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Just Be Gemma

A Q&A with alumni Gemma Hickey

Campus and Community | Alumni Spotlight

By Lisa Pendergast

The most difficult journey you may ever take is finding yourself.

Gemma Hickey, BA’03, a well-known activist in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for their contribution to LBGTQ rights in Canada and, more recently, the 2016 Human Rights Champion Award by the Human Rights Commission.

Gemma has advocated for many causes, including the arts, same-sex marriage, HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, at-risk youth and more recently, gender identity. Gemma identifies as non-binary and prefers to use the pronouns they and them.

This year, a documentary called Just Be Gemma followed Gemma on their journey as they discovered their true self.

LP: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

GH: I’ve been an activist for 20 years. I’ve done a lot of work locally, and am especially proud of a project I created in 2004 for Planned Parenthood that offers services to LBGTQ youth, the first of its kind in the province. I’m also quite proud of the work I’ve done across the country as past president of both Egale Canada and PFLAG Canada, two leading national LBGTQ organizations. And, of course, my work as an executive member of Canadians for Equal Marriage.

On April 12, I was the first person in Canada to apply for a non-binary birth certificate at Vital Statistics. The province wasn’t able to issue me one, so, on June 24 I filed an application at Supreme Court. The province made a wise decision not to challenge me in court and the minister of Service N.L. released a statement committing to change the legislation this fall. On Nov. 14, Bill 20, an act to amend the Vital Statistics Act, passed in the House of Assembly.

LP: Why did you first decide to come to Memorial University?

GH: Being brought up in an island culture means you have a fierce pride. Our resilience is as deep as the ocean we’ve built our lives around. I love my home. I never want to leave it. I can obtain just as good an education, if not better, at Memorial than anywhere else in the world.

I received my bachelor of arts at Memorial in religious studies and classics and am currently pursuing a master’s degree in gender studies. Through auto-ethnography, I found my place in academia. I’m a writer and my work is largely based from a sense of place.

LP: You are founder and chair of The Pathways Foundation and executive director at For the Love of Learning Inc. What can you tell me about these organizations?

GH: For the Love of Learning boosts the self-esteem and employability of our youth participants through really cool arts projects. And, the youth get to work with well-known actors, musicians, and others who mentor them in their area of interest.

We also provide food, referrals, creative workshops and employment opportunities, but most importantly, a safe space for youth to be themselves.

Pathways is a non-profit organization for survivors of religious institutional abuse. In July of 2015, I walked 938 kilometres across Newfoundland to raise funds and awareness for the organization.

“I felt like I walked from one side of the island to the other side of myself.”

It was during this Hope Walk that I felt like I walked from one side of the island to the other side of myself. I trained for 10 months and lost 75 pounds. Thinking about my own abuse, and how my body changed during training, brought me back to my body in a way that I hadn’t paid attention to before.

Completing this walk, facing the elements as well as myself alone on a highway shoulder, reminded me of all the hurt that I had forgotten about. It was a transitional journey in more ways than one.

LP: Congratulations on the documentary, Just Be Gemma! Can you tell me what this documentary is about?

GH: The documentary was directed and produced by Peter Walsh, of Nine Island Communications. I met him 15 years ago when he was a CBC journalist. He interviewed me about same-sex marriage.

Years later my working relationship with him was solidified through For the Love of Learning and Pathways. When I told him I was transitioning and wanted to document it in order to help transgender youth, he said, “Let’s do this!”

Peter and his crew followed me for 21 months through a wide range of emotions, changes and experiences. I suffer the loss of my grandmother, the loss of a relationship and delve into my relationships with my parents and how that relates to my past and present self.

“I like the way I look and am proud of the person I’ve become.”

It’s mainly a story about someone transitioning, but it’s also relatable because we all experience loss. And, we all change as a result.

I spent a lot time thinking about my body and body parts, how people see me and how I see myself, but at this point in my life, I like the way I look and am proud of the person I’ve become. It’s taken me a long time to get here, but I feel like I’ve finally arrived.

LP: As a well-known human rights activist, what advice would you give to students or alumni who want to be more active in our community?

GH: Don’t accept the status quo – change it. If you change one person, you change the world. And, if you use your struggles as wings instead of chains, there’s no limit to how high you’ll soar.

Just Be Gemma originally aired on CBC Television on Sept. 23. It will air again on the Documentary Channel, Friday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) and can also be viewed online.


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