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This Queer Recovery

What do LGBTQ2+ businesses contribute to Canada? How many are there and what do they do? What challenges do they face? 

Nobody knew, until Canada’s LGBT+ Chambers of Commerce (CGLCC) conducted the first ever survey of the queer entrepreneurship  landscape in 2019.

The survey found that Canada’s 28,000 LGBTQ2+ owned businesses generate more than $22 billion in economic activity and employ around  435,000 Canadians. 

Yet, they face unique and significant challenges, and according to the chief-operating officer of the CGLCC, Dale McDermont (he/him), were hit “not just differently but harder” by the pandemic.

When COVID-19 hit Canada, many queer business owners found little to no targeted support for LGBTQ2+ businesses, primarily as a result of their size .  Most LGBTQ2+ enterprises fall into the micro category, which are businesses that have less than four waged people working within or less than $40, 000 in non deferrable expenses. 

This results in a disproportionate impact on their businesses, including a significant number of closures. 

Who is Looking Out for Queer Canadian Businesses?

The CGLCC’s survey, done in partnership with Deloitte and soon to be released, found that one in four respondents said their LGBTQ2+ ownership resulted in loss of business due to their identity; one in three indicated that on at least one occasion they hid that they are LGBTQ2+ owned to protect themselves against potential losses. 

Nine months into the pandemic, and for the first time ever, Canada’s 2021 budget declared LGBTQ2+ businesses as one of the diverse communities that will benefit from the $100 million targeted for the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Fund. Previously diverse communities included Indigenous, Black, and women-owned businesses. 

This was good news for the CGLCC, which was founded in 2003 and has the data that demonstrates that LGBTQ2+ businesses are a “really sizable part of the economy.” 

McDermont says they can “highlight the struggles and advocate for the community” as Canada prepares for its post-pandemic recovery, but the targeted funds are crucial. Often minority groups “fall through the cracks” with general funding, but the CGLCC is striving to ensure that this much needed finance is delivered to the LGBTQ2+ community “as quickly as possible.”

The funds to assist LGBTQ2+ businesses have been allocated, although details of how it will be distributed and to whom have yet to be released. 

For queer businesses who were struggling with funding and support even before the pandemic, this has meant getting creative with how they do business.   

When Small is Too Small

Kaela Malozewski (left) and her fiancée, Steph La Posta. Photo via Common People’s Instagram

Before the pandemic hit, Common People  was not only a general store featuring crafts by small makers, but a “community space where folks could gather for workshops, fundraisers, and events.” hosted every month, co-owner Kaela Malozewski (she/her) told LiisBeth. Malozewski and her fiancée, Steph La Posta (she/her), launched their Toronto-based store in late 2017. 

Malozewski said they consider themselves a micro business, though the government sees them as a small business — and this compounded the challenges they faced during the pandemic.

Malozewski and La Posta received less than $600 in rent support from the Ontario Government and did not qualify for any other supports due to the discrepancy between micro and small businesses. For instance, they did not meet certain criteria  —such as having a payroll of over $50,000 a year. Even at their busiest, they had only one employee in addition to themselves. 

“Community is Everything” poster via Common People’s website. For sale online.

Kaela said the whole process trying to get support was “disappointing and very frustrating” and they “felt like [they] weren’t being acknowledged or heard” by the government that was meant to be helping them. In December 2020, Common People closed their brick-and-mortar shop in Parkdale and moved online, where they will remain for the foreseeable future. 

Though the co-owners and fiancées say the pandemic has been exhausting, the community they built pre-pandemic has supported them “from the start with their encouragement, purchases, and messages of love and support.”

Pandemic Sex Play

Kira Gregory (she/her) founded Toronto-based Shop Fleure just before the pandemic hit and was also unable to qualify for any relief grants. 

The queer-friendly online space sells luxury lifestyle products and intimate sex toys to help individuals “explore their inner sensualities and embrace their true selves by way of pleasure.” 

Gregory says she would have “[loved] to see more support specifically for LGBTQ2+ small businesses such as programs or grants that specifically apply to this community.” Though the pandemic has kept Shop Fleure “in the shadows” due to advertisers filtering or hiding anything that “remotely covers topics of sexual health, pleasure, or sex work” and many small businesses  —including Shop Fleure — struggle to get started due to this inability to post advertisements. 

Self-care became a much-discussed topic as the world stayed in their homes, so Gregory found the plus side to her industry was that “the world of self-love and pleasure has been in the spotlight during lockdown,” even though, as the owner of a self-love business, Gregory struggled. Without a large team, the work fell into her lap, and it took a toll on her mental health. 

Where the government and media platforms disappointed her, however, Gregory’s community provided tremendous support, which has been heartwarming and better than anticipated. 

