June 1, 2023

Class of 2023: Trans advocate, leader and researcher inspires change wherever she travels

Bachelor of Social Work graduate Katie Delucia-Burk made an impact throughout her degree journey
Katie Delucia Burk and her wife Emily walk on train tracks
Katie Delucia-Burk, right, says she has been emboldened by life experiences. “I knew the value of my voice. I knew how to leverage my voice.” Courtesy Katie Delucia-Burk

Ever had one of those moments when everything hangs in the balance? When your gut tells you that if you take this action, it will change everything, for the rest of your life?

Katie DeLucia-Burk felt a little bit of that in 2017, and had a few pangs of anxiousness, as she packed up her trusty silver Toyota Corolla named Delilah, preparing to drive 37 hours — 3,936.5 kilometres — across the continent, from Coventry, Connecticut, to some place called Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. It was a leap of faith and of love, travelling across the continent to meet a woman called Emily, who she knew only from Tumblr, but it just felt right to her.

“The first time I came out here, I didn't think to book hotels,” says DeLucia-Burk. “I tried sleeping at a truck stop in Wisconsin and it was just too cold … so I ended up driving the first trip without sleeping. I think I slept about three hours. It took me 48 hours total including stops. The border agent who saw me at four in the morning — in the same clothes I had been wearing for about two days and looking ragged — had a lot of questions!”

As it often is in these cases, her heart knew before her head. It was the right move, and since they knew they had to be together, DeLucia-Burk started applying for a visa, and planned to make the move permanent. In 2018, Emily flew to Connecticut where the two of them stuffed Delilah to the gills with all of DeLucia-Burk’s earthly possessions and they made the pilgrimage back to L.A., this time making a few more stops on the way.

“The return journey,” says DeLucia-Burk, “was itself part of our story and was confirmation to both of us that, ‘Okay, this big risk that we're both taking is actually going to be worth it.’”

Bringing the audacity and conviction

The move to Canada had some downsides — for example leaving Dunkin’ Donuts behind! However, the relocation had definite upsides as well.

“I was living in a state that was very expensive to live in. In a country that's very expensive to live in. Where education is just not accessible unless you have family. Being a queer person, family became something I did not have a lot of — 'after coming out.’”

DeLucia-Burk is a proud trans woman. And while it’s not the safest time to be trans, she is unfazed and — at turns — both patient and outspoken. She’s taken a leadership role because, well, someone has to do it, if things are ever going to change.

“Having come in with 10 years of life and working experience that a lot of my peers did not have, I found myself positioned in an important way to begin making changes and to begin advocating,” DeLucia-Burk explains. “I knew the value of my voice. I knew how to leverage my voice. So, I brought the skills that other folks hadn't quite picked up yet, as well as the audacity.”

Audacious is a fitting adjective for DeLucia-Burk who, as a courageous and vocal trans advocate, has set about shaking things up in Lethbridge and at times across the country, speaking at national conferences from Halifax to B.C. She's a Bachelor of Social Work student at UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work campus in Lethbridge, and a staff member of the University of Lethbridge. She has given, in her words, “tons” of training sessions rooted in her own lived experience to many groups, in many contexts, including her own Bachelor of Social Work cohort.

Social work the right choice for her future

By her own admission, DeLucia-Burk didn’t know a lot about social work at first. As she puts it, “I knew as much about social work as I knew about nursing or being a janitor. It was just another field.”

As she searched for the right fit, she considered several disciplines for her area of interest, including gender studies, but for practical reasons, settled on social work. Social workers are, according to Alberta labour statistics, the most-needed profession in the province, and the demand only continues to rise. In other words, social workers get jobs, and DeLucia-Burk had student loans to think about. Just as important, social work degrees provide the flexibility to work in many, many different areas.

“In social work, I found employability,” she says, “because with a general social work practice degree, you have the skills to work in a lot of places. For example, I work in human resources right now, and I use a lot of my social skills. So, it allowed me to be employable, but also to gain the skills, gain the knowledge and gain the credibility to do the work that I'm more passionate about, you know, as it comes up, and when I am able.”

