JP Catungal investigates racial inequality in Toronto’s Social Services for Sexual Health
Toronto is often touted as a welcoming city, its motto “Diversity Our Strength” summing up how it portrays itself to current and potential residents and visitors. However, PhD candidate John Paul (JP) Catungal argues that such a rosy portrayal of the city’s character belies the entrenchment of racial inequalities in the city’s social and spatial fabric. He notes, “While Toronto is indeed a ‘contact zone’ among different ethno-racial communities, research shows that racialized populations, especially those with high rates of recent immigration, continue to face institutional barriers especially to jobs, social services, health care and post-secondary education”.
JP’s doctoral research looks specifically at the politics of racial inequalities in local sexual health organizing and social service provision. He is interested in profiling the emergence of ethno-specific AIDS service organizations (e-ASOs) in the city: “the origin stories of these organizations tell us a lot about the institutionalization of racial inequality within local responses to AIDS in the 1980s”. JP explains, “The three organizations that I study – the Asian Community AIDS Services, the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention – all emerged in the late 1980s and mid 1990s because people of colour were dying of AIDS due to a lack of culturally appropriate and linguistically specific services in mainstream health care and social service settings. Leaders from racialized communities stepped up to form these organizations when no one else did. Because of their work, many racialized people today who need sexual health information, support and services continue to have access to appropriate support through these e-ASOs.”
JP’s dissertation argues that e-ASOs act as sort of ‘ethno-specific safe houses’, a term he adapts from cultural theorist Mary Louise Pratt to describe places where groups who experience inequalities and exclusion come together to build communities of support, trust and camaraderie. These spaces, JP explains, “were important responses to practices of racism that, in the face of the 1980s AIDS crisis, literally killed many people of colour through their exclusion from social and health services”. JP insists that e-ASOs remain important today: “My interviewees often talk about e-ASOs being spaces that have people who look like them, that have resources, posters and brochures that portray people who look like them. To me, this is a desire to see themselves reflected in supportive spaces, which is evidence that they are welcome there and that they can access appropriate information and support there. When my interviewees talk about e-ASOs in this way, they are also subtly critiquing their continued erasure from mainstream sexual health spaces.”
JP became interested in researching the stories of e-ASOs because he wanted to marry his academic and political commitments to progressive and socially just sexual, racial and health politics. However, his route to his PhD was more complicated than he had envisioned: “I began the doctoral program in Geography wanting to study the role of American urban planners in the Philippines during the US colonial period. However, it became very clear to me that I severely missed doing research on the politics of sexualities, which was the topic of my undergraduate thesis at Simon Fraser University.” After much soul searching, JP decided to switch trajectories, which eventually led him to his current research.
In chronicling the stories of e-ASOs, JP hopes that his research will contribute to an understanding of the vital contributions of e-ASO workers not only to racialized communities, but also more broadly. He explains, “I found early on that the genealogies and contributions of e-ASOs are generally forgotten in public and academic accounts of AIDS organizing and service provision in Toronto. I believe that this epistemic erasure enacts a form of racial violence that parallels the exclusion of people of colour in early local AIDS organizing.”
Apart from his research, JP is also passionate about teaching. He was the course instructor for GGR 327 (Gender and Geography) in the Summer and Fall 2011 semesters. He reflects on his experience: “Teaching a feminist course in geography was challenging partly because the course covers very political material, from gender inequalities and violence in the home, at work and in urban public spaces, to the uses and abuses of gender norms in the service of colonialism, war and development. The conversations we had in class were sometimes difficult, but they were necessary. I count myself lucky to have been a course instructor, especially when I read term papers and realized that students were able to make use of feminist geographical lenses to understand what is going on around them. It was a delight to make even that bit of difference in how they see the world.