For now, Gregory said she is taking it one day at a time, remaining hopeful, and taking rests and breaks when needed.

A Queer Village, Online

Pax Santos, founder of QT Mag. Photo provided.

McDermont told LiisBeth that “unique challenges require unique solutions.”

Pax Santos (she/her) started a non-profit business during the pandemic when she felt the void of queer spaces and missed the connection she found there. 

Disappearing queer spaces have been a growing concern among the community and many LGBTQ2+ people found themselves uniquely isolated. 

Santos founded QT, the Queer Toronto Literary Magazine, to elevate and celebrate queer voices in Canada and recreate the physical community spaces that had wilted during lockdown online. 

Queer bars, cafes, restaurants, sports leagues, and cultural activities take on an oversize importance in the queer community as places to find and meet friends, form family, nurture voices and identity. 

When Pax looked for government support to launch her non-profit, she said there was nothing. 

Yet, QT found its digital footing to create the sense of a shared space when a physical one was not possible and grew to a nine-person volunteer team and a thriving community readership. 

Since QT is a fledgling business, they rely on volunteers and donations; while memberships are $20, QT believes “finances should never be a barrier to community engagement” and offers a no-questions-asked sliding scale. 

The priority is community.

Community for Recovery

As Canada moves into the recovery stage, queer businesses continue to struggle. While financial support from the government has been announced, it’s unclear how the support will be distributed and to whom. It’s also unclear if the support will continue and for how long. 

The CGLCC’s message during this time is clear: to encourage the government to move forward supporting LGBTQ2+ businesses, and in particular micro businesses, like Common People and Shop Fleure, as well as startup ventures which launched in response to the distinctive challenges of the pandemic. 

With targeted recovery support, the LGBTQ economy has at least a fair shot of making a comeback at the same pace as the rest of the economy, especially with the strength of the community behind them.

McDermont says that LGBTQ2+ businesses are a safe space where queer people often find safety and support in their community, and it is through these shared experiences that LGBTQ2+ businesses will overcome the challenges of the pandemic and reach the potential they dream to achieve.

“As we look at diverse communities, entrepreneurship and creating businesses, what we need to focus on is supporting entrepreneurship in diverse communities and overcoming these unique challenges are the stories we need to hear.”

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The Power of Love—and Trans (National) Collaboration

AVI & WARREN: TORONTO–“I haven’t had a severe panic attack in over a year since I got Warren. I used to get multiple attacks per day.”–Avi                               Photo: Jack Jackson

It’s not everyday that you find yourself at a party in a startup gourmet pet food store with 80 people and ten dogs. But in this case, at the launch of a new movement to elevate trans awareness, it made perfect sense.

Toronto-based and Canadian newcomer trans-preneur Jack Jackson and New York-based Deb Klein are both professional photographers and multi-skilled entrepreneurs with a passion for dogs and gender justice. They came together to create Don’t You Want Me (DYWM), a globally sourced photography project that showcases stories about trans and queer people whose lives have been transformed by the acceptance and unconditional love they experience from their rescue dogs. The startup photo-plus-stories project will leave you wondering, who rescued who?

The launch was held in Toronto, Canada at Tom & Sawyer, a socially progressive pet food store with an onsite production facility, doggy bakery, plus comfy couches and Wi-Fi. The exhibit opened on March 31st, International Transgender Day of Visibility, a global initiative founded by Human Rights Campaign, a 3M+ membership-based LGBTQ civil rights organization based in the United States.

Reuben and Luna in Brighton, UK

I do think that a part of me was trying to heal myself by taking care of someone else that was broken and forgotten, our new skinny, sick, terrified Lunie-bear.”           – Reuben

“I work 70 hours a week in my current venture but wanted to work on developing this project as well because frankly, I’m furious,” said project co-founder Jackson. “Why? Because discrimination causes so much harm. Let’s take Charlie over there, 22, who volunteered here tonight. His family has actually disowned him. Things are still really, really hard for [trans] people. No one is doing anything about it.” Recent research shows that 16-24-year-old trans kids who have supportive parents are far less likely to suffer from depression or attempt suicide.

Charlie and launch party participants

Jackson adds: “I think these kinds of stories need to be told. Because people still don’t get it. They think oh, you’re trans, and they think that is the issue, but being trans is not the issue, discrimination—society’s perception of trans people, is the real issue. Trans people have something really important to say. Something that doesn’t just affect trans people, but also women, effeminate men, basically anyone that doesn’t fit the heteronormative norm.”

