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Vancouver hosts biennial Sexual Health Conference

Organizers hope to foster healthy, sex-positive communities

"Human sexuality is part of human nature, whether it's a little bit or a large bit, and we have to celebrate that," says conference co-chair Edith MacHattie. Credit: Shauna Lewis photo

Approximately 130 healthcare professionals, educators, students and individuals attended the 10th biennial Western Canadian Sexual Health Conference, held in Vancouver May 3 and 4.

This year’s theme was Building Sex-Positive Communities: Inclusion for All. “I think the conference is about really taking a look at your own experiences and understanding what sexuality means to you because that reflects the work you will do,” says co-chair Edith MacHattie.

“In order to foster a healthy, sex-positive space, it’s really about honouring people’s differences,” she adds.

Liam Snowdon agrees. Snowdon presented workshops to help sex educators get in touch with their own sexuality. Just because some people are entrusted with teaching others about healthy human sexuality doesn’t mean they understand their own desires, he says.

Snowdon, who identifies as transgender, is the co-founder of Victoria’s Sex Positive Art and Resource Centre, which provides sexual wellness information.

“What I’ve noticed with people in the sex field is that somehow our desire gets lost,” he says. “So I’m really, really interested in creating spaces where we can bring our desires and keep practising the things that we are asking our clients to do all the time.”

Snowdon hopes his workshops help sex educators become more comfortable with their sexuality so they can provide a more open, sex-positive environment that will help bridge the gap between clinical sex education and human sensuality.

MacHattie says a greater societal understanding of sexual health, and particularly queer sexual health, is “critical.”

“We have a mainstream healthcare system, and mainstream culture is not always inclusive or acknowledging of queer health issues or queer people in general,” she says.

“You see a lot of heteronormativity and a lot of homophobia,” she says. “It’s kind of shocking because to me [access to healthcare] seems like such a basic human right.”

Corey Keith, facilitator of the conference’s Trans Sexual Health workshop, says the basic task of checking a gender box on medical documents is difficult for individuals who don’t fit neatly within the limited mainstream gender categories.

Keith, who identifies as gender-fluid, says the safety and trust of transgender individuals are frequently tested in a healthcare system that often refuses to acknowledge anything outside the gender binary of male and female.

“As a person who is a part of the community, I know what it’s like to not have the support,” Keith says. “It’s very important for someone to step out there and say, “Hey, here’s some information. Here’s a person who is actually living it and here’s some tools you can take with you.”

Keith says the movement toward identifying and addressing issues concerning trans health is slow.

“There’s a lack of resources, a lack of support and a lack of understanding” for young people questioning their gender and sexuality, says Lynn Hemming, a high school educator who came from Drumheller, Alberta, to attend the conference.

“We are going to have to find resources and provide support for people,” she says.

“Years ago there was no support for gay and lesbian people and now there is. It’s not perfect, but it’s evolving,” she notes.

“There are young people that we are working with, that are grappling with the issues, and we have to become educated and become supportive,” she adds.

MacHattie says forums like the Western Canadian Sexual Health Conference and other knowledge-sharing symposiums have the power to create awareness of the importance of sexual health for everyone.

“It’s really important to create this kind of space. For some people it [sex] is going to be very important and for some it’s not going to be important, and that’s totally great. It also depends on how you define sexuality and expression,” she says.

“I think sexuality is inherent in human nature,” she continues. “It is in every person, no matter what country you’re from, no matter what class you’re from. I think, absolutely, human sexuality is part of human nature, whether it’s a little bit or a large bit — and we have to celebrate that.”