Tackling Trans Broken Arm Syndrome

The work DeLucia-Burk is passionate about falls under the umbrella of gender-affirming care in the health-care system. Simply put, gender-affirming care means that trans people should have the same experience that cisgender people have. They shouldn’t have to educate the physician, psychologist, counsellor, or surgeon on gender identity, or have their pronouns routinely ignored.

But above all, Katie explains, they shouldn’t be subjected to what she calls “Trans Broken Arm Syndrome,” where medical professionals seem to go straight to a person’s trans identity, rather than the actual issue.

“I broke my ankle once, and another time I dislocated my shoulder,” recalls DeLucia-Burk. “I went for treatment, and I gave them the rundown on my medications. The minute they heard Estradiol (estrogen supplement), they said, ‘Well, you're going to need to stop taking that if you want to recover.’ And I'm like, ‘Excuse me?’ “Well bones don't heal well on estrogen … Estrogen makes your tendons too loose, and your shoulder won’t heal.’  And I said, ‘So, what do you tell your cisgender female patients and other people whose bodies naturally produce high levels of estrogen? How do they heal? Do they just walk around with bogus broken bones their whole life?’ And it was also just the view that taking HRT was an option for me rather than a necessary part of my life.”

Taking a leadership role

Not surprisingly, DeLucia-Burk has excelled in her studies. Knowing she was going to apply to social work, and given her area of interest, she came into the faculty having studied topics like intersectionality intensely. She’s already written papers and even been a research assistant on a project about intersectionality. Classmates naturally turned to her for her thoughts on readings and in that way, she became a leader within her group. Early on, she was disquieted by some casual remarks by classmates, revealing a lack of awareness, understanding and respect around gender identity.

So, in typical DeLucia-Burk fashion, she took it upon herself to do something about it, holding an impromptu workshop on gender identity and respect for anyone interested.

“I think there were some folks that did a lot of learning and growing in the program, and I enjoy them much more now than I maybe did when I when I first met them,” she admits. “But I think that's part of any program. There's always going to be a variety of worldviews and experiences. And I think I would have been more concerned if there are people who came in with some more conservative views and left with those views.”

However, she’s quick to point out that she loved her Lethbridge campus cohort, and says that their camaraderie and support, in many ways, helped her to get through to the finish line, which is rapidly approaching. The exclamation mark will be when she walks across the stage of the Jack Simpson Gym during the Faculty of Social Work convocation ceremony on May 31 at 2 p.m.

The courage to stand up, and stand out

It’s never been easy to be a trans individual, but in 2023, it has perhaps never been harder. U.S. politicians like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, supported by the bully-pulpit of FOX News, has created a trans hysteria, which seems to have malignantly trickled across the border, evidenced by comments from candidates such as Jennifer Johnson, who recently compared trans youth to feces spoiling a batch of cookies. For Delucia-Burk to become visible and to speak out locally and nationally takes a tremendous amount of courage.

It also takes a willingness to lead, to find that extra gear to move beyond just surviving in university, to a place where you want to make things better for now and in the future. So, whether it’s her formal role as a gender inclusion consultant with the U of L, or working with the Faculty of Social Work’s Queer and Trans Committee, or providing numerous workshops for classmates and other faculties.

So, what’s next? “Work!” says DeLucia-Burk with a laugh. With student loans to repay, she needs to work before returning for a master’s degree, which she’s already looking forward to. She’s undecided if it will be in social work or another discipline such as gender studies.

Whichever she chooses, her goal is more research in her areas of passion and leveraging the extra clout that comes with a higher degree. The clout to help her, as she says, “to get into more rooms, and a seat at more tables.” With DeLucia-Burk it feels like it’s always about the next room and the next conversation, because the kind of change she’s looking for isn’t going to happen by itself.

Join our celebration as another class of enterprising University of Calgary students marks the milestone of graduation and begins making a difference in society, in fields such as health care, engineering, business and the arts. Spring Graduation and Convocation takes place May 29 to June 2, 2023. Learn more 

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

A note for soon-to-be UCalgary alumni: As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads — custom-built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.