At present, there is little data on the total number of trans people in Canada, or their experiences. However, qualitative research is clear that there are significant barriers to social and economic inclusion. TransPulse, an Ontario-based community research hub estimate in 2014 that “as many as 1 in 200 adults may be trans (transgender, transsexual, or transitioned).” And while Canada has recognized trans discrimination as a hate crime and illegal in its charter of rights and freedoms, trans people continue to face physical abuse, unemployment at three times the national rate, and high rates of mental health issues.

The pain experienced as a result of social exclusion and brutal discrimination, especially from those who at one point, loved you, were part of many stories shared at the launch event. T Thomason is a UK-born 23-year-old who was raised in Halifax. The “trans-guy” indie pop star was recently signed by Taylor Swift’s record label and performed an acoustic version of his latest singles, “Bliss” and “Hope”, the latter of which he says taught him a lot about being a trans person.

T. Thomason playing an acoustic version of his song “Bliss”

I just walk, and the farther I go

I am stepping with a changing shadow

I just walk and I hope I am getting close

Catching up with all the ghosts I would like to get to know

Past all your fears, you will find bliss

Hold onto this, move past your fears, you will find bliss.

— T. Thomason, Bliss Lyrics

Statistics show that over 43% of trans people eventually attempt suicide, yet Jackson is hopeful about the future. “Deb [Klein] and I were talking about trans people going swimming. In Brighton [U.K.] that is a real issue. For me, in Toronto, I was scared shitless about the first time I went swimming, just in shorts. And absolutely no one gave a shit — that was awesome.”

Klein, a New Yorker, scout for the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” production company, bass player, and foster mom to rescue dogs, found Jackson on Instagram. She loved his idea and his photography, and quickly signed on to partner on Don’t You Want Me. Klein and Jackson plan to grow the project into a global movement. “This launch is just the beginning. We hope to see a thousand more photos and stories like this submitted to our project from around the world,” says Klein.

The DYWM “minimal viable project” exhibit will stay in east Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood at Tom & Sawyer until April 6th, and will then be moved to Black Lab Brewing for rest of the month. Tom & Sawyer co-founder, Kristen Mathews, a former forensic accountant whose love of animals led to starting her doggy bakery and pet food company three years ago, didn’t hesitate to host the exhibit. “T & S is very welcoming to the community. A lot of LGBTQ community members have dogs and cats who they consider part of the family.”

For those who can’t make it to the exhibit, don’t worry. LiisBeth has prepared a two-minute slide show of the event, including some of the featured photos. We hope you take a moment to watch and share, in support of equality and visibility for trans people in your community and everywhere. Enjoy.


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Activism & Action Featured

Queer to their Boots

Toronto’s Kensington Market has long been the landing site of many of the migrant groups that help make the city one of the world’s most vibrantly multicultural. On a Sunday in May, the funky market threw out the welcome mat to pioneers of a different kind—six innovative fashion companies producing lines that defy gender stereotypes.

Women belonging to the LGBTQ community as well as fans of gender-neutral attire eagerly flocked into a pop-up retail store in the Supermarket restaurant to browse a rack of masculine-cut dress shirts from Kirrin Finch. A queer teen accompanied by her mom cracked a wide smile as she tried on a pair of NiK Kacy’s agender desert boots. It’s clear that both she and her mom are delighted to finally find footwear suited to the daughter’s taste.

“It shouldn’t matter if you’re identifying as a man or a woman, cis or trans,” says 41-year-old NiK Kacy, founder of the self-named shoe line that puts an androgynizing twist on men’s wingtip shoes and is made for feet ranging from a petite 3.5 in women’s to size 14 in men’s. “If you want to dress up and you want to wear a high heel, you should be able to. If you want to wear a wingtip, you should be able to,” says Kacy.

Kacy, a transman who identifies as masculine of centre/gender fluid and uses the pronoun they, flew in from Los Angeles to participate in the two-day Superbutch event, which included a fashion show the night before, pop-up retail shop and a panel discussion on what it means to identify—or not—as butch. Organized by musician/model Dinah Thorpe, production manager Heather Blom, academic Zoe Newman, and fashion designer Jack Jackson, Superbutch threw a spotlight on a growing number of local and international clothing lines catering to a vastly underserved market of LGBTQ people looking for designers who understand their identities and body types. As shown in a recent street fashion spread in The New York Times in which men donned hot pink blazers adorned in flowers and paired with shorts, people beyond the LGBQT community appear to be looking for fashion that messes with the gender binary.

“When I got here, I was running a few minutes late and there were already customers waiting to see my shoes, so that was awesome,” says Kacy, who sported blue jeans, a button-down grey and white pinstripe with sleeves rolled to the elbows, a two-tone grey scarf, and a pair of their own wingtips to match.

