LeZlie Lee Kam became a client partner with VHA two years ago. She is widely known as the “proud brown, Trini, Carib, callaloo, differently-abled, queer dyke elder.” In her late 40s, LeZlie was ravaged by psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, and had to go through four months of physical rehabilitation. Her differently abled body now gets great support from her walker – Iris, and her cane – Hugo. LeZlie sits on both the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Queer (LGBTQ) and Client and Carer Advisory Council. Her personal life stories and contributions have made a huge impact on the LGBTQ community and have inspired many of the changes at VHA by creating more awareness about home care provider and client interactions of diverse identities.
We sat down with LeZlie to hear about her experience as a client partner and what she hopes to achieve by sharing her unique viewpoint.
How did you become connected with VHA?
I became connected with VHA through the 519 – an LGBTQ community centre in Toronto. When VHA decided to start educating all their staff on LGBTQ 101, they went to the 519 and I am a volunteer trainer there. I was the only queer senior working with the 519 who has had home care. VHA really liked my style of presenting and they asked me if I would like to be part of the LGBTQ working group. I agreed. They also asked if I’d like to sit on the Client and Carer Advisory Council and I said yes.
Many of us queer seniors start going back into the closet when we start receiving home care, because we have to choose whether we want to be our whole selves and experience homophobia or hide in the closet and get the kind of health care that we need. I was so impressed with the fact that VHA is the only homecare association that I know of that has taken the initiative to do this work. In fact, I always said, “When I receive homecare again it will have to be with VHA.” Other organizations are sadly lacking in LGBTQ awareness of any kind.
What other volunteer work do you do?
At Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, I do manicures and reception desk twice a week. I’ve been volunteering there for six years. By doing manicures I establish a close relationship with the ladies. And five of them came to me and whispered that they were not straight. They were between the ages of 75 and 92.
Here you are at that age, in a facility with no control over your life anymore, and you’re in the closet. They were in the closet their whole life. I asked them, “How come you’re telling me this?” And they said because you made us feel safe. They would all talk about their special friends and how their family would not understand. I’m thinking at 92, it doesn’t matter whether your family understands it or not, but unfortunately at that age the family has so much control over who is in your life. Then I was given this opportunity to work with PSWs at VHA. They have a lot of power to change and improve the lives of queer seniors, and that’s why I’m doing what I do with VHA.
What are your goals in volunteering for VHA?
I would like to eventually reach a place where queer seniors no longer have to hide from who they are. When a PSW goes to a client’s home and the client doesn’t feel safe with their identity, they begin hiding things and parts of their lives. My goal is to reach a point where we don’t have to hide.
I started working with VHA in September 2016 and I have worked with at least 500 VHA staff already. I come in during the workshops and I do a 20-minute presentation of my lived experience. When I first started doing the workshops, I’d ask the group, “How many of you work with LGBTQ clients?”, and no one would put their hand up. But now, because they know what signs to look for, just about every single PSW is working with LGBTQ clients.
What has your experience been like with working on VHA committees?
When I’m asked for my advice, I see things happening in action usually within a matter of months if not weeks. I’m a person of action. This is why I like working with VHA, because I see things happening immediately.