Peer Support: Why I’m here to listen

My name is Matt (he/him) and I first became involved with MAX as a Peer Support volunteer in the summer of 2020. I was very excited to see the notice that MAX was searching for Peer Support volunteers, as I had been searching for an opportunity like this since moving to Ottawa. 

Peer Support was a very important aspect of my coming out experience in early 1994 when I was living in Washington, DC. At the age of 33, I had finally found the courage to come out to my wife at the time. She and I both agreed I needed extra support before coming out to my church leaders and family members back in Utah.

Being raised a Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, I had been told my entire life that homosexuality was a mental illness and that homosexuals were relegated to a sad mortal existence after which they would be cast into outer darkness. As you can imagine, the Mormon perspective on homosexuality had done its best to scare me straight.

However, after years of psychotherapy and spiritual work, I finally reached a place in my life where I felt secure enough to come out to my wife and begin the process of ending our marriage. As much as I felt ready to come out, I realized that I could really use some support to live an authentic life as an openly gay man. I knew there was a wellness centre in the Gay Village and I made my way there on a sunny afternoon.

I still remember the moment I walked up to the entrance of Whitman-Walker Clinic off Swann Street in Northwest DC. It had taken Herculean courage to get there. As I approached the entrance, I recognized the man exiting the building as a new convert to my church. I stopped cold in my tracks, turned around and hightailed it to the Dupont Circle Metro station. Shaken, but still resolved to make a connection to the community, I picked up a copy of the Washington Blade, the local queer newspaper, from the kiosk at the metro station.

On the subway, I opened the newspaper and noticed an ad for Gay Men’s Peer Counselling at Whitman-Walker Clinic. As I read the notice, something inside of me told me this was just what I needed. The next day, I called the number and was connected to a peer counsellor (let’s call him John). John was very patient and understanding and we agreed to meet in a neutral location where he knew I would feel more comfortable. The conversations I had with him were those that can only be had among peers, two people who have a shared experience. After a few sessions, John directed me to one of the Coming Out groups run by the clinic.

The group met every Thursday night for eight weeks. I attended the first session and was welcomed by the two peer facilitators. There were eight men in the group from all walks of life. We discussed everything from coming out to our families to how to have safe sex. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of seven years of involvement with gay men’s peer counselling, first as a participant and eventually as a peer counsellor and group facilitator.

Why has peer support been so important to me? It sustained me during one of the most challenging times of my life. I had been living in such a sheltered environment and I desperately needed tools to help me navigate a healthy social and sexual life as a newly out and proud gay man. In our Coming Out group, I was able to openly and honestly ask questions and discuss subjects such a safe sex, emotional support and mental wellbeing. These experiences were invaluable in my development as a person. 

Being able to once again volunteer in peer support with MAX has been a very rewarding experience. It has helped me feel connected to the queer community in Ottawa and has also provided a way that I can give back to the community I hold so dear. 

If you, or someone you know, could benefit from peer support, please reach out to peer support at MAX via our website or by calling 613-702-8429 between 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. on weekends.

Matthew England
Community Programs Manager
MAX Ottawa