Huffington Post: LGBTQ kids living their truths at camp

11 Mar
Meet Rose.

Meet Rose.

I recently wrote a piece in the Huffington Post about Rose and how her involvement in the Ten Oaks Project changed her life.

Rose always knew she wanted to be a girl. She wanted to dress like a girl, play with dolls and wear pink clothes.

Secretly, she could be a girl at home. But outside of her house, she lived a lie and her life as a boy. Rose wasn’t safe enough to live her truths and authentic story.

“I was unhappy and sad before I transitioned,” explains Rose in a beautiful letter. “I wasn’t who I thought I was to be.”

Her life drastically changed when she went to Camp Ten Oaks, a one-week, sleep-away camp for children and youth from LGBTQ identities, families and communities. Camp Ten Oaks is part of the Ten Oaks Project, a Canadian-based organization that engages and supports young people from LGBTQ communities through camp.

Something changed in Rose at camp. She was in a supportive environment and surrounded by others like her, which gave her the courage she needed to live as a girl.

“In that moment, I could see a different future for myself,” Rose says. “If it weren’t for camp, I think I’d still be a boy. And unhappy about my life.”

When I think about the young people who go to Camp Ten Oaks and Project Acorn (Ten Oaks’ other camp for youth), my heart is filled with so much joy. These young people can experience community, belonging and live their truths.

That time I hated dresses and only wanted to play baseball.

That time I hated dresses and only wanted to play baseball.

I think of the Jenna of my past and how my life would’ve been so different if I had a place like Camp Ten Oaks or Project Acorn to call home. Perhaps I would’ve seen a different future for myself at a younger age, which would’ve helped me accept all the pieces of my story sooner.

The sooner these young people can experience this freedom, acceptance and belonging, the sooner they can blossom into the beautiful roses they are meant to be.

Ten Oaks’ bowl-a-thon fundraiser is also coming up on March 21. The group is hoping to raise $40,000 to help send kids to camp. This year’s bowl-a-thon will help subsidize camper registration fees (80 per cent of participants access the sliding scale) and send 10 extra participants to camp.

Please support my bowling team, the Team Players here, so we can help send children and youth like Rose to camp. I’ll write you a personalized haiku or poem based on how much you donate!

On another awesome note, I know I know I know you want to hear this news. Tegan and Sara have also donated several prizes to our bowl-a-thon, including an autographed poster, varsity jacket and a rare vinyl box set collection. You can check out the awesome awesome swag here!

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My latest Huffington Post piece: why GSAs in Catholic schools matter

22 Dec
TCDSB

Speaking at the retreat. (Mary Gomes)

Inclusion and belonging: words that don’t often come to mind for LGBTQ people in the church.

But this space was different.

I recently spoke at the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s Inclusion and Belonging Retreat, which you can read about in my latest Huffington Post piece. It was a beautiful space where high school students could come as they are, encourage one another, share their struggles and know they weren’t alone.

This retreat opened up inclusive spaces for Toronto students involved in gay-straight alliances (GSAs), a place where LGBTQ and straight students come together as allies. It’s pretty incredible this student-led space existed, let alone for the second time this year with more than 170 students.

When I went to a Catholic high school more than a decade ago, I could have never imagined having a GSA at my school. Homophobia was alive and well, and those who were out or suspected of being gay were often marginalized, mistreated and shamed.

I wish I had the courage to speak up and be visible.

But I wasn’t ready and it took many more years to accept and come to terms with being gay and Christian. These students, however, are living in a different time where they can exist, be visible and share their stories. The students give me courage to keep fighting and believing LGBTQ people could feel safe and belong in Christian communities.

TCDSB

Leading a spoken word workshop. (Mary Gomes)

Right now, there is much debate in Alberta on Bill 10, which would allow school boards to rejects students’ requests to create a GSA. There are no GSAs in Catholic schools in Alberta, which I hope will change as we have seen in the Toronto board.

It won’t be an easy road ahead, but to see students know they belonged — even if it was just one day — is worth the fight.

10 lessons I’ve learned from writing my thesis

4 Dec

I love reflecting and dreaming. It’s shocking, right? I get into deeper reflection mode in December as I soak up the past year and think about my dreams for the future. It has been another year of wonderful opportunities, tough challenges, amazing people and living out my passions.

