Toronto
3 min

The little health initiative that could

TEACH tackles homophobia, one teen at a time

Ain't Misbehavin'. TEACH volunteers Rhobyn Lagman and Sarah Strong set a good example for their peers. Credit: Tony Fong

Being
a queer teen is no cakewalk, even in Toronto the diverse.




“I was the odd girl out, and tomboyish in grade school. People made fun of me
and I became depressed,” says 16-year-old Gwen Hixson-Vulpe. “Now it’s nice to
interact with students and see them react to our stories. It personalizes the
stories and lets them know gay people are everywhere”.




It’s that kind of unapologetic sense of self that has earned Teens Educating
And Confronting Homophobia (TEACH) their place as the honoured group in this
year’s Pride Parade.




“We are thrilled as a program to be the honoured group,” says TEACH interim
coordinator Nadia Bello. “We tend not to be as well-known as other groups in
the queer community because our work is within the straight community. This
recognition has been long-time coming and we’re thrilled.”




TEACH is an innovative program based out of Planned Parenthood Of Toronto (PPT)
that trains youth between the ages of 15 and 23 to lead anti-homophobia
workshops and forums for other teens. The volunteers work to educate their
peers by sharing their personal stories and leading interactive activities.




The organization, which works primarily in high schools in and around Toronto,
had its inception at the East End Community Health Centre back in 1993 after a
needs assessment survey found that one quarter of high-school students in the
area wanted information and support on lesbian and gay issues and sexuality.




After several years of running out of the east end, the program had grown to
the point where the community centre was no longer able to support it. But
finding a larger organization willing to take them in turned out to be no easy
task.




“No one wanted to touch the program back in ’97,” says Bello. “It was really
hard to find someone who wanted to take it on.”




Then-coordinator Joanne Baker approached PPT because they had a mandate to work
with youth. It turned out to be a good home for the program.




“When people think of Planned Parenthood they don’t think of the queer
community,” says Bello. “But it’s a perfect fit because PPT is a pro-choice,
youth-positive, sex-positive, queer-positive agency.”




PPT is probably best known for its work educating youth about reproductive
health and methods of birth control, but they found room for the
anti-homophobia initiative.




“They are pro-choice in the broadest sense of the word,” explains Bello. “It’s
about choice and the freedom to choose, choices about our bodies. Homophobia is
about violence and violence prevents us from making healthy choices about our
bodies.”




The program is now in its 10th year and the peer facilitators conduct
approximately 150 workshops annually. They are also involved in providing
training to service providers including pre-service teachers, social workers,
public health providers and camp counsellors. And through their formal working
partnership with the Children’s Aid Society Of Toronto, they are able to
provide workshops in group homes, shelters and with foster parents.




Speaking with the youth involved in the program, you would have no idea they
are so young – they each speak with such eloquence and conviction about who
they are.




“My story begins in my childhood. I grew up in a very loving and caring family
but ever since grade school I realized I was different. I have two lesbian
moms,” says 16-year-old TEACH volunteer Makeda Zook.




“Throughout grade school, I would hear things in passing, like, ‘That’s so gay’
or ‘You’re such a fag.’ It made me afraid to make more friends. I started to
close myself off from the people around me. I would go to desperate measures to
make sure people didn’t meet my family. In grades seven and eight, things
escalated, people got more nasty and homophobic.” When it came time for Zook to
go on to high school, she was torn between going to the school that offered the
programs she wanted and avoiding it because one of her moms was a teacher
there.




“My mom was very out at work and I would avoid her in the halls and make sure
no one knew my last name,” says Zook. “It wasn’t healthy and it was ruining my
relationship with my mom. Eventually, I started telling people, ‘She’s my mom.’
That’s why I do TEACH, I don’t want others to go through the hiding and closing
themselves off that I went through.”




Andy Scheim, a 16-year-old trans boy and peer facilitator, knows firsthand how
hard homophobia and transphobia can be. “When I came out as a lesbian, my
father was a conservative rabbi and a social worker at my school told me I
needed to stop talking about gay issues. I knew that wasn’t a good place for me
and I left and went to the Triangle Program [for queer students]. Eventually, I
started questioning and challenging my identity and came out as transgendered.




“Being a part of TEACH is a really rewarding experience. It’s one thing for a
teacher to talk to students about homophobia, but when it comes from people
their own age, they can relate.”