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Peer support program teaches sex ed where schools have failed

AIDS Committee of Toronto's Totally outRight taking applications for May workshops

Ricky Rodrigues, a 2012 participant, is now a peer support worker with the Totally outRight program.
As the Ontario government prepares to put forward an education plan that could say “out with the old and in with the new” to the 15-year-old sex-ed curriculum, some educators working with grassroots programs are taking action on their own.
 
The AIDS Committee of Toronto’s Totally outRight initiative is taking applications for its May 2013 workshops that will bring together a group of young gay, bi and trans guys for four Saturdays of leadership training and sex education.
 
Ricky Rodrigues, a 2012 participant, is now a peer support worker with the program. For Rodrigues, the program was one way to remedy his poor sex education. The 20-year-old attended Toronto Catholic schools for 14 years, in which he received what he calls a “heteronormative and abstinence-focused” sex education.
 
“I really didn’t know anything about sex,” he says of the sex-ed classes. “That made my first experiences with sex very difficult.”
 
For many like Rodrigues, the difficulties in the school system had a lasting impact.
 
“I felt invisible,” he says. “And also very vulnerable, because I’d felt sexual attractions to people, and none of my experiences were being talked about. I thought, ‘What’s going to happen when I start actually having sex?’ So a bit of fear as well.”
 
But Rodrigues has come back swinging with Totally outRight at his side. He now works for the outreach group while studying sociology at the University of Toronto. His uninformed past has motivated Rodrigues to learn and reach out to the community. Totally outRight focuses on teaching its leaders in the most effective and creative ways.
 
“It’s not just about telling them to use a condom,” he says. “It’s talking about experiences one has had and how we can use our knowledge and skills to address those issues.”
 
With special guest speakers and creative activities, the Totally outRight program is a good way to spend the four Saturdays it takes to finish the workshops, Rodrigues says. He recalls one workshop in which his group developed a poster campaign for safe sex with the slogan “talk. test. fuck.”
 
Fellow Totally outRight graduate Cameron McKenzie recalls another moment from his leadership training in 2012. The group was treated to a workshop with HIV and AIDS activist Tim McCaskell, who spoke to the group about his experiences with HIV and the history of his involvement in the AIDS crisis with the ACT UP advocacy group.
 
McKenzie hopes that Totally outRight will contribute to improved education across the board in the gay community, whether or not the school system steps up.
 
In the absence of a healthy  and inclusive curriculum, peer-to-peer support is one of the most sought-after options. A 2011 Angus Reid public opinion poll showed that “conversations with friends” are the most valued source of information during the teenaged years of those adults surveyed. In Canada, respondents indicated that information from television, books, movies and magazines had been more useful than sex education courses at school, or even conversations with parents, guardians and family.
 
For McKenzie, there’s a greater importance to the peer-to-peer method than simply learning how to protect yourself: “Knowing you’re not alone, that there’s someone else there you can count on who has shared the same experiences as you.”