Totally Outright: Adapting TO in Winnipeg
Totally Outright (TO), a sexual health leadership training program for gay, bi, two spirit and trans men between the ages of 18 and 26, was first held in Winnipeg in 2013. It was offered by the Rainbow Resource Centre (RRC), Canada’s longest continuously running lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and two-spirit (LGBTT) resource centre. The program was first developed in 2005 by the Community-based Research Centre for Gay Men's Health, and is offered in Vancouver by the Health Initiative for Men and in Toronto by the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Although each program is adapted to the local context, all three courses foster learning and community building among different generations of queer men, and through this, seek to develop a cadre of young men with the skills to be sexual health leaders.
The RRC faces a number of unique challenges in delivering TO in Winnipeg. Totally Outright is offered in a context where young queer men may be isolated because of a lack of gay spaces. There is not a defined and vibrant gay village, few gay venues and although the Gay Men’s Health Clinic caters to the specific health needs of queer men, including young queer men, health and well-being resources for this community are limited.
In addition, Winnipeg is surrounded by rural communities where many young gay, bi, trans and two-spirit men live. TO would be an ideal program to reduce feelings of isolation these youth may experience; however, to date, RRC has not had the funds to support young men from rural communities to attend.
Despite being located in a smaller urban centre, the RRC has not had difficulty recruiting young men to the program. The program has been just as successful at recruiting its targeted audience—motivated young men of diverse backgrounds—as Vancouver and Toronto have been. A priority for TO Winnipeg has also been to engage men who are less likely to have strong connections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit and transgendered community and/or to other queer men as a way to reduce the isolation they may feel.
TO Winnipeg has also been popular among international university students who may not be out as gay and who have applied to the program as a way to access the LGBTT community. Although many of these men are looking more for a support program than a leadership program, Totally Outright is an important point of entry to the community for these men. Staff are careful to link them to other programs, including New Pride of Winnipeg, a peer-support group for newcomers.
Although TO Winnipeg follows much of the same curriculum and structure (facilitated sessions and a group project) of TO Vancouver and TO Toronto, some of the content has been adapted to address the needs of young men in Winnipeg. Winnipeg’s program includes sessions on two-spirit identities and culture, and the sessions on coming out and homophobia address these challenges in the context of a smaller city.
The RRC’s take on the group project has been perhaps the most successful part of the program to date. Across all three programs, the group project is a way to get participants thinking about the challenges queer men face. Group members develop a solution to the challenge and typically, present it to their fellow participants on the last day of the program. Participants develop facilitation, outreach and critical thinking skills throughout the process.
TO Winnipeg has actively used the group projects to address gaps in knowledge about health and well-being for queer men that are specific to Winnipeg. In the first TO Winnipeg series, participants were divided into groups and asked to develop an awareness campaign about an issue facing the community. They worked with a graphic designer and marketing expert to develop mock-ups of their ideas and then presented their ideas on the final day of the program. One of the campaigns, Don’t Let Shame Decide, was so strong that it has been funded by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority as a city-wide campaign aimed at providing new, youth-focused sexual health information that approaches health and well-being holistically with an emphasis on living without shame.
In the second series, participants were asked to develop a research project rather than a campaign. Sessions on community-based research and survey development were led by a professor from the University of Manitoba. Although the intention was to have participants go to local Pride Week celebrations to distribute the survey, It’s Really [blank] Out Here, which asks men about what it’s like to be a young gay guy in rural Manitoba, has turned into a formal research project, led by Totally Outright participants. The results will be used to inform RRC’s future work.
Like other Totally Outright programs, TO Winnipeg has been successful at developing a corps of young, trained, informed and confident men who are knowledgeable about sexual health. The short-term impact in Winnipeg is already being felt through Don’t Let Shame Decide and It’s Really [Blank] Out Here. TO Winnipeg has only to look to Vancouver to see how a core group of young TO graduates can shape gay men’s health programming over the long term.
Ultimately, Totally Outright in Winnipeg is successful because it overcomes many of the challenges young queer men may face as a result of a lack of a sense of community. It provides a validating space where they learn about gay, bi, trans and two-spirit culture and history, and get the skills they need to improve their health and the health of their communities. Critically, it gives them the tools to share the knowledge they gain with others and connects them to other men that support them long after their participation in Totally Outright has ended.
Jared Star, Youth Program Coordinator, Totally Outright Program Coordinator, Towel Talk Counsellor
(204) 474-0212 Ext. 202