Every human being deserves to be treated equally, fairly and with respect, regardless of his or her sexual orientation. However, globally, the LGBTQ community faces severe discrimination, violence and abuse. Michelle Emson, a committed LGBTQ advocate, an award-winning speaker and an openly ‘out’ transgender woman, is working to change that in Ukraine.
Originally from southern Ontario, Emson has also attended Brantford Pride and has presented on gender issues at the local Grand River Community Health Centre. Today, Emson currently lives in Slovenia, alongside her girlfriend, Olena Semenova, and Ukrainian and Canadian human rights advocates, continuing to raise awareness for the fight of LGBTQ rights.
The homophobic and transphobic culture in Ukraine discriminates against the LGBTQ community by challenging their “right to exist”, said Emson.
The first pride parade in Kyiv, was to be held in 2012 but it was not safe for people to march due to the strong homophobic oppression and was cancelled as a result. In 2013, Europe and Canada supported the Ukrainian activists and although Pride was successful, discrimination and violence was unavoidable. Lastly, in 2014 Kyiv Pride was cancelled at the last minute because police could not provide security to the people.
Emson works to reduce the stigma surrounding both gender expression and mental health throughout the transgender journey. The Canadian Embassy in Ukraine is supporting the production of a documentary called PRIDE of Ukraine – Inspire a World of Change about the story of Kyiv Pride movement from 2012 to 2015. Michelle Emson is the co-producer and is putting the final touches on the documentary before it is published this month.
She stresses that “coming out of the closet” is very endangering for LGBTQ people in Kyiv, as people are exposed to extreme violence.
Emson’s personal transgender journey has been long and intense.
“It took me ten years to plug up the courage,” she said, finally deciding to speak to a therapist about her gender in 2008. She spent three years looking for a “cure”. The year of 2011 was her “social transition year”: she began hormone therapy and came out at work. Her final surgery was in Dec. 2013.
Emson’s relationship to her family and friends has dramatically changed throughout her transition. Emson has not seen her two step-children and six grandchildren for about five years. She had hoped that her family had at least an idea of what was happening all along, “only to discover that they were clueless”, she said.
Emson is hoping to create a support system for the family and friends who receive “only little focus and attention”, she said, speaking of her experience through re-socialization.
“Society wanted me to be a boy and that’s what I was,” she explained. She added that if there is not enough support available for youth who may be gender diverse, it will lead to “permanent difficulties”. She emphasized that intervention usually happens at a later age which causes long-term mental health issues that can be avoided through an early transition.
With proper support, social transformation can begin earlier. Emson said that there would have been far fewer struggles and fear in her childhood if she were able to come out of the closet at 12 years old.
“It would have been awesome,” she said. Rainbow Alliance at Laurier Brantford offers support to students on campus who may be dealing with coming out, transitioning, or any other issue that the LGBTQ community and its allies may face. The group focuses on acceptance and awareness, just as Emson advocates for. Identities, pronouns and other wording can all be vital in a person’s journey.
“We provide educational workshops, to ensure that the students are learning about the right terminology,” said Melissa Burke, Diversity and Leadership Coordinator on Campus.
Amidst all of the discrimination that still plagues the global LGBTQ community, there are individuals and groups working every day to see that change. Michelle Emson is one advocate who aspires to make the LGBTQ community’s march through life a whole lot easier, safer and freer.