“I don’t hide behind the shadows,” said Jose Martinez when asked to describe himself. Jose is a twenty-three year old from Toronto who has spent almost seventeen years of his life in the city of Ottawa, which he currently calls home. His personality is evident in the way he carries a conversation and his easy laugh instantly puts others at ease. However, it has not always been this way for Jose as he was not always as sure of himself as he is now. Over the years he has come to know himself through a trial by fire of sorts. “I feel like as a gay guy you definitely have to know yourself in order to survive in this type of community and environment, because if you don’t know yourself as an individual, people…[will seek] to direct your life as opposed to you taking it in your own hands,” he said. At seventeen years old he sought out volunteering opportunities in the city to help fill in his application for social work at Algonquin College and he turned to the LGBTQA community for ideas.
Eventually, he located an opportunity with a sub-group of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa called Gay Zone. The group, according to Jose and its website, offers rapid, anonymous STI and HIV tests for gay men. For a year and a half, Jose volunteered with Gay Zone. Slowly but surely, he became aware of the services available to members of the LGBTQA community in Ottawa. While he greatly enjoyed his volunteering, Jose said, “It’s a shame that I had to go to the AIDS Committee of Ottawa to see that there were that many services for [members of the LGBTQA community]. I realized that the visibility of these programs is actually very [small], it’s not big, it’s not out there.”
Jose freely admits that there are definitely areas of the city where the presence of the LGBTQA community is more prominent. Elgin or Bank Street are included in his list of highlights but he notes that as a young man from the East end, he saw little to no activity from that community in his neighbourhood. “I thought that there were no services for me,” he stated and that prompted him to feel alone in his struggles. Through his volunteering he happily discovered that, “[While] the community may seem small when you’re in there, it’s very big because you finally realize it’s not about who’s out and who’s not, it’s about you being gay and wanting to have that relationship and feel a part of something.”
Social media helps Jose connect with the wider LGBTQA community as well. He cites his Twitter as an interesting medium of communication and told a story about a follower of his who recently went through a difficult time in terms of mental health. Said follower posted about feeling suicidal and Jose quickly messaged him privately in a show of support. The worst part of this story, which ended happily – the follower now occasionally confides in Jose while also seeing a counsellor, was that the follower cited his LGBTQA community as part of the reason for his depressed thoughts. “It scared me,” Jose confided about the experience. In a sense, he attributes social media to this idea of exclusivity perpetuated by certain communities. He spoke personally of his experiences with cliques in the LGBTQA community in Ottawa and reinforced the idea that people need to remember how damaging it can be to isolate others.
“You become shallow and deterred from social interaction,” he said when asked about his thoughts on dating and meet up apps. “I can meet people in any other way,” he noted, and with a laugh added, “My laugh is better in person than it is over text anyway.” His laugh is deep and full, rich like a good wine, that certainly cannot come across over the internet. In terms of what services he recommends for LGBTQA people who are looking for a place to belong in Ottawa, Jose listed everything from the Ottawa Senior Pride Network to KIND, formerly known as Pink Triangle Services. As for those who just want to get to know Ottawa better, Jose recommended checking out the social scene by paying a visit to Babylon or visiting one of the city’s many museums. “What I love about Ottawa is that you can take your time to discover yourself and the people here, it’s not rushed, you don’t get that time in Montreal or Toronto because you’re trying to be the next big thing in your community,” stated Jose in a fond tone.
For his final thoughts of the day, Jose sent a shout of appreciation to all of the service centres that work with the LGBTQA community and the people who run them. “They make the community safer and more diverse,” he said proudly, “the time and effort spent at centres and their events are greatly appreciated.” And when asked what advice he would give someone just discovering their true selves for the first time, he said, “Don’t feel alone, don’t be afraid to show who you really are as a person, and definitely do not be intimidated.”