Trans Peer Outreach program aims to bridge a gap in local healthcare, advocacy, and community

Advocates say there is a severe lack of access to gender-affirming healthcare services in Peterborough.

“In Peterborough, we don’t have a lot of doctors that are informed when it comes to gender-affirming care. What they tend to do is try to refer [patients] somewhere else, somewhere else that they’re going to have to be on a waiting list, because there’s not a trans clinic in Peterborough that is able to support that care at this moment, because I think it closed maybe about two or three years ago,” Joaquin Santana said in a Zoom call on a November afternoon.

Santana is one of two primary staff members for Trans Peer Outreach, the support and advocacy program for trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse people at the Canadian Mental Health Association Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge branch (CMHA-HKPR). The new program replaces the previous Gender Journeys program and was launched in March 2021.

“It’s not anything that is different from any other care,” he continued, “but as soon as you say ‘gender-affirming care’ or ‘hormones,’ doctors tend to send you to a specialist without doing their homework.”

Part-time outreach worker Carl Cruise-Baxter agreed, noting a severe lack of gender-affirming healthcare “specifically for trans youth” in the area.

“It goes back to the medical education system and how they just don’t talk about this stuff. That has ingrained into the medical system a complete disregard for trans patients,” Cruise-Baxter said. “We can’t improve the situation unless this is addressed either through professional development training [after medical school] or by building it right into medical education.”

In the future, Santana hopes the program can bring trans-inclusive healthcare educators to the area, so healthcare providers can learn in a day-long training session or conference.

Focus on advocacy and community engagement

Connecting clients and community members with gender-affirming healthcare providers in the area may be a present and pressing challenge, but it is one that Santana and Cruise-Baxter rise to by running a program focused on support, community engagement, and advocacy. Trans Peer Outreach offers help with changing names and gender markers on government documents, as well as building supportive communities for trans and gender-diverse people.

Santana and Cruise-Baxter also run several different groups that account for the community’s different needs. The trans/non-binary support group discusses lived experiences of trans and gender-diverse people amongst themselves, while the family and loved ones’ group offers a safe space for family members and loved ones of people who are trans/non-binary/gender-questioning to learn and support the people in their lives. For more social-focused programming, there is a monthly walking group for those looking to enjoy the outdoors and company. Trans Peer Support also runs groups with the Trent University Queer Collective (TQC) for students and the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network (PARN)’s Rainbow Youth program for youth.

When they’re not hosting groups, the pair are running community events like monthly game nights, workshops, and clothing and binder exchanges.

The clothing exchange event included a rack of new and used chest binders, which are used to compress breast tissue. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

“We’ve recently started collaborating with a local queer salon called The Unicorn. So now we are hosting our clothing and binder exchange at the salon, which has been great, and we’re also able to offer free haircuts for trans people as part of that event,” Cruise-Baxter said.

Considering all the work that Santana and Cruise-Baxter do, and all the insight that they have, one would be forgiven for thinking that they have an expansive staff or that their program is well-funded. However, Trans Peer Outreach’s annual funding from the Ontario Central East Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) is approximately 25 percent less than what Gender Journeys was given through Ontario Trillium Grows grant funding. This contributes to the program’s six-month waitlist for one-on-one support services.

The three-year funding that supported Gender Journeys came to an end in February 2021, but Peterborough’s trans community still needed support.

“CMHA, specifically our manager, decided that the need was too great in the community, so she was able to create a position to help and support trans people,” Santana explained.

Gender Journeys and Trans Peer Outreach share a lot of the same goals and focus. However, while the Gender Journeys programming was more focused on education about trans identities and gender, Trans Peer Outreach’s programming leans further into building a community and support network for trans people in the area.

“The data that we gathered out of Gender Journeys was that people were actually more focused on wanting to engage in community and try to build community,” he elaborated. “People getting to know each other, people knowing what the services are out there, and feeling like they’re part of something bigger. So that’s what we decided to focus on.”

The program has been thriving by leaning into the strong connections they have to other local organizations. Most recently, Trans Peer Outreach hosted a Trans Day of Remembrance panel over Zoom, and helped promote the Trans Day of Remembrance vigil put on by PARN’s QueeRADicals on November 20.

“We have lots of community partners and lots of great working relationships with other community organizations. And I would also even say within CMHA as an organization, we’ve become a lot more integrated and work with other departments to collaborate,” said Cruise-Baxter. “It’s been great being able to lean on other folks to help us out.”

And the work is paying off: despite the funding and pandemic hurdles, the program has been very successful in its community engagement efforts in less than a year.

“I think that the pandemic has loosened the boundaries of the services we’re able to provide, because previously, we were restricted to the four counties. Now, because 90 percent of our [programming] is virtual, we have folks from all over join our groups,” Cruise-Baxter said. “We have lots of people say, ‘I have no support in my area, so it’s so great that even though you folks are not local for me that I can still access this service.’”

“We have people from Ottawa, Thunder Bay, we have people from all kinds of areas reaching out to us,” Santana agreed. “Even when we started doing the clothing exchange, when we were outside in a tent during the summer [because of COVID-19 restrictions], we had people coming from all the way from Toronto.”

Though Cruise-Baxter said it was “mind boggling” to have people coming from larger urban centres to access Trans Peer Outreach’s services, the duo are happy to help.

“It’s been great, and with people reaching out [through] our social media has been great,” Santana said. “People have been able to see what we’re doing, feel engaged and like a part of things that we do through that.”

“Trans Peer Outreach has been a great resource for me to connect through social events and to explore my gender identity in a safe place,” said Marisa Mackenzie, a Trans Peer Outreach community member. “I hope that Trans Peer Outreach can continue to operate, as it is a tremendous place for making social connections and getting support.”

Follow Trans Peer Outreach on Instagram @transpeeroutreach or check out the program webpage on the CMHA-HKPR website for upcoming events and registration details.

If you are interested in supporting Trans Peer Support or the CMHA-HKPR, you can donate here.

Leina Amatsuji-Berry is a born-and-raised Peterborough community member. A Kenner Collegiate and Trent University alum, she was co-Editor-in-Chief of Arthur Newspaper for Volumes 53 and 54. She is also a member of the Peter Robinson College Student Association (PRCSA, Sadleir House) Board of Directors. Leina is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Communication and Culture at York University while (still) living in Peterborough.

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