Dana Seitler wants U of T’s new Queer and Trans Research Lab — the first of its kind in the world — to break down barriers, shatter the traditional practices of ivory tower academia, and empower community activists.
The director of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies — which will host the Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL) beginning this September — sees the groundbreaking new initiative as a way to counter the isolation of queer and trans researchers, as well as a crucial opportunity to forge closer ties with the wider community at a time of increased systemic anti-Black, anti-indigenous, and anti-queer violence.
“The Bonham Centre is already very good at fostering connections across the disciplines because our programs—both undergraduate and graduate—are interdisciplinary at their core” says Seitler, who is also a professor in the department of English. “Moving to something like a research lab is a natural progression from there. We hope it will allow us to build ongoing relationships between researchers, artists, and community leaders who are doing the kind of work that positively affects people’s lives in LGBTQ and BIPOC communities. At the lab, we are committed to providing an interactive, creative space for collective work and to building the necessary infrastructure for this work to successfully evolve.” Seitler is excited that participants will have the chance to work together and share cross-disciplinary and creative methods and challenges. “As yet, the U of T doesn’t have a mechanism in place for faculty members that are doing LGBTQ2S+ research to collaborate with each other, or for students to learn from these collaborations. At the lab, we’ll immerse students in both faculty and community projects and have monthly meetings which we’ll call ‘Share and Tells,’ with everyone presenting their work on the different queer methods that inform their approach. The kinds of approaches that a researcher takes in sociology, for example, are very different from what someone does in law or media studies, which are very different from approaches taken in public health work or immunology. The lab brings with it a sense of possibility, of experimentation, and creative unpredictability. It’s really important to us that we remain open and capacious as we grow.”
Seitler is just as excited by the opportunity for academics to collaborate with artists and activists. For this purpose, Seitler developed the Artist-in-Residence and Community Leadership programs. The 2021-22 artist-in-residence is trans opera singer Teiya Kasahara 笠原 貞野 and the two community leadership residencies will be held by Tatiana Ferguson, co-founder of the Black Queer Youth Collective and Somali-Canadian multidisciplinary artist and videographer Abdi Osman. While the initial appointments are drawn from Toronto, the lab seeks to collaborate with future appointees from elsewhere in Canada and around the world.
“A problem that tends to exist with universities in general is a lack of accountability to our communities. The lab wants to break down those divisions by creating a space where community leaders and artists and others can work and create together with faculty and student researchers. The reality is that those of us doing this kind of work are also active members of the queer, trans, and BIPOC communities working for change,” says Seitler. “Many of us might even say we exist more in our various communities than we do in the university.”
The artist and community leadership appointments will be joined by research associates, post-doctoral fellows, faculty members, and student research assistants as part of the inaugural QTRL cohort. Nikoli Attai will be the new Research Associate and the QTRL program coordinator; Elif Sari will hold the Martha LA McCain Postdoctoral Fellowship; Andrea Allen and Jordache Ellapen will be Martha LA McCain Faculty Research Fellows; Mónica Espaillat Lizardo, Ian Liujia Tian, Chido Muchemwa, and Elliott Tilleczek will be graduate research assistants; and Chelle Carter, Jade Nelson, Madison Garces, and Riya Joshi will be undergraduate research assistants.
In reflecting on the importance of this new initiative, Nikoli Attai explains, “The QTRL is a new and exciting endeavour that will provide us with opportunities to do the necessary and critical work of addressing the deeply complex experiences and needs of LGBTIQ2SA+ communities.” He goes on to say, “I am particularly excited and motivated by our inaugural cohort of community leaders, artists, students, faculty and our Postdoctoral Fellow, whose projects pay critical attention to a wide array of issues impacting Queer and Trans, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour communities locally and transnationally.”
The QTRL has received support from across the university, says Seitler. In fact, the lab is actually launching this three-year pilot project ahead of schedule. The original plan for this year was to have only the post-doctoral fellowship, the artist-in-residence and one community leadership role. But the response, especially from sponsors Mark S. Bonham and Martha LA McCain, was so enthusiastic—especially when coupled with matching funding from the Faculty of Arts and Science—that this year will see the QTRL vision come nearly to fruition.
Bonham says he was delighted to support the addition to his namesake centre. “This is an exciting time for the Bonham Centre as it builds an impactful Research Lab on LGBTQ+ issues,” he says. “Academic institutions have always been at the forefront of research on leading issues of the day, and the new Queer and Trans Research Lab will help fortify and expand the strength of the Bonham Centre in addressing the pressing issues of the community.”
McCain agrees that the QTRL can play a major role in tackling issues facing queer, trans, and BIPOC people. “I believe strongly that problems are best solved at the intersection of diverse learning, talent, and perspective,” she says. “For this reason, I am so very pleased to have played a role in the creation of the Queer and Trans Research Lab.
“The QTRL is founded upon the principle of creating connections to learn from one another, share our strengths and work together to create change. I am convinced that the bridges built and communities formed through the interdisciplinary efforts of the QTRL can only assure progress in addressing the local and transnational LGBTQ2S+ issues of greatest concern to all of us.”
Seitler is quick to point out that the continuation of this pilot project will depend on ongoing funding from the university and others. But she feels, especially given the ongoing structural inequalities the Covid-19 pandemic has served to highlight, that the QTRL’s importance is clear.
“One of the things we’ve seen in the pandemic is how it has disproportionally impacted specific communities, including (or especially) undocumented, BIPOC, queer, and trans communities. But this didn’t reveal anything new. It just underscores what we already know about how particular people are actively targeted for neglect—this includes health inequities in LGBTQ2S+ and QTBIPOC communities, human rights abuses against gay and lesbian communities around the world, and the epidemic of violence against Black trans women. The QTRL wants to be a place where we can come together to address and actively challenge these problems.”