Written by Sarah Chown, YouthCO's Executive Director, on behalf of the organization
In 2017, we heard from trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit folks at YouthCO that we weren’t being as trans-inclusive and gender-affirming as we aspire to be, and that our value of anti-oppression was not matching the experiences trans youth were having in our space. It took too long for our primarily cisgender team to understand how deeply our actions were hurting young people we care about. Over the past few months, we’ve been paying more attention the ways cissexism is operating in our space, and what we can do to change that experience for masc of centre folks and guys who are trans, intersex, Two-Spirit, non-binary, and cis, and gender diverse people.
As an anti-oppressive organization, we recognize that resisting oppression is an ongoing commitment to learning and unlearning. At YouthCO, part of our peer-led work to reduce HIV & Hep C stigma is deepening our practice of anti-oppression across all our programs. In this blog post, we’re hoping to share some of what we've learned about cissexism at YouthCO, and the work we’ve been doing to share space and affirm our trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit peers.
Learning to see cissexism in our work
Since 1994 when we were founded, the YouthCO staff and volunteer team has been primarily cisgender. We haven’t always had trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit youth on our program teams, and when we have had trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit youth involved, and we haven’t always taken enough time to learn and address how cis-centric our workplace and the systems we work in can be. We haven’t centered trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit youth in our programming, in how we engage with sexual health resources, or focusing on dismantling the ways cissexism operates in our space. While we know trans folks are disproportionately impacted by HIV, Hep C, and violence, and often face discrimination when accessing sexual health and harm reduction services, we haven’t done enough to disrupt those experiences. In our choices and actions, we have wrongly overlooked the ways we’ve been hurting and excluding trans, non-binary and Two-Spirit youth in our programs and on our staff team. In 2017, we spent a lot more time in conversations with trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit youth in order to recognize some of the harms we’ve been causing, and make some changes to do better moving forward.
One change has been reassessing our language, integrating more trans content to our hiring and orientation process, building our capacity to recognize and respond to participants, volunteers, community partners, and staff whose actions, attitudes, or remarks exclude or harm trans people, and working to create paid, meaningful leadership roles for trans youth. This work is part of our commitment to inclusion and anti-oppression, and reflects our understanding that we must share power and keep working to create safer spaces for all young people in our communities.
Updating the language we use to describe Mpowerment
A lot of the feedback we received from trans youth in 2017 was about our Mpowerment programming. This is a peer-led HIV leadership program within gay, bi, and queer men’s communities that we’ve had at YouthCO for about five years.
In recent years, our use of the term “men” has intended to include cis and trans guys, and guys who are gay, bi, queer, questioning, pansexual, and/or asexual. We are grateful that there have been trans youth on our staff team and in our programs who have worked with us to explain where our language was excluding youth who are part of our communities, and thereby causing harm. Through these conversations what we’ve learned is that this language reinforces the idea of a gender binary, and also reflects a cis-centric Western/Eurocentric take on gender. As a result of these conversations, we’ve been able to introduce new language to describe this work:
Mpowerment is a trans-inclusive and gender-affirming program by and for young men and gender diverse folks who are gay, bi, Two-Spirit, or queer. To us, this includes masc of centre folks and guys who are trans, intersex, Two-Spirit, non-binary, and cis, and gender diverse people. As an organization that strives to be anti-oppressive and inclusive, we work towards creating safer spaces for all young people in our communities, including those of us who are living with HIV and/or Hep C!
We are very excited to have this new language in place to better guide our work, although we know it is still limited in describing the vast ways youth experience gender. We hope to continue to have conversations about how to make our programs, and the words we use to describe them, reflect the full experiences of the communities we work alongside. But, changing language doesn’t necessarily make our space safer. In the coming months, we’ve committed to creating concrete roles for trans youth to hold leadership positions, including facilitating and co-facilitating Mpowerment programming, and reviewing the curriculum we use in our programs.
We are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit youth, and to be given yet another chance to do better. We know that this learning has come at cost to the youth in our programs, and we’re working to do better now and as we move forward. As an organization that aspires to anti-oppression, we know that spaces focused around sexual health often exclude trans people’s experiences, and we want to change that within our own space.
We’re following the leadership of trans and Two-Spirit youth in looking at how we can do better, from looking at the ways cissexism may impact trans people accessing our programming to creating more opportunities specifically for masc of centre folks and guys who are trans, intersex, Two-Spirit, non-binary, and gender diverse people. At YouthCO, we want to push back against the erasure of trans people and make spaces for all of us to build knowledge and community together. We are committed to continuing this work, and to make our programs and organization affirming and inclusive for youth of all genders, including folks who are trans, intersex, Two-Spirit, non-binary, and gender diverse.
To hear from one of the trans youth who has been harmed in our work and has been helping us to do better, read this blog post.