On June 3rd SExT had the pleasure of performing for Jane Street Hub as part of their Community Info Fair, highlighting sexual health as well as health and wellness in the African, Caribbean, Black, and Latino communities. The event included resources, community services, workshops, counsellors, performances (wink-wink), and anonymous testing for STIs. Having a safe space for conversations on these stigmatized topics such as STIs and mental health, and having it be accessible to everyone, is so incredibly important. I would like to thank the organizers for this.
Performing a poem on stereotypes, rapping about cultural identity, and talking about consent and STI testing (among other things) is always very powerful in itself, but having people come up to us afterwards sharing how they relate to our show is absolutely amazing. People wanting us to perform at more community events and speaking up about these issues is liberating and a great reminder of why we at SExT are all so passionate about our message of inclusivity and acceptance. Our group also attended a session on stigma, and let me tell you, I could never get tired of listening to my peers share their stories about stigma. One cast member shared his account of navigating his mental health with his father, who at first didn’t understand, and is now the one to advocate to his own friends about mental health resources. As I listened to the people in the room open up, the air got lighter with each person’s story being told. Seeing this kind of environment being fostered gives me hope that one day everyone can find comfort and liberation in being able to share their own experiences. After the session on stigma, we listened to a panel of five brave individuals speak about being HIV positive. Let’s just say it got real deep. Hearing the personal accounts of a young woman born with HIV, a gay man having to keep his sexuality a secret, and a trans woman’s story about accepting her HIV, is so inspiring. Hearing their accounts of the stigma they have experienced and their journeys overcoming it, is so freaking inspiring. One of the women on the panel even took an HIV test in front of us to demonstrate how easy the process is and to encourage others to take charge of their health and get tested. She encouraged others to reclaim their power, to be knowledgeable about their sexual health, and not to stay hidden in shame. I was able to witness the stories of those who suffered in secret, now opening themselves up to a room of strangers. I don’t know how on earth they did it, but I’m so happy they did. I know many people in the room found hope from hearing these stories coming from people sitting right in front of them, smiling and proud of who they have become. As the discussion of stigma continued, I got to hear more cast members open up. One person spoke of his experience about being gay and adopted. Another shared her story of having depression and trying to understand why her mom doesn’t understand. Her mother grew up in a different country in a different time, and might have even dealt with mental illness herself not knowing what it was. More people opened up about a great range of stigma they have faced, and hearing that everyone has a story is a forceful truth. Some people cried, because it was moving, you know? It was helpful to see people who had overcome stigma now living life on their own terms. Everyone on the panel agreed they are living better by not caring what others say about who they are, by not giving in to the stigma, and by speaking out about their experiences. The host also shared a story about the stigma surrounding her hair. She explained how she had been wearing straight hair since she was 12 years old. She spent a lot of time growing it out, and the day came when she said, “Okay, I’m going to do my hair today”. She spent over a day on it, and looked in the bathroom mirror feeling fabulous. She came out of the bathroom and her boyfriend said, “Oh, I thought you were going to do your hair.” Everyone in the room gasped and I saw slacked jaws, in utter shock. The host just laughed and said all that was needed was to have a discussion about it, and it was a very good discussion. She learned that his mom never wore her hair natural, his sister always had straight hair, and all his girlfriends wore their hair straight. The point is that some people don’t even know they are perpetuating stigma. We just need to educate them. I feel like this is where SExT can come in. The reason I love our show so much is because it is not our place to judge, but to educate using our stories and allow people to be free to choose as they wish. As our director Shira always says: If everyone agreed on everything, our program wouldn’t need to exist. When it comes to stigma, we can all do our best to not perpetuate it and to educate ourselves. Hearing everyone's stories at Jane Street Hub is an experience I will hold close to my heart, and I will always remember moments like this when we were able to discuss stigmatized topics such as sexual health in a safe space. Respectful discussion really is that powerful. I know I talked about some “heavier” topics, but the event was really fun as well! Although there were some tears, there was lots of laughter as well and great energy. Being able to express ourselves and having people support it means everything in the world. Anyone in any group can experience stigma, and it is important that we do not give in to stigma and rise above it. I know, so mushy, but it’s true. When we all come together and have a respectful discussion without shutting down opposing views and instead giving everyone a voice, that is when real change happens. That is what I hope we can accomplish with SExT.