While reflecting on this past year, I realized I don’t take enough time to soak up my accomplishments. I probably spend more time appreciating the little things in life, but I think it’s also important to value reaching certain goals.

One of those moments was FINALLY finishing my thesis. 

Last month, I walked across the NAC stage, shook Michaelle Jean’s hand and got my master’s degree. It’s pretty surreal writing this post, considering the fact I didn’t think I would actually finish. If you ask my friends, the thesis updates were rarely positive!

(Robert Tenn-Yuk)

I finally did it! (Robert Tenn-Yuk)

But it’s done and I’m writing this post. Woo!

The past three years have been quite the journey. There were many tears and low points, but I’m glad I pushed through. Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from writing my thesis.

  1. What if you lose your passion? Sorry to break it to you, but this will happen. You won’t always feel passionate and will probably want to quit many times. This was a huge struggle for me, especially as someone who advocates for people to follow their passions. Sometimes, you need to suck it up and do it.
  2. Tough love goes a long way. Have blunt people in your life who will tell it like it is. When I told one of my closest friends I wasn’t passionate about my thesis and wanted to quit, she gave me some tough love. She told me I had come this far, couldn’t give up and had to finish what I started – even if I wasn’t passionate about my work. This conversation was a turning point in which I committed to finishing what I started.
  3. Trust your gut. My thesis changed drastically from my original vision. I didn’t trust myself on how I wanted to do it, which made writing a challenge (i.e. critical discourse analysis isn’t the most exciting methodology). If trusting your gut means putting more work on the front end, do it.
  4. Find the cheerleaders. You’re going to stare at your computer for many, many days. You won’t write anything. You’ll waste a lot of time on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. You’ll probably cry. When you’re in those spots, surround yourself with people who will encourage, support and ask you how you’re doing. When you don’t believe it, others can keep the faith.
  5. Reward yourself. Set mini goals instead of focusing on the end product. The finish line will overwhelm you. I often rewarded myself with going to the gym or hanging out with friends. It’s okay to take a break. And it’s okay to cry.
  6. Have work friends. My supervisor set up group meetings every week, which were really helpful to keep me on task and stay motivated. It was nice to be around people who were going through the same process, and could encourage and give feedback.
  7. Add a new discourse. It’s exciting to think I’ve added a new discourse to academia and documented Capital Slam’s history. Many people talked about the lack of female poets in the scene, and I got to deeply investigate the community and put that story in the public sphere. There’s also limited research on slam poetry (especially in Canada), so it’s neat to add a new discourse.
  8. A piece of paper matters. I had numerous arguments with friends about this piece of paper. I constantly questioned if it really mattered. They said yes. I know that doing a master’s degree in women’s studies has opened up several doors for me. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want my lack of a piece of paper to prevent me from certain opportunities.
  9. Where’s your focus? My thesis was never my focus, so that’s why it took me an extra year to complete. If I had acknowledged that sooner and was okay with taking a bit longer, then I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself. Since I didn’t focus on my thesis, I could pursue some other great opportunities.
  10. A good thesis is a finished thesis. This was great advice from my friend. My thesis wasn’t perfect and there were many ways I could’ve taken it, but I finished it. Someone else can take up where I left off and hopefully it’ll help someone who’s doing research on slam poetry.
The fam.

Grateful to share this moment with my family.

And remember, don’t be so hard on yourself. Writing a thesis (or any essay or project) can be really challenging. When you need some encouragement, watch this scene from The Waterboy. I’m living proof that you can do it!

When you have chance, please check out my thesis on Capital Slam’s poetry scene: Where My Girls At? A Critical Discourse Analysis of Gender, Race, Sexuality, Voice and Activism in Ottawa’s Capital Slam Poetry Scene.

Here’s a quick abstract:

Ottawa’s Capital Slam poetry scene has transformed over the past decade, marking a shift in the identities, discourses and performance styles of local poets. This thesis investigates these changes and trends within the time periods of 2008-2010 and 2012-2014.

This thesis demonstrates the shift from male poets of colour in 2008-2010 to female voices in 2012-2014 at Capital Slam, through an examination of Ottawa’s history and a multimodal critical discourse analysis of online performances. In particular, the creation of local alternative poetry shows over the past five years has increased the representation of female poets and transformed the racial dynamics of the scene.

