An Innovative Community Outreach Program in Quebec's Chaudière-Appalachia Region.
A few years ago the Quebec Human Rights Commission undertook an in-depth study of the status of the province's gay and lesbian population. It concluded, among other things, that to reduce discrimination against sexual minorities there would have to be a concerted effort at educating the public about the reality of gay life in Quebec. At about the same time the public health and social service sector came to see that stemming the spread of STD's and HIV was going to require an extra effort in public education. This convergence of human rights and public health perspectives in emphasising awareness and education grows out of the idea that, really, combating the problems facing Quebec's homosexuals requires demystifying homosexuality. Several programs have sprung up across Quebec; one was established in the fall of 1997 in Chaudière-Appalachia, an area south of Quebec City stretching along Quebec's border with Maine and New Hampshire.
Basically the program bring teachers, health and social service professionals and high school and college students to examine some of the myths and truths of homosexuality through open discussions with trained gay animators in a relaxed workshop setting. The Impetus behind the Program. Few would be surprised that gay, lesbian and bisexual people often migrate to large cities where being « out », living comfortably among gay peers is easier than in rural or remote communities. Though no matter where people live, coming to terms with your sexuality while you're in the midst of the hormonal vortex of adolescence is difficult anywhere and school environments are often rife with pressure to conform to the societal norm of straight, « hetero » behaviour. When it comes to sexuality, it's not cool to be different, to stand out, when you're 14.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission study of 1993 showed that gay and lesbian students were often had to endure the scornful and derisive attitudes of not only their peers, but also of teaching and other professional staff. Homosexual invisibility allowed for a climate of enduring prejudice, myth and misinformation. Attitudes of inadequacy, low self-esteem, sometimes even self-loathing combined with a lack of resources specifically adapted to gay and lesbian needs exacerbated the difficulties young people face in coming to terms with who they are. A number of studies showed that this sometimes leads to problems with substance abuse, depression and sadly, too often, suicide.
Getting into the Schools
So workshops were designed to lift the veil clouding homosexual life by bringing the issues into the classroom with the help of trained gay and lesbian animators who would talk openly about the social, health and cultural aspects of being gay. Real life anecdotes, role-playing and frank discussions about STDs, AIDS, prejudice and pride were all part of a package tailored for grades nine through eleven and junior college levels.
Each workshop takes place in the context of a regular, mandatory course at which the class teacher or instructor is present, but where the discussion is led by the gay team (one man, one woman). In high schools the workshops would last about an hour and a quarter, while at junior colleges the sessions could go over two hours. In the course of the session the animators would informally talk about themselves and bring the group into an exchange about coming out, love and relationships, sex, social life and, importantly, prejudice and stereotyping. The goal of the workshop is to both reduce prejudice about homosexuality and encourage students who are coming out to adopt attitudes conducive of good self-esteem. Overall the purpose is to encourage to healthy attitudes to sex and relationships.
The participants are asked to respond to a questionnaire before and after the workshop and the response so far has been very enthusiastic, ranging from « it's been an eyeopener and makes me less afraid » through « I realized as the session went on that my prejudices were falling away. « Congratulations! »
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