LGBTQ+ newcomers share their experiences and discuss the importance of community
When Aris Hernandez immigrated to Halifax from Veracruz, Mexico at the age of 17, he experienced many of the same challenges faced by other immigrants his age. He moved away from the people and culture he had grown up with, it was difficult to make friends, and it took a while to adjust to Canadian culture.
On top of these challenges, Hernandez was experiencing another, more personal struggle: coming to terms with his sexuality.
Hernandez says he was closeted while living in Mexico, and didn’t believe he could safely be openly gay. He felt pressured to act “macho” and fit a specific definition of masculinity.
During his first year at Mount Saint Vincent University, he struggled to navigate his role as part of both the international student and LGBTQ+ communities.
“It was dark times,” Hernandez says. “I felt isolated, depressed, and anxious.”
He says he was trying to learn who he was and who he wanted to be. He attended counselling and began coming to terms with his identity.
“I was entering a brand new world,” Hernandez explains. “Being open, and gay, and coming into a brand new culture.”
After learning to embrace his own identity, he realized he wanted to help other LGBTQ+ international students in Nova Scotia facing similar challenges.
“There is no better place than Nova Scotia and I know that that sounds very cheesy, but it truly is,” Hernandez laughs. “You are going to be accepted for who you are.”
He worked with administration to make the university more welcoming for international students. He also started initiatives for minority communities to connect and engage in conversations.
Hernandez now works as a retention coordinator with EduNova, where he helps international students through the Atlantic Canada Study and Stay program. He says the empathy and experience that international graduates can provide to international students is invaluable.
Jennifer Watts is the CEO of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), an organization that helps newcomers get settled in Nova Scotia. She says it isn’t uncommon for LGBTQ+ immigrants to leave their country of origin specifically because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“They need, for their own personal safety and the safety of those around them, to leave those situations and to find a new place to live because of homophobia and often very negative attitudes and actions towards people who are from the LGBTQ+ community.”
Although housing, employment, financial stability, and isolation are challenges faced by many who immigrate to Canada, LGBTQ+ immigrants often face setbacks specifically related to their identity, Watts says.
She points out that LGBTQ+ newcomers may feel unsafe living with others for fear of discrimination. They may also have additional trouble finding employment and achieving financial stability if they lack work experience due to previous discrimination.
LGBTQ+ newcomers may avoid connecting with community for fear of being unwelcome, unsafe, or retraumatized.
“They may still be very isolated even though they’re here in a place that offers more safety and they have legal rights and protections,” Watts says. “They may still feel very uncomfortable about connecting and being able to be basically out about their sexuality.”
ISANS has services intended to help LGBTQ+ newcomers learn English, find housing, gain employment, achieve financial stability, and safely connect with community.
Watts says that ISANS has also developed training and resources to help organizations and employers become more aware of the challenges faced by newcomers.
ISANS partners with various groups to help LGBTQ+ newcomers coming through both the economic and refugee streams. The Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia (RRANS) is a grassroots organization that ISANS works with to settle LGBTQ+ refugees.
RRANS has privately sponsored more than 25 LGBTQ+ refugees seeking to settle in Nova Scotia.
Rhiannon Makohoniuk, a project coordinator with RRANS, says the organization works from an empowerment and social justice model.
“We’re hoping to return to people what belongs to them: freedom and dignity,” she says.
RRANS helps refugees overcome the obstacles they face when arriving in Nova Scotia.
“They’re people who have lived lives and have skills and experiences; they’re very capable people. We’re just here to provide the assistance they need,” Makohoniuk says.
There are many LGBTQ+ immigrants who, like Hernandez, call Nova Scotia home and are making the province a more welcoming, inclusive place for everyone.
Tamim Arabi came to Canada from Saudi Arabia in 2009. At first, he avoided both Arab circles and LGBTQ+ groups because he didn’t believe he could fully express himself through either. Now, like Hernandez, Arabi is creating spaces where LGBTQ+ newcomers can feel like they belong.
For more than a year, Arabi has been working with the YMCA of Greater Halifax/Dartmouth to develop community programs specifically for LGBTQ+ newcomers. He believes it’s vital for LGBTQ+ newcomers to have a place where they feel safe opening up about their sexual orientation or gender identity
“This plays a huge role in making the person who just arrived in Canada feel more safe and more accepted,” Arabi says.
Oriol Salvador is co-lead of the Halifax Pride Immigrant Committee (he’s also a media strategist with My East Coast Experience). Originally from Barcelona, he’s been involved with Halifax Pride since arriving in Halifax in 2019.
Salvador points out that Pride festivals in Canada are often led by white LGBTQ+ Canadians. The Halifax Pride Immigrant Committee puts LGBTQ+ immigrants at the forefront.
The committee identified the need for LGBTQ+ newcomers to be able to gather and share experiences in a safe space. In March, the committee began holding a monthly online event called “All Tongues,” where LGBTQ+ immigrants can learn about resources and have open discussions. If they have safety concerns, attendees can participate anonymously.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges, Arabi says that online events are helping people connect with each other and build community.
Arabi advises any LGBTQ+ immigrants who are feeling isolated to seek out groups of people who have similar backgrounds or shared experiences. He says these groups are essential for helping LGBTQ+ newcomers feel comfortable with their identity.
“Once they can feel comfortable with themselves, then I think they are strong and resilient enough to navigate anything else in life.”