How the power of community brought activist Rachel Lauren Clark back from the brink — and inspired her to return the favour
By Sarah Ratchford
It’s not unusual for Rachel Lauren Clark to go from laughing to getting choked up in a matter of minutes. If the award-winning trans rights activist is full of emotion and empathy, it’s because she’s been there.
Clark is a woman with lived experience of immigration, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, gender confirmation surgery and, now, community activism. (Yes, it’s a lot.) After running for the nomination for Liberal candidate for Toronto Centre this past May (she was ultimately unsuccessful), she’s adding politics to that list.
But Clark’s journey as a trans person has been a difficult one. She grew up on a farm with a father whose favourite pursuits were hunting and fishing. When she “acted like a girl,” she was punished. Clarke spent eight years in the military trying to learn to “act like a man,” all the while struggling with her gender identity. When she finally began living openly as a woman, strangers jeered at her in public and no one would give her a job, despite her impressive years of IT experience. Eventually, her savings ran out and she found herself on the street.
“I see it as a fundamental failure of our system when people are suffering and we’re not helping them.”
In the end, it was the support of the LGBTQ2+ community in Toronto that helped her find the resolve to keep going — and the resources she needed to do it. Now, Clark devotes herself to helping others access some of those same resources, while trying to improve them at the same time. Her resume is long: she’s worked as a trans rights activist for the past 15 years and raises money for LGBTQ2+ rights organizations with her employer, TD Bank. She’s served as secretary of the Board for Pride Toronto, worked as an education and training facilitator for United Way-supported The 519 community centre, and is currently the president of the Queer Liberals. (She’s also the first openly trans person to open a Major League Baseball game by throwing out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game.)
Two of her current passions are improving access to healthcare and increasing affordable housing in the city — issues she struggled with herself in the past. If you’ve ever been to a protest, you’ve likely heard people chant, “The system isn’t broken, it was built this way.” Clark believes we need to dismantle—and rebuild—the system to make it better for everyone.
We sat down with the multi-hyphenate advocate to talk about her experience and her activism.
Local Love As a trans woman, you’ve been open about how it feels to be shut out of the social systems you’re now working so hard to improve. What was your experience?
Rachel Lauren Clark One day I went to my doctor and said, “I’m a trans person” and she said, “I have no idea what to do with you.” That’s really disconcerting to hear from your doctor. Then I was mistakenly diagnosed with bipolar II and was way over-medicated for an illness I didn’t have.
Housing was also an issue for me; I was living on friends’ couches for a long time simply because people wouldn’t rent to me. I was visibly trans then, and people thought I was unstable. Basically, I had to go through this whole iteration of trying to find affordable housing with no job.
L.L. That’s horrible.
R.L.C. These are all the factors that can lead to suicide. I did try to kill myself. And it was horrible. There’s a whole year of my life I just don’t remember before I finally found a doctor who understood, and then I got access to the one medicine that did completely change my outlook on life: estrogen.
L.L. So how did you finally get the care you needed?
R.L.C. Eventually, I connected with the Sherbourne Health Centre, which specifically addresses LGBTQ2+ health issues. Someone dropped off the waiting list and I was available to take their spot—I was lucky that I was in the right place at the right time. Accessing gender-confirming surgery back then was a nightmare and could have taken years.
L.L. What role did your community play in helping you find a home?
R.L.C. I was actually lucky again because I had a friend who was moving out of her apartment. I met the landlord for coffee and we hit it off—it turns out he was a huge advocate for LGBTQ+ people. Here I am, I have no money, I have no credit, but I have potential. He rented the apartment to me based on my potential. We’re friends to this day. He really changed the outcome for me.
L.L.What was behind your decision to run for nomination as the Liberal candidate for Toronto Centre in Ontario’s upcoming provincial election?
R.L.C. I know what it’s like to feel like nobody cares. I want to help people, but I reached a point where I was limited as to the amount of personal capital I could invest. By capital, I mean emotional capital, you know? Seeing so many people who need help and not being able to help them all. I see it as a fundamental failure of our system when people are suffering and we’re not helping them.
Meanwhile, in our federal government, in our provincial government, and even in the municipal government of our big city, there’s no representation for trans people. I think that’s outrageous. We need to sit down and ask why qualified trans people are running for office and not getting elected.
L.L. So what’s next?
R.L.C. Losing the nomination isn’t going to stop me from being involved in politics. I’m going to come back fiercer than ever, because that’s what I do.