When Shawn Johnston was asked to return to Sarnia as a panelist for a new speaker series, he jumped on the opportunity.
“I look at Sarnia as the place where my whole journey started,” said the 39-year-old Aboriginal Education Centre events coordinator at the University of Waterloo. “It plays a huge role in my life.”
It’s the second installment of the Sarnia Speaks series and he’s one of four panelists set to discuss ‘coming out’ and what it’s like living as an LGBTQ individual.
Growing up in the northern Ontario community of Couchiching First Nation, there were no support groups or resources for Johnston, who came out at age 15. He moved to Winnipeg where he found common ground with other LGBTQ youth, but the years of bullying he had endured took a toll and he fell into a decade-long addiction with drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t until Johnston moved to Sarnia — where his mother Lila Bruyere had been an addictions councillor at the Aamjiwnaang First Nation — that his life finally turned around.
He got sober, attended Lambton College, fell in love with social work, and moved on to earn a master’s degree from Waterloo — alongside his mother, who was also a panelist at the inaugural Sarnia Speaks event held earlier this year.
“I am really glad to see there are more and more programs available to LGBTQ youth — when I was growing up, it was something you just didn’t talk about,” said Johnston, who identifies as two-spirited.
“I started to learn more about the word “two-spirited” and what that meant to me as an indigenous person. I use the term all the time now, because it encompasses both my gender identity, my sexuality and my culture as well.”
On June 1, he’ll join a panel at the Sarnia Library for the open-forum-style event — the brainchild of Danielle Cooper, whose goal is to host a series of themed discussions that allow people to come share their stories in a safe environment.
Nearly 300 people showed up for the first event, Sarnia Speaks Mental Health.
“It’s just one of those things in the community that needs to be talked about more,” said Cooper, who planned the latest event to coincide with National Pride Month. She enlisted the help of friend Crystal Fach, who helped get the ball rolling.
“I think we are getting better as a community, but there’s still a lot of silence,” said Fach, who identifies as queer, and is the facilitator of the Spectrum drop-in program for LGBTQ youth at Sarnia-Lambton Rebound.
“And there’s still a lot of people out there that don’t understand or accept it — especially the gender piece.”
“People have this misconception that coming out is a one-time thing — but it’s not,” she added. “Every time you meet new friends, or get a new job, you have to come out over and over again.”
The event, moderated by Lambton College’s Kelly Wilson — who launched the Spectrum program back in 2013, and now provides LGBTQ training for faculty and staff — also includes panelists and Trey McGowan and Kevin Soetemans.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Sarnia Speaks: Coming Out
WHEN: Wednesday, June 1 at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Sarnia Library Theatre
DETAILS: Free, open to the public