During the period 2008-2010 and 2012-2014, poets used key historical elements of slam poetry such as storytelling and speaking through personal experiences to effectively demonstrate how marginalized individuals can speak counter-narratives to dominant culture. The use of storytelling allowed these poets to engage, connect and dialogue with the audience, as well as demonstrate their different identities, discourses and performance styles.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from writing a thesis, paper or finishing a project?

I don’t hate the sinner, I hate the sin (poem)

16 Oct

Have you ever heard a Christian person mention,
“I don’t hate the sinner, I hate the sin”
Can I tell you how annoying that comment is?
And I grew up Christian.

(Michael Vidler)

(Michael Vidler)

I recently had the opportunity to film one of my poems, I Don’t Hate the Sinner, I Hate the Sin, in a Vancouver church. I’ve wanted to film one of my pieces about being gay and Christian in a church for several years, and I finally had the opportunity during my Vancouver Biennale artist residency over the summer.

It was an interesting experience to film in a place that has become foreign and scary to me. I had many thoughts and feelings of belonging (or lack thereof) while I was there.

It brought me back to the place in which I had written this poem. It brought me back to harmful comments that many Christians say to people who are LGBTQ without thinking twice.

It was a place of hurt, pain and shame.

One of the most common phrases is, “I don’t hate the sinner, I hate the sin.” Christians often say they don’t hate LGBTQ people, but their “lifestyle.” It’s a shame that same-sex love is somehow reduced to a lifestyle and not simply love.

But this poem reminds me that change can happen.

Since writing this piece, I’ve grown in loving myself and accepting my story. Others have also grown in listening and understanding my experiences. We may have different perspectives, but I know how much they love me and our hearts are softening.

It would mean a lot if you checked out this personal poem when you have a chance. Thank you to Michael Vidler for producing this video, and Canadian Memorial United Church for allowing us to film in their sanctuary.

Let’s keep chatting, breaking down walls, hearing each other’s stories and living in the grey.

My memory calls and it’s asking for you (song)

15 Oct

My memory calls
And it’s asking for you
Wondering if you’re around today.

Sometimes, we hold on to memories. Other times, we have to let them go.

Jamming with Sam and Chris. (Scott Douglas)

Performing with Samantha Chan and Chris Tse at Gene Cafe in Vancouver. (Scott Douglas)

Check out my song, My Memory Calls, when you have a chance. A big thanks to Samantha Chan for accompanying me and to Scott Douglas for filming us at Olympic Village in Vancouver.

My memory calls
But there’s no reply
Maybe I’ll call you another time.

To be or not to be a minority – that is the question (poem)

1 Oct

To be or not to be a minority – that is the question
A question I have been revisiting and trying to comprehend
From the outskirts, being a minority doesn’t seem like the ideal position
Being different, perhaps a dissident, maybe exotic
And I’m all too familiar with these words and trends
Having used them, even in my favour.
But as I have come to understand and accept my story
This minority status has become a fallacy
A malicious status imposed on me
The dominant norms and ideologies that have bruised and broken and beaten me
Boxing me in to this tiny crevice of being a minority.

Have you ever felt different, or that you didn’t quite fit or belong?

Most of us have felt that way at one point or another in our lives. It’s not an easy place to be, especially when we desire love, connection, acceptance and belonging.

Puzzle

Trying to find the right pieces. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

I’ve felt different for most of my life and my puzzle pieces never seemed to line up. There was always a part of me that didn’t quite fit the community I wanted to belong to. It has been really challenging negotiating the various pieces of my identity and figuring out how I belonged (or didn’t).

In some groups, I held back certain aspects of my identity and part of me was missing. In other spaces, I hid different pieces and didn’t feel whole. There was silence, insecurity and often shame.

Gay AND Christian? Chinese AND Jamaican? Say what?!?

Many of us never feel like we’re enough.

Never forget these powerful words. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

And yet we are. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Can I tell you how awesome you are? It’s true! Many of us navigate these in-between spaces and yet, we often marginalize others who are different. We really need to listen and hear each other’s stories, and not be afraid to bring our whole selves.

I’m still figuring out what it looks like to bring all the pieces of Jenna to the table. It’s tough and will be a lifelong journey, but I know it’ll be worth it. When you have a chance, check out my poem, Minority, and I hope you can connect.

Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong? How have you negotiated the various pieces of your identity?

Creating spaces and showing up: my last Words to Live By show

25 Aug

I can’t believe it has been two years since I accidentally started Words to Live By! It was meant to be a five-part series over the summer, but there was a demand to continue a monthly show.

Several people said this kind of series was missing from Ottawa’s spoken word scene and there hadn’t been a show like this since the Oneness Poetry Showcase.

A beautiful and intimate atmosphere. (Rebecca Jones)

An intimate atmosphere at Pressed for our first show. (Rebecca Jones)

I really wanted to create a space to encourage first-time performers, up-and-coming poets and women. We’ve had many people courageously share their poetry for the first time, while others have had their first featured performance.

Artemysia Fragiskatos first poetry feature. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Artemysia Fragiskatos’ first poetry feature. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Benoit Christie performing during the open mic. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Benoit Christie performing during the open mic. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

It has been beautiful to see people step out of their comfort zone, and recognize the power of their voices and stories.

“Open mic with the bestest people in the world. Thank you for providing space for all those wonderful poets and incredible human beings. Learning to own my voice and be my kind of beautiful 🙂 Jenna, thank you for introducing me so lovingly into the stage…the warm feeling is still spreading from my chest to my smile. Thank you for being your awesome self and organizing the best show in town. I look forward to it every time.”

It has been such a pleasure showing up and creating a place for individuals to own their voices and be their kind of beautiful. Often, we just need the opportunity, encouragement and space to realize how awesome we are.

Many great memories at Words to Live By. (Artemysia Fragiskatos)

Many great memories at Words to Live By. (Artemysia Fragiskatos)

If you’re around tomorrow on Tuesday, August 26, it’d be awesome to see you for my last Words to Live By show at Pressed Cafe. I’m also excited to let you know that Artemysia Fragiskatos and Brad Morden will be continuing the show.

Doors and open mic sign-up are at 7pm. Come by, share some poetry and celebrate our two-year anniversary with us!

Pride is marching in your first Pride Parade

24 Aug

Several years ago, I had the chance to walk in my first Pride Parade in Ottawa with a friend. However, fear controlled me and I wasn’t ready to be involved. I was too afraid and ashamed of being gay.

Today, I’ll be walking in my first Pride Parade in Ottawa with the Ten Oaks Project. It has been a long journey of acceptance, which you can read in my Ottawa Citizen op-ed and CBC interview from last year. I’m excited to walk with my friends, and celebrate our beautiful and diverse tapestry.

“Don’t deprive people of who you really are.”

Those are some wise words from that friend who wanted to walk with me in the parade. I keep that quote in my wallet to remind me to be proud of who I am.

Each one of us has so much to offer the world around us, so shine brightly. Happy Pride!

The Team Players at the Ten Oaks bowl-a-thon. (Kathleen Clark)

 Hanging out with the Team Players at the Ten Oaks bowl-a-thon. (Kathleen Clark)

“Do you have hope for the church?”

25 Jun
(Michael Vidler)

Leading a workshop at Heartwood Community Cafe. (Michael Vidler)

(Michael Vidler)

Some powerful reflections and dialogue. (Michael Vidler)

When I arrived in Vancouver a month ago, I wasn’t sure where my Vancouver Biennale project would take me. I’ve led numerous workshops, had a few performances and met some incredible people who have inspired, encouraged and challenged me. My mind and heart have been filled with thoughtful dialogue, as well as powerful stories and perspectives.

In my workshops and meetings, people have raised questions and comments that have caused me to reflect on my project and what it looks like to build bridges between LGBTQ, Christian and feminist communities:

  • “Is this pain worth it?”
  • “I think it comes out as hate, but a lot of the time it’s actually fear… People are just trying to protect themselves.”
  • “I want to step into community that understand me.”
  • “I feel really disoriented because I feel like I have to hide parts of myself from different people.”
  • “The healing part is figuring out in all the displacement, how we can find place and hold one another.”
  • “We need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes… The shoes may feel uncomfortable.”
  • “Do you have hope for the church?”
(roaming-the-planet)

(roaming-the-planet)

(Jarrah Hodge)

What comes to mind when you think of feminists, Christians and LGBTQ people? (Jarrah Hodge)

When that person asked me if I had hope for the church and these communities, I told him I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t have hope. I have to believe that change is possible for these seemingly dissimilar communities. I’ve seen movement and transformation in these spaces, even if it’s slow and takes a long time.

