How some inspirational community members are making Toronto a better place.
Though conversations both within and outside of the LGBTQ community are focusing on what it means to be transgender, Toronto’s trans community can often be overlooked. Yet, there is a growing number of trans youth making a difference in the city—creating art, offering support, and educating others.
To celebrate this inspiring community, Torontoist profiled four young transgender Torontonians who should be on your radar.
1 Cecilio Escobar
Cecilio Escobar was just 15 when he made his first films, cultivated within the walls of his high school computer technology class. They were “weird,” he admits, featuring abstract and introspective narrative. Eventually, Escobar compiled a portfolio and applied to OCAD University. Now, more than a decade later, he’s a fully fledged filmmaker whose current project, LatinX, explores identity and Latin culture among queer, transgender, and non-binary Latinx Torontonians.
The film grew out of Escobar’s thesis project about coming out, and he considers LatinX chapter two. “This chapter of my life is about my transition and about wanting to feel a connection to my Latin self,” he says. “I plan to showcase myself and the struggle I’m going through to feel comfortable in my skin, gender and culture.”
Escobar came out as transgender in 2015. A major part of the coming-out process was engaging with his family, particularly his mother, and learning about his connection to Latin culture through her. Next up in the film process, he says, is interviewing her. “I’m so nervous about it,” he admits.
LatinX won’t be complete for at least another year, but in the meantime, Escobar says his connection with his Latin roots has grown stronger.
His advice on how to be a better trans ally: “Never assume someone’s gender, even if they ‘look’ cisgender. Gender expression is not gender identity.”
2 Danielle Araya
OCCUPATION: Coordinator for The 519’s Trans Youth Mentorship Program
Danielle Araya has a long history with The 519. She first attended the community centre as a trans youth in 2001 while exploring her own identity. She was then hired on as a summer camp counsellor eight years ago, and moved up through the ranks. Now, she’s the coordinator for its Trans Youth Mentorship Program, helping transgender Torontonians aged 15 to 29 with career goals, training, and education opportunities. The program offers workshops and counselling for trans and gender non-conforming youth.
It also tackles an important issue within the community: unstable employment and the need for support. One Ontario study found that only 37 per cent of trans respondents are employed full-time, while others are employed part-time, precariously, or unemployed altogether. Many say they are turned away from jobs because they are transgender or non-binary.
Araya says she has been privileged in her transition: she was accepted by family when she came out at 15, and has had meaningful employment within the LGBTQ community for years. This role, she says, is her opportunity to give back. “I was lucky to have a very open-minded family,” she says. “The burden on me now is to do the work for those who don’t have that.”
And in the Trans Youth Mentorship Program, Araya is lucky to see the participants grow and celebrate their identities. “At the beginning everyone was kind of nervous,” she says. “By the end, they’re all talking to each other and hanging out, and it’s great to see everyone connect right away. We’re building bridges.”
Her advice on how to be a better trans ally: “We need to give trans youth the space to grow and understand their identities, because those don’t always exist.”
Araya is also a panellist for Pride Toronto’s Trans Rights in the New Generation discussion at The 519.
3 Julie Hamara
OCCUPATION: Assistant coordinator for The 519’s Trans Youth Mentorship Program
Julie Hamara never expected to work with trans youth. Last year, she started working at Fabarnak, The 519’s ground-floor café, and when an internal job posting searching for a coordinator with the Trans Youth Mentorship Program came up, Hamara hastily applied. With a background in education, she was the perfect fit, and began the role in January.
“It all sort of fell into place,” she says. “But the more I invested myself in the community, the more I could see myself offering my educational background.”
Hamara says she dealt with a lot of repression in her youth, and she was only able to publicly transition in her early 20s while studying in graduate school out west. For her, there were few places like The 519 to turn to. “It really is a pillar in the trans community,” she says. “There are only a few safe places trans people can come to for support.”
Now, Hamara is working to make The 519 the kind of space she could have benefitted from while coming out and transitioning—a safe space, a place of acceptance, love, and celebration.
Her advice on how to be a better trans ally: “The trans experience is very much associated with trans youth and their parents, and that discussion can alienate a large group of people. Moving forward, we need to have more discussions about others—like trans people who want to become parents.”
4 Lee Iskander
Most Torontonians will remember Lee Iskander for their tireless efforts to have gay-straight alliances permitted in Catholic schools across the province. At 16, Iskander was denied the right to form a GSA at their Mississauga high school, and alongside with classmates, became the face of the fight to congregate with queer and trans students in Ontario Catholic schools. Iskander’s fight was the catalyst for the Ontario Accepting Schools Act, which passed in 2012 and deemed that all LGBTQ students have the right to form groups within their school communities.
Four years later, Iskander is still fighting for their LGBTQ counterparts. They served as the coordinator of Trans, Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Asexual at York, a queer service group on campus that has helped create a safe space for marginalized students. “I was pretty eager to find other queer and trans people as soon as I got to university, so I went to TBLGAY to check it out before classes had even started,” they say. “Working there and seeing people coming in and forming friendships, being able to talk about the things they want to talk about, has been really meaningful for me.”
Now, Iskander is pursuing an undergraduate degree in education at York University, and hopes to become a teacher. It’s awfully fitting, a full-circle moment for a young activist who made such a big difference in the classroom to begin with. “It feels scary to go back into the school system as a teacher after all that’s happened, and especially as a trans person, but I’m also excited to be in the classroom and working with youth,” they say.
Their advice on how to be a better trans ally: “Listening to the most marginalized people in our communities, which is Black trans women, and allowing space for them to lead the conversations about what needs to be done, is the best thing that the LGBTQ community and allies can do.”
Pride Toronto’s human rights panel on transgender youth in the city, “Trans Rights in the New Generation,” takes place June 14 at 7 p.m., at The 519. Torontoist is a proud media sponsor of the event.