Courtesy of Chris Studer.

As Pride festivities begin in the city this week, a new LGBTQ group is bringing its mission to Toronto. Get REAL; a non-profit and student-run organization dedicated to challenging people to unlearn LGBTQ discrimination launched at U of T this past May.

El Furniture Warehouse controversy

Get REAL faced a major challenge shortly after its inception earlier this year. On June 4, 2015, local bar El Furniture Warehouse posted a controversial, transphobic photograph via the business’ Instagram account targeting Caitlyn Jenner and her recent Vanity Fair cover. The photo was quickly deleted from the bar’s social media but not before the story was picked up by Buzzfeed Canada.

At the time, Get REAL had arranged to host an event at El Furniture Warehouse during Pride Week. The proposal for the plan had just been submitted, with no official date or announcement set when the Instagram incident occurred.

“My phone starting blowing up with people on twitter asking us how we could possibly choose to hold an event there,” Studer said, adding, “there was even a Change.org petition with nearly 500 signatures attached.” A Facebook event calling for the boycott of El Furniture Warehouse during Pride also surfaced.

Studer reached out to the critics but refused to cut ties with El Furniture Warehouse, instead proposing to help educate the business’ leaders.

“We’re an education based organization, said Studer. “I wanted to go in and do some training with staff. A lot of their staff were upset by the post and most of the employees did not even know about it and were only aware of the subsequent backlash.”

 

Studer and his team decided to reach out to the bar staff, postponing their initial event indefinitely in favour of running a sensitivity training workshop that focused on transphobia, explaining why the post was offensive, and promoting trans inclusion. The workshop was held on Sunday, June 14.

“The bar reached out to me to say the post did not reflect how the members of the staff felt, and I said if that was true I knew there was some work to be done. And I was proved right, every member of the staff showed up with a great attitude and after the workshop each of us wrote down a pledge on skateboards to be hung up in the bar,” said Studer.

It became clear after the fact that a contributor, not a staff member, posted the offensive image to El Furniture Warehouse’s Instagram. Sean Young, a partner of El Furniture Warehouse, said that the practice of opening the bar’s Instagram to the public has since been abandoned and that he will be the sole contributor to the bar’s social media accounts.

Studer mentioned that a member of his team would work with the El Furniture Warehouse Instagram to begin posting educational messages promoting trans inclusivity and terminology.

“We wanted to get them to begin leading an initiative, and they have begun introducing us to other bars to introduce training,” Studer said, “we always want to give people the benefit of the doubt so the approach is to go in with positivity and empowering people to combat LGBTQ discrimination.”

Get REAL: the organization, history, and campaigns

The parent organisation was founded at Western University in February 2011 by a group of frosh leaders hoping to create a safer environment for students by combatting anti-LGBTQ language and attitudes.

Get REAL was birthed from that drive to speak to students in person, and to provide on-the ground resources through presentations, workshops, and a “Humans of Get Real” Facebook page. The page features photos in the same vein as the “Humans of New York” page, except that it is comprised exclusively of user-submitted images and quotes explaining the impact that the Get REAL campaign has had on their own lives.

The creative side of the Get REAL campaign included a video of fraternity and sorority members, from Western University, sharing their experiences as members of gay communities. The video emphasized the challenges of LGBTQ discimination and its interaction with traditional stereotypes about fraternities and sororities, as well as the support that participants received from their friends.

Role at U of T

Like its Western counterpart, the U of T chapter of Get REAL launched in conjunction with the Alpha Phi Women’s Fraternity. A member of the Women’s Fraternity, Shaunesy Dyer was exposed to the Get REAL initiative through her volunteer work with Chris Studer, executive director and co-founder of Get REAL.

Barbara Komendera, president of Alpha Phi, and a student at UTM in the teachers’ program, hopes to see the organization recognized as an autonomous club by Ulife.

“We want to involve as many students on campus as we can,” said Komendera. “We want to work directly with the students at U of T. Step one is Pride next weekend and reaching out to other members of the sororities and fraternities to spread the word even further.”

Growth

“Anyone can join Get REAL,” said Studer. “We began this group by sharing our stories with schools. Sharing something personal, those stories are the best way to overcome prejudice.”

“It was a positive program [at Western], everyone went through ally training,” said Studer, adding that the Get REAL team spoke to first-year Western students after the training. “It went well, we would see kids’ language change in days.”

Thanks to its success at university level, Studer and his team decided to reach out to their former high schools in Ontario.

“Nothing like this existed when I was in grade 8, which was around 2003–2004” Studer said. “It was a very homophobic environment and thinking back to that, it took me a while to get past those attitudes.”

“The whole purpose of having a team at Western,” said Studer, “was to find a diverse group of people to share their stories with high-school level students. We have grown through our involvement on campus, like our fraternity and sorority video.”

Each of the 20 teams, including groups at Queens, Guelph, and Mount Allison University, takes a different approach to structuring their organization, Studer has left the Toronto team to come up with their own campaigns.

“Some teams have Varsity athlete involvements, others are a mish-mash of different types of people. We just give them the tools to create anything positive,” said Studer.

Correction (June 27, 2015, 12:51 pm): A previous version of this article stated that Get REAL aims to combat homophobia, when in fact it aims to tackle LGBTQ discrimination. The same version also implied that there were five campus teams, when in fact there are 20. A quotation has been amended for grammar, and another for clarity. The Varsity regrets the errors.

Disclaimer: The author of this article, Lexie Kelly, is a former member of Alpha Phi, one of the founding organizations of the U of T Get REAL initiative. 

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