Biography: History & Legacy
Sly Sarkisova is one of the first out non binary trans psychotherapists, and Clinical Supervisors in Canada (Turtle Island), and internationally. He is one of few trans clinical supervisors in existence. Sly has been openly creating access to non-binary trans identification, understanding and healthcare in his professional life and community since 2003. His advocacy pre-dates and helped create awareness and acceptance of non-binary identification as a part of transgender experiences, and his work has paved the way for understanding gender diverse narratives and access to healthcare.
Sly was raised in the 1980's in Langley, B.C. a rural township, by German and Bulgarian immigrant parents. Their first child, Sly's brother Robbie was born with profound disabilities. Sly's father was born in 1940 in Nuremburg, and the family struggled with PTSD and intergenerational trauma from WW2 and Nazi Germany. In B.C., while great disability supports were provided, Sly's family remained isolated and burdened with the weight of structural ableism, discrimination and survival. Sly presented as gender diverse from a young age, with no openly gay, bi, lesbian, queer or trans reference points or role models. It was unsafe to express Sly's identity for the bulk of his upbringing. He survived childhood abuse and neglect with no outside supports or interventions, acting as the family saviour from a very young age. He identifies as neurodivergent and living with the legacy of colonial g(end)ercide, non-binary trans erasure, and the effects of intergenerational trauma in the form of CPTSD and chronic illness.
In 2000, Sly (age 22) after completing his Psychology degree at Simon Fraser University became a mental health worker at a non-profit organization in Vancouver. During his tenure as an outreach worker in Tsleil-Waututh territories (Downtown Eastside) he worked with individuals sleeping outdoors in a fast track Pilot Housing project between the City of Vancouver, B.C. Housing, and the Ministry of Social Assistance. Sly advocated and creatively sourced affordable housing for over 250 individuals to ensure rapid access to financial support and accessible rental housing. Low income housing stock was rapidly declining, posing many barriers for folks seeking residence. Sly successfully made same day agreements with downtown hotels and rooming houses to accommodate adults who were routinely refused housing due to mental health stigma, including youth chosen kinship networks with support animals. A framework for understanding mental health, survival and functioning was deeply informed by Sly's work with Indigenous survivors of residential schools, as well as survival sex workers, and individuals struggling with polysubstance use.
Sly's history in mental health frontline work has been one of client led advocacy and deinstitutionalized care. His critical approach to mental health involves depathologizing symptoms of distress, and understanding mental health struggles within a decolonizing context that validates and sees linkages between systems of oppression, colonialism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, familial breakdown, histories of abuse, and current functioning. He has been deeply integrating structural critiques into his trauma informed work since he began in mental health, reshaping how clients and community members increase access to intersectionally trauma-informed mental health support and psychotherapy.
In 2009, Sly moved to Toronto, Anishinaabeg Territory. He completed his Masters in Social Work at the University of Toronto. From 2010-2015, he then continued his work as a Mental Health and Addiction specialist at a LGBTQ focussed health centre (Urban Health Team, Sherbourne Health) in St. James town, continuing his work supporting underhoused individuals with complex mental health issues, as well as queer, and non-binary trans folks seeking affirmative care. Sly's direct practice advocacy for gender diverse trans affirmative care instrumentally changed understandings of trans health care access, increasing the ways non binary and trans individuals were supported to identify and transition.
In his personal time, having left all of his friends and chosen family behind with no connections in Toronto, Sly began his own non-binary physical transition and created new community. From 2009-2013, he wrote and self-published a blog entitled The Space in Between about non-binary identification, creating understanding and education for identifying as trans while being non-binary, and butch or lesbian, historically. He engaged in community building and event organizing (starting Butch Femme Salon and running thirteen events between 2010-2012, bringing alongside Shai Downey as a co-organizer) to actively de-center whiteness, and create understanding and inclusion for non-binary trans identification. The goal was disrupting queer women's and Butch/Femme cis-centric herstories, narratives and spaces, to welcome trans women, transmasculine and non-binary folks into the center of lesbian culture. Sly's photography exhibit "(Em) Bodied Love: Iterations of Self Desire" (Feminist Art Gallery, 2014) has documented and created room for understanding linkages between lived oppression, racism, ableism, intergenerational trauma, body shaming, queer and trans survival and self-reclaimation. Sly's writing was published in Trans Bodies,Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community (Erickson-Schroth 2014), and Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (Chambers et al., 2017).
Since 2013, Sly established his private practice to provide affirmative accessible space for holding and processing experiences of complex trauma, suicidality, non-binary/trans identity, and decolonizing mental health practice. His trauma informed care provision is deeply rooted in understanding the legacies of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, ableism, heteronormativity, and cis-centrism. Sly's practice is sex positive, poly and kink positive, and supports those using substances, as well as creating safer space for individuals doing sex work. He works with people across identities and backgrounds and his work on understanding non-binary trans identities was published as a chapter in the academic textbook LGBTQ People and Social Work: Intersectional Perspectives (O'Neill, Mulé, & Swan, 2015).
As a Consultant and Clinical Supervisor, Sly has delivered numerous original 2SLGBTQ centered innovative mental health resources, workshops, trainings, and facilitated dialogues, with a range of organizations. He has advocated for removal of mental health barriers in medical transition related health care, and independently increased capacity to assess and support OHIP funding for Transition Related Surgeries by creating and delivering a core curriculum for direct practice health care providers to guide and support gender diverse clients. Sly provided Clinical Supervision to the trauma informed counselling program run by Robyn Letson at The 519 from 2016-2019, increasing the team's knowledge and capacity for delivering free instrumental care for 2SLGBTQ community members.
Sly is grateful to his predecessor Rupert Raj for his legendary trans activism and paving the way of understanding and providing access to gender diverse trans identification and care, independent of Sly's own journey and process. Sly is also indebted to the profound activism of Hershel T. Russell, Syrus Marcus Ware, and Nik Redman in particular, as well as the inferno of trailblazing trans women of colour, trans men, and gender non-conforming people who came before him. Sly is further grateful for the incredible insights and practice of Ander Negrazis.
This biography is provided due to the incredible legacy of living and doing activism as a trauma survivor who was out before non-binary identities were recognized, and created their own model for self identification and understanding while supporting community thriving. Non binary erasure still impacts Sly's life today as a mature trans, late life transitioned individual in a community leadership position. Supportive mental health care, and physical health care were never accessible due to his positionality, historical location, and role in providing community care. Sly has worked tirelessly for over twenty years to support his community thriving with no resources, role models (Ivan Coyote excepted) or early collective knowledge and care for non-binary, diverse trans people. Sly has worked with over 3000 individuals across all backgrounds to form compassionate survival strategies and alleviate burdens of oppression.
While non-binary trans identification was an incidental necessity for creating space for himself and others, decolonizing mental health care practice and intersectional trauma informed psychotherapy are his legacy as a Psychotherapist, Consultant and Clincial Supervisor.