Two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (2SLGBTQ+) people often experience discrimination in mainstream society due to stigma related to their minoritized sexual and gender identities. 2SLGBTQ+ leisure spaces and activities, such as queer running groups, rainbow choirs, and 2SLGBTQ+ community programs, are known to help 2SLGBTQ+ people escape the discrimination they face and overcome the harmful effects of blatant victimization and subtle microaggressions. In these spaces, 2SLGBTQ+ people can develop their identities, freely express themselves, and build friendships and community.
Unfortunately, some of these places have often been created to support only certain 2SLGBTQ+ folks – namely, those who are white, cisgender, male, able-bodied, and of a particular social class. This makes these spaces fail as supportive places for racialized individuals, women, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, disabled individuals, working-class individuals, and anyone who is different. Rather than creating resilience and a place of refuge, many feel like outsiders in these spaces.
My research focuses on how people who do not share dominant identities within 2SLGBTQ+ leisure spaces experience those spaces. Broadly, the Wellbeing & Inclusion in Rainbow Leisure (WIRL) Study looks at how identity-based discrimination (e.g., cisgenderism, racism, ableism) affects outcomes like the sense of belonging and mental health as experienced by diverse 2SLGBTQ+ people in these spaces.
The WIRL Study began with an online survey of 548 2SLGBTQ+ people from across Canada and the United States. I followed up with one-on-one interviews with 22 survey respondents. My survey sample comprised of one-third of respondents who identified as a person of colour, a little more than half of the respondents identified as transgender or gender nonconforming, and about half identified as having some type of disability. This sample diversity allows me to draw more meaningful conclusions about the experiences of marginalized groups.
The WIRL study found that discrimination matters for diverse 2SLGBTQ+ people. The more one experienced discrimination, the poorer mental health they reported, with a sense of belonging explaining the relationship between discrimination and mental health. In other words, greater intersectional discrimination is associated with lower belonging, and contrary to what these spaces are supposed to be, those who felt less belonging tended to report poor mental health outcomes. This is important because contrary to what we might think, many 2SLGBTQ+ leisure spaces are not always inclusive. Many survey respondents identified situations of racism, sexism, transphobia, and ableism in these supposed “safe spaces,” which were further described in the interviews. As such, diverse people, who are marginalized in many of these spaces, can feel excluded or made to feel like they don’t belong for being who they are. This experience of discrimination and poor sense of belonging negatively affects mental health.
One interesting finding from the interviews showed many of these 2SLGBTQ+ leisure spaces have a lot of meaning in participants’ lives. Much like what other scholars have found, the meaning ascribed to these leisure spaces included finding community, finding oneself, and finding places of support. The meaning of these spaces makes it even more important for diverse 2SLGBTQ+ folks to feel welcomed in these spaces.
I hope these findings provide evidence of the need to create more inclusive and welcoming 2SLGBTQ+ leisure spaces for diverse individuals so all individuals can benefit.
Tin Vo (he/him/his) is an equity-focused researcher and public health practitioner who is pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work. As a Credentialed Evaluator, Vo has over eight years of research and evaluation experience in the Ontario public health sector, namely in the areas of harm reduction and substance use, infectious diseases, and environmental health.
Vo holds a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship Doctoral Award. He was awarded the 2020 Hilary M. Weston Scholarship recognizing his research and contributions to the field of mental health. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph and a Master of Public Health from the University of Alberta.