Identity is complex and difficult, but I also believe that understanding and reconciliation can occur between LGBTQ, Christian and feminist communities. There’s a hunger for these conversations, and a strong desire to find community and belonging.

This project is also timely in Vancouver.

The Vancouver School Board recently passed a new policy that allows transgender students to be addressed by the name and pronoun that best represents their gender identity. The changes also discourage sex-segregated activities and allow transgender students to use whatever washroom they feel most comfortable.

Chinese and Christian parents have been represented as a homogenous group by the media, tying race and faith to homophobia and transphobia. For example, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente recently wrote about the policy and said, “Many of the Chinese parents, like Ms. Chang, are Christians…” She didn’t check her facts because Cheryl Chang is actually white.

I recently chatted with Fiona Chen, a Chinese-Christian mother who defended the new policy and has been outspoken about supporting her transgender child. I admire her courage to tell her story, as well as the stereotypes she is breaking down and bridges she is building. You can hear more of her story in this CBC interview.

Fiona’s story and desire to fight for her son has encouraged me to keep fighting. 

This work is tough, but I know it’s worth it. It’s worth the risk, pain and messiness. Change occurs when we fight and are unwilling to accept the status quo – especially when that marginalizes individuals and tells them they are worthless.

I’m looking forward to my final event where I’ll bring together voices from my workshops and various conversations. There will be some spoken word poetry, storytelling and video this Saturday, June 28 at Our Town Cafe at 7pm. There’s a hunger here for these discussions and I hope my time here starts more conversations in Vancouver.

Check out some photos from my workshops at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House and Heartwood Community Cafe. Heartwood is a beautiful space that focuses on community building and social justice, so check it out if you have a chance!

Everyone loves an Asian girl, right? (poem)

12 Jun

Everyone Loves An Asian Girl was the first poem I wrote four and a half years ago. I was inspired after a poetry show and the words quickly flooded out of my pen.

Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. Those countless hours of writing, reflecting and performing have brought me to Vancouver as a Vancouver Biennale artist-in-residence.

Since that first poem, my work has continued to deal with who I am and the complexities of identity. Writing has helped me to negotiate, work through and come to terms with the various pieces of my story. It has also caused me to reflect and ask even more questions.

Since being in Vancouver, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and my roots.

It’s uncomfortable to work through these difficult and complex parts of who we are, but it’s necessary for change and growth. We often don’t give ourselves the space to deal with these issues and questions.

Vancouver Poetry Slam

Performing at the Vancouver Poetry Slam. (Camila Ramos Bravo)

Last Monday, I did a mini feature at the Vancouver Poetry Slam. I performed two of my poems, Everyone Loves An Asian Girl and Minority. I hadn’t performed that piece since I wrote Everyone Loves A Jamasian Girl, a poem exploring my Chinese-Jamaican roots.

So when did liking Asian girls become a trend
When my friend asked me, “Jenna, why do guys like Asian girls?”
I let out a smirk and didn’t know what to say
It’s because we’re cute and petite and “exotic?”
Wait a minute! Why did I justify?
Offended because she reduced me to that
I was more than just an Asian girl
Who got all the stares at my –
Everyone loves an Asian girl t-shirt.

This poem was inspired by my t-shirt, Everyone loves an Asian girl, which I bought in high school. I thought it was cute and true, especially with so many people having “yellow fever.”

Everyone loves an Asian girl. (Kaite Burkholder)

Everyone loves an Asian girl, right? (Kaite Burkholder)

What’s this “yellow fever?” It’s a term used to describe people of non-Asian descent who have a strong interest, attraction and preference for Asian people and culture. I’ve been on the receiving end of this “fever,” particularly from men.

I used to think this obsession was funny, flattering or made me special in some strange way. However, I’ve come to resent this exoticization of my appearance and the assumptions associated with being an Asian woman.

It’s tiring to be objectified for how you look and having people constantly ask, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” Many people aren’t usually satisfied when I tell them I’m from Canada.

Check out my poem when you have a chance and thank you to the Vancouver Poetry Slam for filming it.

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