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Vicky Mochama: Monica Forrester is a grassroots activist to watch in 2018

From living and working on the streets to creating programs for trans and street-involved youth, Monica Forrester has long advocated for transgender people.

Monica Forrester speaks emotionally at a memorial for Alloura Wells, a transgender woman found dead in a ravine.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Monica Forrester speaks emotionally at a memorial for Alloura Wells, a transgender woman found dead in a ravine.

With elections looming at Queen’s Park and city hall in 2018, change is on the horizon. In this three-part series, meet the grassroots activists shaping the future now.

Part 1: Monica Forrester, program coordinator at Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, on the death of Alloura Wells and the renewed fight for rights.

On a December day, Monica Forrester spoke movingly about Alloura Wells, a trans woman who had gone missing and then been found dead in one of the city’s woodland ravines. “We didn’t know what happened with her but she didn’t belong where she was.”

“We’re just as good as anyone else in our society,” Forrester insisted.

From living and working on the streets to creating programs for trans and street-involved youth with the 519 Community Centre to her current work as a program coordinator for Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, Forrester has long advocated for transgender people in Toronto.

Born in Belleville, Ont., she, her six brothers and two sisters spent their early years in foster care. Her parents, she says, “were just two teens in love” at a time when interracial unions were frowned upon. (Her mother is biracial and her father is white.)

By 12, she reunited with her father, who moved the family to the Jane and Finch area. Her stay at home was short-lived: by 15 she left home to explore her independence and her gender identity.

Forrester’s experiences as a young person inform the work she does now.

“I’ve been in the trans women’s community for years. As a youth, I did fall into homelessness and I was street active. I did get into the sex industry,” Forrester told me in an interview. She found challenges but also a community: “When I came into the community, I met a lot of trans women and I said, ‘Oh my god. I can exist like that.’”

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were not easy. Even within the broader queer community, trans youth were stigmatized. “There was this negative aura around trans people at the time which really pushed them underground and disconnected them from the community they identified,” the advocate says. After years of informal prevention work, Forrester found a job at the famed 519 Community Centre where she worked for 10 years.

Alongside others, Forrester was instrumental in creating a drop-in and an outreach program for transpeople at the 519. She was also part of advocating for trans women to be allowed into women’s shelters and in creating policies to prevent shelters from discriminating against trans women.

After the 519, Forrester found work at Maggie’s, a charity that focuses on sex workers. “Sex work was very instrumental for me in many ways,” she says. It helped her pay for school and housing, as well as boosting her confidence. It’s not without its issues, she noted, “These are my experiences; I’ve met people who hate what they’re doing.”

But Forrester is determined to keep advocating for trans people and sex workers. The disappearance and death of Alloura Wells has her particularly outraged at The 519, which was informed in August that a body had been found but did not notify the wider community, as Metro has previously reported. (The centre has said it needed more information and did not want to cause a panic.)

“What does it show that the largest LGBT centre, that’s supposed to be advocating for our communities, decides that it’s just another trans body, just another homeless body?” says Forrester.

“I’ve lived almost 50 years of my life. I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” she says. “Regardless of whether this person was homeless or a sex worker, this wasn’t right.”

Coming up in this series

Part 3: Stella Palikarova of Boundless in the City

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