 

Ideas Born of Frustration

Kacy, who previously worked as a senior interactive producer/project manager for an in-house creative agency at Google, had zero fashion experience when they started their line. Their idea was born from the frustration of never being able to find masculine-looking shoes that fit properly. In mid-2014, after quitting Google and recovering from surgery to transition, Kacy travelled throughout Europe, visiting factories and attending international shoe fairs seeking a manufacturer. People didn’t want to give them “the time of day” though.

Kacy’s lack of fashion experience was only half the battle. “The way I present myself is masculine presenting, trans, gender queer, and they don’t know what to do with me,” Kacy says. “The shoe industry is very traditional, very archaic. They’re mostly older, European men who have been in the industry for generations.” They simply didn’t understand Kacy’s vision. “No I don’t want a man’s shoe in a woman’s size,” Kacy would think. “I want to get rid of that whole mentality.”

Eventually Kacy found a shoe factory in Portugal to make prototypes. They then launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2015 to raise money for production. The effort attracted 267 backers from around the world who pledged $47,542—160 per cent of the original goal. The first collection featured what Kacy calls “masculine-of-centre” wingtip shoes and derby boots. The second collection will feature “feminine-of-centre” high heels.

 

Opportunities Ripe For Picking

Kacy says the queer fashion scene is begging for new entrepreneurs to enter the market. In the last few years, a number of apparel lines have taken advantage of the void to launch and, recently, another gender-neutral footwear company called Matriarch used Kickstarter to raise startup funds. While that competition would be cause for concern for some, Kacy feels differently. “I’m just excited that we’re having more options. Competition is healthy because it inspires us to do better and it inspires more people to do more things like this. We’re so underrepresented.”

Like-minded entrepreneurs such as Laura Moffat and Kelly Sanders Moffat are helping to build a welcoming, close-knit community. Last February, the Brooklyn-based couple ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch the debut collection of Kirrin Finch, a menswear-inspired line designed for women and genderqueers who want to sport a dapper look.

“I don’t feel like there’s this secretive, competitive nature,” says Laura of the LGBTQ fashion community. “NiK [Kacy] has been an amazing supporter for us and now we try to be supportive to new businesses that are joining. If we can be better together, then it can only benefit everybody as opposed to being petty and scrambling for opportunity.”

Neither of the Moffats have a fashion background—Laura used to work in marketing, Kelly as a teacher. Like Kacy, they launched their business out of frustration. Both were drawn to menswear, but were never able to get the right fit buying off the rack. Their own line of eco-conscious fashion (button-ups and T-shirts made from recycled plastics) are designed to accommodate a woman’s bust, hip, height, and arm length. The pieces range in price from US$45 to $145.

Queer Fashion Show2

Toronto Superbutch Fashion Show

A Need For Mentors

To gain mentorship from seasoned fashion-industry professionals, the Moffats joined the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator. Living in one of the leading fashion cities of the world provides daily inspiration and is what Laura calls “super energizing.” Sourcing buttons and fabrics is often just a subway ride away and they can get their shirts manufactured locally.

What’s lacking, though, is queer-specific resources. “There [are] no queer-based incubators or accelerators that I know of, or any associations that, from a financial perspective, support us,” Laura says.

It’s a gap that the organizers of the Superbutch fashion event and retail pop-up says needs to be filled. Jack Jackson, who identifies as non-binary trans and uses the pronoun they, launched the Toronto-based bowtie line alljackedup in 2014, but has yet to find a mentor to guide the venture into its next stage of growth. While Jackson did tap into events like a three-day entrepreneur/startup hackathon to soak up knowledge from “brilliant” minds, something was always missing. “These events don’t cater to what we’re trying to do,” Jackson says. “It’s difficult to promote yourself at the best of times, but when you’re trying to speak to someone who doesn’t have an understanding of our community like we do, it makes it really difficult.”

The wider fashion community appears to be catching on to androgynous wear, which is starting to appear on runways and in major retail outlets like Zara. Jackson says this is “amazing” for breaking down the gender binary, but it needs to be recognized as more than a passing trend. Permanent options must be made available for people like Jackson, who “just don’t fit into mainstream stuff.”

Laura agrees. “It’s not really about trends. We would have worn these clothes five years ago, and we’ll probably wear the same clothes five years from now.”

Jackson encourages consumers to pay attention to the smaller startups that the big designer brands and retailers are borrowing inspiration from. “I think more support needs to be given to the designers who are from that world, who understand what the community needs, rather than to major corporations.”

Kacy wants to see businesses like NiK Kacy, Kirrin Finch, and alljackedup become a viable part of the mainstream fashion industry. “I would love for one day, it to be no longer a queer business,” Kacy says. “One day, hopefully, it’s just going to be a business.”