Leslie Chudnovsky

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Leslie Chudnovsky is a recipient of the 2016 Jane Jacobs Prize

Being a young person (of any sort) can be difficult: your life begins to change; the politics and complexities of human relationships lay themselves bare; and you begin to develop and try to understand your own identity. This is a difficult time regardless, but it can be infinitely more difficult for youth who identify as LGBTQ+, or who are only beginning to understand their place in the world.

Leslie Chudnovsky understands this feeling, in her own way. Throughout her career, she has been a tireless advocate and community organizer for those who may feel that they are on the outside looking in. Since 2000, Chudnovsky has worked at Supporting Our Youth (SOY), a community advocacy program for queer and trans youth operating out of the Sherbourne Health Centre in downtown Toronto, as the director of the organization’s mentorship program.

Her experience with finding and building community is not only professional, but personal. In 1988, she became a lesbian mother “at a time when we knew the five other lesbian mothers at Pride,” she says, laughing — which is to say, she understands the difficulty that can come with being an LGBTQ+ person and having to carve out a community for yourself within a larger community that can, at times, feel unwelcoming. “All of it, we kind of had to figure out ourselves,” she says. “It was so much more unknown — there was a lot less information, and a lot more discrimination.” Partly because she’s experienced it, and partly because, as she says, “it’s in my genes” (she grew up in a progressive-minded family), Chudnovsky is one of this year’s Jane Jacobs Prize winners for her tireless years of commitment to creating safe and comfortable spaces and communities for marginalized groups in Toronto.

Despite the city’s size and diversity, navigating these complex communities and finding one’s own place within them can remain a challenge. “People are always in need of community,” says Chudnovsky, “and need to see people who reflect who they are.” It is an especially difficult challenge for LGBTQ+ youth, many of whom are still grappling with who they are and encountering challenges that are not faced by heterosexual, cis-gendered youth. SOY is a community organization that provides support groups and mentoring programs for LGBTQ+ individuals, with a particular focus on the types of identities that often get overlooked in the broader discourse around LGBTQ+ community: marginalized groups such as black queer youth, trans youth, and homeless/street-involved youth.

Founded in 1998, SOY’s 13 staff (a mix of both full- and part-time) and around 100 volunteers, provide resources and support for over 250 youth every week. The organization focuses specifically on the intersections between different marginalized identities; black queer youth, or trans youth, for example, may need assistance building community within the city’s larger LGBTQ+ community. “We talk about intersection a lot,” notes Chudnovsky. “I think communities that are diverse in every way are the healthiest.” By listening closely to what the young people in their existing groups are saying, SOY is able to create new programs that respond to the needs of their participants. In this way, SOY programs are able to offer community groups that are unlike many others in the city, such as their black queer youth group. “SOY has grown more and more diverse — in a very intentional way,” says Chudnovsky, “and we continue to make that a priority.”

One of the keystones of SOY’s programming is the mentoring program. Many young LGBTQ+ people, she explains, may not have a supportive adult role model, or an adult figure who is able to understand and respond to their particular experiences. Through SOY’s mentorship program, young people are matched up with an adult who either wants to provide something that they wished they’d had, or give a young person the same experience with an adult figure that they had. The relationships foster a positive atmosphere: “Adults and youth can have a wonderful relationship,” says Chudnovsky. “There’s a lot we can learn from one another.”

For many LGBTQ+ individuals, SOY becomes something of a second home. “I grew up in a religious household, with a family that were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and when I came out as gay I was excommunicated,” says Javier Davila, a SOY Mentor. “I had no other family and [needed a] place to turn to. SOY has been one of those places.” Davila, who has been a mentor for five years, says that volunteering with LGBTQ+ youth is a rewarding experience. “It’s probably one of the highlights of my life, actually,” he says. The relationships, in general, grow very organically. “We have fun, we laugh, we play,” says Davila. “We learn a lot together.” The success of the mentoring program is possible in no small part due to Chudnovsky’s participation. “She’s much more than a matchmaker,” he says. “She’s someone who you always know is there.”

For some, SOY is even more than a second home. One man — who didn’t want his identity used — came to Canada on his own as a refugee, struggling to accept his sexuality. “For a while, I was searching for a community, and a place to belong, and a place to understand this person I was becoming,” he says. “I heard about SOY from my refugee lawyer. He told me about the organization and the group there [for immigrants, called Express].” It is hard to overstate the challenge of coming to a new country and a new culture, while at the same time attempting to figure out who you are. It’s difficult, he says, “finding where you fit… when all you have is just that you’re gay. It was difficult to latch on to other people, to find similarities beyond just being gay. I didn’t know exactly where my place was.” He was matched with Davila, who has served as his mentor for the last two years. “The most important thing is having him as an anchor. He became my family in many ways.” He now does what he can to give back, speaking to high school students about oppression and intersectionality. “My experience in Toronto would be much worse had I not found SOY,” he says. “We always talk about how if we ever won the lottery, we’d give a huge chunk of it to SOY.”

In addition to emotional support and community building, SOY offers practical support, too. Housing remains a prominent concern for many trans people — who on average “make much less money,” says Chudnovsky, and face “a lot of violence” — and SOY is able to assist with the task of finding accommodations. SOY also offers programs focused on employment, which is also a large concern for many in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as parenting groups — Daddies and Papas to Be, and Dykes with Tykes, for example — that cater to same-sex couples looking to have children.

Despite massive advances over the last few decades — including an increase in the visibility and accessibility of LGBTQ+ spaces and venues — for young people, finding one’s place in a city can be difficult. While Toronto’s Church and Wellesley neighbourhood, for example, is a vibrant example of a gay village carving out a space for itself, it can also seem daunting to young people; bars and clubs are still restricted places (for reasons that include but are not limited to age), and they can be daunting spaces for a young person still developing their self-identity and self-esteem. These problems are exacerbated for youth who don’t fit neatly into certain groups. “There’s still a dominant mainstream queer and trans community, and especially a gay community” says Davila, that “seems male-dominated [and] white-dominated. Many [young people] struggle to fit into that.” Davila, who says he was lucky to have supportive queer and trans people to help him through his process of coming out, notes that many young people wouldn’t have that luxury, were it not for SOY. “I’ve heard to many times from the youth at SOY that this is the best place in the world,” he says.

After 18 years at SOY, Chudnovsky stepped down from her post at the end of June. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing next. I’m saying I’m semi-retired and exploring the possibilities,” she says. She seems at ease that her work at SOY has left the organization in good hands. “I’m confident that it will keep growing in a way that is really responsive to the community,” she says, adding, “I think change is good for organizations like this.” Speaking to her, you hardly get the sense that she’s done, or is even slowing down in any significant way; her enthusiasm, her passion, and her unwavering commitment to reaching out and building communities that are more diverse and more welcoming to people who may not experience those particular qualities elsewhere all remain strong. “We’ve been around for 18 years, the roots are very strong and the branches are developing,” says Chudnovsky. “The new branches are all about making sure no LGBTQ+ youth are left behind.”

by Keiran Delamont / photo by Matthew Blackett

You can find this article in the print edition of Spacing (summer 2016) on newsstands starting in August.

The summer 2016 issue is Spacing’s annual national edition where we explore the unique forms of urbanism that have taken root across Canada.