey, not the destination And one day, maybe you’ll see that home wasn’t as far as you thought it would be. - An excerpt from Home by Jenna Tenn-Yuk

Learning from Michael Blair.

I have been thinking a lot about home lately. 

This past weekend, I was the artist-in-residence at New Direction's conference for LGBTQ+ Christians and allies. It was an affirming space for LGBTQ+ people to share, learn and grow.

Coming out as gay has left me with a complicated relationship with the church and I didn't know what to expect. I have been to many Christian conferences over the years, but it has been several years since I was immersed in a space like this.

On the first day, someone who had found my website approached me and said, "Your poem helped me to come out." I had never met this person before and had no idea how my story impacted them. My poetry gave this person the courage to come out, live their truths and realize they weren’t alone in their experiences.

We never know who needs to hear our story.

My workshop participants. (Betsy Johnson)

I had a great time sharing my spoken word, and connecting with other participants over the weekend and in my workshop. The workshop gave participants the space to write, reflect, connect and speak their stories out loud. Several people have shared their beautiful work that was inspired by the workshop.

"Your words feel like home."

I am still reflecting on these words that a participant shared with me. Many people at the conference told me they connected with my story and the challenges of negotiating their identity.

There is so much power when we can voice experiences other people may not be able to describe or say out loud. Our words and stories can heal and feel like home to someone else.

Huffington Post: LGBTQ kids living their truths at camp

Meet Rose. I recently wrote a piece in the Huffington Post about Rose and how her involvement in the Ten Oaks Project changed her life.

Rose always knew she wanted to be a girl. She wanted to dress like a girl, play with dolls and wear pink clothes.

Secretly, she could be a girl at home. But outside of her house, she lived a lie and her life as a boy. Rose wasn't safe enough to live her truths and authentic story.

"I was unhappy and sad before I transitioned," explains Rose in a beautiful letter. "I wasn't who I thought I was to be."

Her life drastically changed when she went to Camp Ten Oaks, a one-week, sleep-away camp for children and youth from LGBTQ identities, families and communities. Camp Ten Oaks is part of the Ten Oaks Project, a Canadian-based organization that engages and supports young people from LGBTQ communities through camp.

Something changed in Rose at camp. She was in a supportive environment and surrounded by others like her, which gave her the courage she needed to live as a girl.

"In that moment, I could see a different future for myself," Rose says. "If it weren't for camp, I think I'd still be a boy. And unhappy about my life."

When I think about the young people who go to Camp Ten Oaks and Project Acorn (Ten Oaks' other camp for youth), my heart is filled with so much joy. These young people can experience community, belonging and live their truths.

That time I hated dresses and only wanted to play baseball.

I think of the Jenna of my past and how my life would've been so different if I had a place like Camp Ten Oaks or Project Acorn to call home. Perhaps I would've seen a different future for myself at a younger age, which would've helped me accept all the pieces of my story sooner.

The sooner these young people can experience this freedom, acceptance and belonging, the sooner they can blossom into the beautiful roses they are meant to be.

Ten Oaks’ bowl-a-thon fundraiser is also coming up on March 21. The group is hoping to raise $40,000 to help send kids to camp. This year's bowl-a-thon will help subsidize camper registration fees (80 per cent of participants access the sliding scale) and send 10 extra participants to camp.

Please support my bowling team, the Team Players here, so we can help send children and youth like Rose to camp. I’ll write you a personalized haiku or poem based on how much you donate!

On another awesome note, I know I know I know you want to hear this news. Tegan and Sara have also donated several prizes to our bowl-a-thon, including an autographed poster, varsity jacket and a rare vinyl box set collection. You can check out the awesome awesome swag here!

My latest Huffington Post piece: why GSAs in Catholic schools matter

TCDSB Inclusion and belonging: words that don't often come to mind for LGBTQ people in the church.

But this space was different.

I recently spoke at the Toronto Catholic District School Board's Inclusion and Belonging Retreat, which you can read about in my latest Huffington Post piece. It was a beautiful space where high school students could come as they are, encourage one another, share their struggles and know they weren't alone.

This retreat opened up inclusive spaces for Toronto students involved in gay-straight alliances (GSAs), a place where LGBTQ and straight students come together as allies. It's pretty incredible this student-led space existed, let alone for the second time this year with more than 170 students.

When I went to a Catholic high school more than a decade ago, I could have never imagined having a GSA at my school. Homophobia was alive and well, and those who were out or suspected of being gay were often marginalized, mistreated and shamed.

I wish I had the courage to speak up and be visible.

But I wasn't ready and it took many more years to accept and come to terms with being gay and Christian. These students, however, are living in a different time where they can exist, be visible and share their stories. The students give me courage to keep fighting and believing LGBTQ people could feel safe and belong in Christian communities.

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Right now, there is much debate in Alberta on Bill 10, which would allow school boards to rejects students' requests to create a GSA. There are no GSAs in Catholic schools in Alberta, which I hope will change as we have seen in the Toronto board.

It won't be an easy road ahead, but to see students know they belonged -- even if it was just one day -- is worth the fight.

I don't hate the sinner, I hate the sin (poem)

Have you ever heard a Christian person mention, “I don’t hate the sinner, I hate the sin” Can I tell you how annoying that comment is? And I grew up Christian.

(Michael Vidler)

I recently had the opportunity to film one of my poems, I Don’t Hate the Sinner, I Hate the Sin, in a Vancouver church. I’ve wanted to film one of my pieces about being gay and Christian in a church for several years, and I finally had the opportunity during my Vancouver Biennale artist residency over the summer.

It was an interesting experience to film in a place that has become foreign and scary to me. I had many thoughts and feelings of belonging (or lack thereof) while I was there.

It brought me back to the place in which I had written this poem. It brought me back to harmful comments that many Christians say to people who are LGBTQ without thinking twice.

It was a place of hurt, pain and shame.

One of the most common phrases is, “I don’t hate the sinner, I hate the sin.” Christians often say they don’t hate LGBTQ people, but their “lifestyle." It's a shame that same-sex love is somehow reduced to a lifestyle and not simply love.

But this poem reminds me that change can happen.

Since writing this piece, I’ve grown in loving myself and accepting my story. Others have also grown in listening and understanding my experiences. We may have different perspectives, but I know how much they love me and our hearts are softening.

It would mean a lot if you checked out this personal poem when you have a chance. Thank you to Michael Vidler for producing this video, and Canadian Memorial United Church for allowing us to film in their sanctuary.

Let’s keep chatting, breaking down walls, hearing each other's stories and living in the grey.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmxT4hhGc6M