The Demystifiers

The Demystifiers

LiQ_Mag_Dec_2014This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Ruby Pratka

Vanessa Allard-Morin is an army medic. Julie Lavoie is a psychology student. Jean-Philippe Marion is a barista. Martin Girard is an IT entrepreneur.

But in their spare time, they are the Demystifiers.

Vanessa Allard-Morin

Vanessa Allard-Morin

The Demystifiers and the group that trains and dispatches them, the Groupe régional d’intervention sociale (GRIS), sound like branches of a crime-fighting squad. But they have no capes or special effects. Their mission is to promote acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality in high schools and colleges around the province. Their secret weapons are their own life stories.

“We don’t demystify with data, we demystify with our own experience,” Lavoie explains. “What I know best is my life.”
“I tell the kids that I like to travel, I have a dog, and I had cereal for breakfast this morning,” says Allard-Morin. “We’re not extraterrestrials, and we’re not there to recruit.”

After presenting themselves, the Demystifiers, who work in teams of two, open the floor for questions. There are very few taboos. Lavoie talks freely about her childhood in Saguenay, her initially tumultuous coming-out, and her long-distance relationship with her girlfriend.

“I like questions that are difficult,” she says. “If a question sends shockwaves through the room, that means other people are asking it.”

“The kids love asking questions,” says Allard-Morin, who has done 10 school visits. “The most common questions are about how my friends, parents, and work handled my coming out. Once, though, someone asked me if the disease was curable.”

Julie Lavoie

Julie Lavoie

The GRIS has been sending volunteers into schools for more than 20 years in Montréal and close to 15 years in Québec City. Teachers invite speakers to their classes, either as a way of addressing a bullying incident or as part of a broader emphasis on tolerance. GRIS has spawned branch organizations in three other regions of Québec and even in Belgium.

In the project’s early days, gay and lesbian Canadians were not yet protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage and adoption were activist pipe dreams. “People didn’t talk about it in my family or at school when I was growing up,” says Martin Girard, who co-organized the group in Sherbrooke and Montréal in the mid-1990s. “The church condemned it, and of course there was the AIDS crisis.”

“I’ve seen a lot of evolution, as far as people’s mentalities are concerned,” he says. “The laws are great, but there’s still a lot of grassroots work to be done.”

“There’s been a definite change in mentalities compared to where we were 13 or 14 years ago,” says André Tardif, the organization’s Québec City director.

“We speak a lot more about gay families with children now; we have some Demystifiers who are raising children.

The teenagers we speak to are a bit more open to discussion and know a lot more people who are gay, but they still have a lot of the same prejudices. People learn prejudices from previous generations. In that sense it’s no different from racism or sexism. You say to yourself, ‘God, these things take a long time to change.’”

Jean-Philippe Marion

Jean-Philippe Marion

That, ideally, is where the GRIS comes in. “With adults, it’s difficult to change mentalities. Fourteen-year-old kids are in learning mode, in discovery mode. We want to integrate (an understanding of) difference into their education at that point,” says Tardif.

The Demystifiers have also begun to present in francisation classes, which teach adult newcomers about Québec’s language and culture. “Some immigrants come from countries where homosexuality is a taboo or even a crime. We’re the first bisexual and homosexual people that they meet. The challenge is showing, in 75 minutes, that we are ordinary people and we can be different and at the same time comfortable in our own skin,” says Marie-Christine Rochefort, demystification coordinator at GRIS-Québec.

“The preconceived notions that the francisation students and the youth have are pretty much the same,” she says. “That gay and bisexual people are abnormal, unhealthy, or can’t be good role models for their children, and that gay men are all effeminate and lesbian women all masculine.”

The sessions have a dual goal: chipping away at stereotypes about the gay community and helping gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students feel more comfortable in their own skin. It’s a mission that hits home for Jean-Philippe Marion.

“I share my story because I would have liked to have someone do that for me,” he says. Marion, 28, grew up in Normétal, a town of less than 900 people south of James Bay. “There were so many times I felt so alone,” he recalls.

“I came out in high school to four people whom I trusted,” he recalls. “Then one guy told another friend of mine and suddenly the whole school knew, in a day. For a few days it was hard; people I didn’t know stared at me. Then they started to ask me all kinds of questions. I was eventually voted personality of the year.”

“For a while after I came out, I didn’t like myself very much,” he remembers. “I tell the whole story to the kids; I don’t mind saying in my presentations that at one point I wanted to die. It feels good to share it, because if there’s someone in the class who’s like I was, who is suicidal, hating themselves, scared…If I can grab the attention of that one person, maybe they’ll like themselves a bit more. I’m pretty sure we (the Demystifiers) have done that. In fact, I’m 100 per cent certain.”

LiQ_Mag_Abonnez-vousJulie White is an English teacher at Quebec High School, an Anglophone secondary school in Québec City. She makes sure her Secondary 1 students hear the presentation every year. “They’re at the age where they are questioning themselves, and hearing that message of acceptance could provide some comfort,” she says.

“Of course, they (the presenters) talk about homosexuality,” says White. “But their core message is about accepting others and accepting yourself and being you.”

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About Author

Ruby Pratka

Ruby Pratka grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied in Ottawa and took the roundabout way to Quebec City via Russia, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Belgium and East Africa. In addition to writing for LifeinQuebec.com and Life in Québec Magazine, she also contributes to other media outlets in English and French. She enjoys keeping a close eye on international affairs, listening to good music and singing in large groups.

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