Community leader paved way for trans acceptance and understanding.
Toronto’s queer and trans communities lost a valued leader, gifted mentor, and much-loved friend this past week when Kyle Scanlon, the education, training, and research coordinator at the 519 Community Centre, took his own life on July 3 at his home in downtown Toronto.
An activist, researcher, and front-line worker, Scanlon worked with agencies like the 519 and Sherbourne Health Centre to develop programs to address the needs of Toronto’s trans community, and gave generously of his time, energy, and expertise in assisting trans people with issues of employment, housing, sexual health, and acceptance within the larger community.
“Kyle knew what needed to be done when it came to social justice, and he did it,” said longtime friend Alaina Hardie. “He didn’t seek accolades, and was happy to be either right on the front line or helping quietly in the background, with really no thought given to being recognized. He was selfless to an extent you rarely see. He just wanted to get the work done.”
A tribute from Toronto’s Trans PULSE project noted: “For the past 10 years, Kyle worked at The 519 Church Street Community Centre, first as the Trans Programs Coordinator and then as the Education, Training, and Research Coordinator. In these roles, Kyle trained thousands of service providers around the province to make their services accessible to trans people…He served on countless boards and committees, and despite his many responsibilities, he responded with an open heart to the needs of members of the trans community on a daily basis.”
As news spread of Scanlon’s death over the weekend, an image soon emerged of a kind and caring man with an open heart and winning smile, who tirelessly came to the aid of others—but who privately fought against chronic depression that first manifested in his youth. His friends and peers are now grappling with the question of how he could help so many others through the most challenging moments in their lives but not seek the same help himself in his moment of need.
“I often had to tell Kyle how proud I was of him and what he’d accomplished,” said close friend Janet Knights, who has faced down depression in her own life. “He couldn’t seem to take in the value of his work or the role he played in other’s lives. For a lot of years he struggled to find a place to belong. He had trouble with university life and took on some unsatisfying jobs before finding his space at the 519. He had many friends and acquaintances and did find peace with his family. But it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough.”
An October 2010 U.S. study by the National Centre for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, surveying more than 6,000 people who identified as transgender and gender non-conforming, found that a staggering 41 per cent reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6 per cent of the general population. Because of intense and pervasive societal pressures like stigma, prejudice, and discrimination, people from marginalized communities run a higher risk of experiencing depression at some point in their lives. Financial constraints, racial and cultural factors, limited access to resources, and a lack of nuanced understanding from helping professionals exacerbate the challenges that those in marginalized communities with mental-health issues may face.
“Kyle struggled for a long time with mental-health issues,” observed Hardie. “I think it’s important to mention that they did not come from him being trans or queer. Mental health issues cross all demographic boundaries. We all need to work together to destigmatize mental illness so people in Kyle’s situation know they can ask for help and receive respectful treatment.”
Writer and activist S. Bear Bergman thinks that Scanlon may have faced a special challenge in seeking help, arising from his role within the queer and trans community. “I worry that Kyle, a guy who was such a helper-of-all, may ultimately have found himself, in a brutal moment, feeling like there was no one he could turn to because in all his relationships, the current of help moved from him to others.” He added: “Queer and trans people often end up working directly with our communities and, even in a big city, LGBT2Qville can be a pretty small town. When you add in over a dozen years of community work and experience, as Kyle gave, who is left for him to reach out to?”
Bergman concludes: “Obviously, we can’t know much about other people’s internal landscapes. It may be that nothing could have helped in that moment. Part of the truth of mental health is that not all mental or emotional issues can be ‘solved’ by people being nicer or by inviting the guy out for a coffee more or whatever. I do want to flag the narrative of ‘we should have done more,’ because the flip side is ‘if we do enough, we can help someone to feel better’ and that’s just not always true.”
In spite of the challenges he faced, Scanlon’s contribution to the trans and queer communities in Toronto and across Canada was significant in both breadth and depth. “Every day, Kyle was looking for a way to help out, and to make the world a better place,” says Hardie. “If we all do a tenth of what Kyle did in his short life, I have to believe that so many of our social problems would be in the past now.”