In 2012, we established a community health leadership program by and for young gay men in Vancouver. Since then, our program has evolved to be so much more and has changed in so many ways. Now, we also work to create change in communities outside of Vancouver, including in Prince George and across the Fraser Valley, regions in this province where youth continue to navigate more overt forms of serophobia, cissexism and heterosexism with access to less resourced systems of support.
Who our program is by and for has also shifted in other important ways. In 2018, we made the decision to realign and to recommit to our values in our approach to reducing the impact of HIV stigma on our communities. This recommitment saw the beginning of a reimagining of our programs. It envisioned gender-affirming and culturally responsive education and support that does not rely on a colonial, binary understanding of gender and sexuality. It encouraged us to do the work of carving out a space where all youth impacted by the overlapping forces of serophobia, cissexism and heterosexism could access the resources to take care of ourselves and our communities. It demanded an honoring and an undoing of the ways that queer and trans women, and non-binary folks, are erased from of our collective understanding of who the HIV movement is by and for.
Almost three years have passed and through the labour of many, we have accomplished much, and still, we know there is much more work before us. One place in this work that we have spent some thought on over these two years has been the language we choose to use to name our community -- to describe who this program is "by and for".
Today, we want to share some words that speak truth to some of these thoughts and hope that it provides a small window into the world of this ongoing work.
At YouthCO, we choose to use the language of “queer and trans youth” to describe who our program is by and for -- to describe those of us who experience our connection to sexuality, gender or relationships in ways that are dissimilar to the norms, scripts and expectations of the society we find ourselves in.
We choose this, while knowing that each of us has a unique relationship to these deeply personal parts of what makes us who we are. We know the joys in the journey of finding just the right words to name them, and we also know the pain. We have felt the comfort of being known, being seen, of being understood.
Our bodies also remember the hurt of being erased. Our bodies remember because as queer and trans youth, we are reminded every day, in so many ways, that this world refuses to hold the extra-ordinary wonder of who we are, and what that means for what must change.
This knowing makes the choice a hard and heavy one. It is hard, because we know that the words we choose to use to describe ourselves and our peers will never be the words that each one of our peers will choose to use for themselves. It is heavy, because we know that this can hurt.
We offer our community these thoughts with the hope of holding as much of that hurt as we can, and to heal a small piece of the harm we have already caused.
We choose these words with the hope of being as expansive as we can in naming all the ways we are different, while also honouring all the ways that we are connected.
In a world that teaches us that what our bodies look like should determine who we are,
how we express this,
who we love,
how we love,
and how we should be treated,
we have chosen to offer each other new and forgotten teachings instead.
In a world that has built prisons and entire professions meant to shame us, we have created clinics and camps and classrooms meant to affirm every piece of us.
In a world that tries to destroy us, we have chosen to keep each other alive.
And in a world that continues to ignore the ways its response to HIV continues to disconnect us, at YouthCO, we are choosing to keep us together.
And much like all that we do as queer and trans youth, there is no script for this, there is no norm to follow, and there is only our own expectations of ourselves and each other to guide us.
We don’t have a perfect solution for what to call our community or even what to call our program (but that’s a post for another day).
What we do have are our values, and for now, this is what feels right by them.
And please, continue to teach us, continue to create with us, continue to help us keep each other alive.
It is our greatest gift.
Ivan Leonce on behalf of the YouthCO Team