Lezlie Lee Kam
"I identify as a brown, Carib, Trini, Callaloo dyke. I use the word dyke, in terms of reclaiming it and as a political statement. As far back as I can remember, as soon as I came out, I’ve been a community activist and now I am a volunteer with the Canadian Cancer Society Get Screened Program, the Senior Pride Network Advisory Committee, Pride Toronto, The 519 Church Street Community Centre and at Bridgepoint Rehabilitation Hospital."
Below is an edited interview with Lezlie Lee Kam, by Heather Bain on March 27, 2015. For the full fabolous interview, please open the following document.
Heather Bain: Can you tell me about your self and where you grew up?
Lezlie Lee Kam: I grew up in Trinidad; I was born 1954 in Port of Spain. I grew up with my father and three brothers. We were raised to be self-sufficient and independent because that’s how he was raised. I was brought to Toronto by my mother in 1970 because she had custody of me. She brought me here when I was 16 and I experienced major culture shock.
Do you want to talk about when you started to come out?
It was interesting because my second year of university a woman I knew from Trinidad came to live in Toronto. And one night we were at a party and I was having problems with my boyfriend so I told him he could go home, and I went back to my mother’s place with this friend. She was always very affectionate with me, very warm, very touchy. And she said “Can I tuck you into bed?” And I said “sure”. And then she says, “well, I’m going to kiss you”, and she kissed me and I saw stars. From that moment there was no turning back. But back then in 1973, there was no language for what was happening between us and from what we knew it was bad for two women to love each other.
In ’76, what was it like coming out officially as a lesbian of colour?
It was a very rude awakening because I didn’t know what to do. I went through hell trying to find anybody who was like me, I wanted to help other women who were also brown, because back then you didn’t say of colour. So we started a peer counseling phone line and I was one of the peer counselors. There were five of us who were women of colour. There was one Chinese woman, myself Brown, and three Black women. And back then, the only place you socialized apart from LOOT, if you were a woman, and CHAT, Community Homophile Association of Toronto, was the bars. The Cameo was a really rough bar down on Trinity near Eastern Avenue. And the women who went there were into major role-play; butch and femme. The first time we went to The Cameo, there were these long trestle tables where you sat across from each other and a butch didn’t dare look at another butch’s femme. We were sitting at the end of one of these tables and all we heard was “Bottles up!” And a butch came flying down the table and landed at the end, and there was blood everywhere, because this one butch looked at somebody else’s femme without permission. That’s how rough and tough it was back then. So here we are, this little group of women of colour, in this environment of butches and femmes who are all white. So, another culture shock.
Are there any other memories that are favorite memories from when you were coming out?
The Studio was a really nice club. It was one of the only bars back then, between ‘77 and ‘80, where men and women were together, safely, in one spot. Actually it’s called Zippers now and it’s on Carlton. One of my fondest memories was dancing, because we used to practice our dance moves and we would get on the dance floor and just everybody would stand back and watch us dance. And that’s where we felt the safest, at The Studio dancing. And that’s where we got recognition as women of colour because we could dance. Disco was the biggest thing back then, so they called us Disco Queens. So that’s a favorite memory.
I know that you went on to do a lot work in Toronto, can you tell us about the work you did with queer and trans communities over the years?
Well, we got involved with Pride, so the group of five grew in to a larger group and it was called the Mixed Race Lesbian Group. Then in 1991 a group of us formed a group called Lesbians of Colour and we were in the Pride Parade with a little banner. Anthony Mohammed, who’s with Senior Pride Network, came to me in ‘91 and he said “We’re both from Trinidad, let’s do a jump up carnival type thing in ’92.” So for the first time in Pride, there was an official presence of people of colour in Toronto. It was our group and we called ourselves The Proud and Visible Coalition. There was nothing trans back then, this was ’92. The word queer wasn’t being used, just lesbian and gay. And fag and dyke were terms that we were reclaiming. Then, after Proud and Visible, the Lesbians of Colour got together again and formed another group called World Majority Lesbians. We were in the Pride Parade officially from ’93 until ’99. During that time I was also the Dyke of Ceremonies for International Women’s Day at Convocation Hall.
From 1998-1999 I was doing anti-racism, Anti-Oppression and anti-homophobia workshops with a white woman, also a lesbian, and we worked with all the shelters in southern Ontario and also dealt with the very taboo subject of violence in same sex relationships.
There was a big gap in my life between 2001 and 2006. For the first two months of 2007 I was in a coma due to alcohol poisoning and my family was told I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life. When I came out of the coma I ended up at Bridgepoint Rehab Hospital for four months and when I came home from Bridgepoint, Women’s Health In Women’s Hands became very pivotal in my life, giving me hope to live again. I was discovered by the Senior Pride Network around 2012. Since being on SPN, I have been part of a team who presented at the Rainbow Health Ontario Conference and OANHSS Conference, the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association of Homes and Services for Seniors. I was on the planning committee for the Time After Time Dance and Entertainment Evening, an intergenerational LGBTQ event. I also volunteer at Bridgepoint, Canadian Cancer Society, Pride Toronto and The 519.
So you named some of the changes that you’ve seen in communities, like language; more visibility for people of colour; you talked about same-sex violence which was once taboo and is now something that is talked about a bit more. What do you think are important issues for communities now?
We need more rights for trans people, queer people with disabilities, and Two Spirit people. Unfortunately I am finding 50+ queer people of colour, especially lesbians, are disappearing. I find myself being the only one many times when I’m out there and I’m wondering ‘where are the rest of us?’
I now have to use a cane for balance and I have discovered that the queer community does not take kindly to people who are differently abled. I’ve noticed, when at slow dances, that when you use a cane you’re viewed differently, as if you have no sexuality or sensuality in your life. You’re no longer a sexual being. And it’s quite sad, especially in our communities where you have so many challenges to deal with, that we now add this to somebody, simply because of what they look like. I feel like I am being put at a disadvantage as a lesbian of colour because now I use a cane. I would like the communities out there, the queer community, to wake up and start looking at things a little differently because we all have challenges that we face.
Lezlie would be happy to hear from you! She can be reached through the Senior Pride Network: firstname.lastname@example.org
ARTICLES FEATURING LEZLIE