There I was, standing in front of the door. Palms sweaty. Heart racing. Mouth dry.
A very familiar feeling before presenting or facilitating a workshop. But this time it was different. Behind that door was a room filled entirely with 14 year-olds. Black and white glimpses of my high school years began to surface; the insecure displays of masculinity, the bullying, the crushes, the double identities, the violent fights and the secret washroom sex (or at least what we as teenagers considered sex back in the day). I went to an all-boys school and for a gay boy, it was both heaven and hell.
Speaking of heaven and hell, I thought, “Oh god, 14 year olds today were born in 1999!” I began smiling at the thought that when I was jamming to J-Lo’s “Waiting For Tonight”, these kids were grumpy-breast-milk-drinking-pooping-machines.
I took a deep breath and walked in. The rest was phenomenal.
For the next nine weeks, we spent our weekly afternoons munching on good food, talking about sex and complicated relationships (yes, youth these days have more than the Facebook type), complaining about school, jamming to music and making incredible art together.
And this was how the #teaseproject began its journey.
Funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and run by the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP), the #teaseproject uses art to challenge perceptions around gender, culture, sexuality and identity. We began in 2012 in Toronto’s East End (Thorncliffe and Crescent Town) and our objective was to create a different kind of a sexual health project. Informed by inspiring initiatives like Empower and AqsaZine, we wanted to create a project that is open to a range of creative dialogue while being culturally relevant to South Asian youth; one that recognizes the intersections between health, race and sexuality.
Even though I used to steal condoms from my dad’s nightstand, no one spoke to me about sex growing up. The closest thing I remember was my parents answering my question about what the newspaper headline, “Fertility Rates on the Rise in Tunisia” meant. Most of my (mis)information came from peers at school and it took many years 'till I grasped the basics. Adding homosexuality to the equation complicated matters even more. It was a solo mission that depended primarily on trial and error - the riskiest mission to take on.
After moving out, which in my case meant across continents, I became fascinated with sexual health by extension of having been fascinated by sex itself since my early adolescence. I began exploring by virtue of living alone and away from home, watching porn, dating, looking up information online, volunteering with organizations and getting tested regularly. I made, and still make, my fair share of mistakes (i.e., unsafe practices, mixing substances with sex, unhealthy relationships) but eventually learned about things like harm reduction strategies, managing drug use and negotiating healthier relationships.
I believe that sexual development, in both theory and practice, should be as equally emphasized as mental and physical development is for adolescents. Despite it driving everything we do and see, no one talks about sex or even sex-related topics such as relationships, negotiation, consent or pleasure; we grow up figuring these things out on our own with little information, messed up standards and lots of unrealistic expectations.
And this is why the #teaseproject is important.
It’s important because it provides the tools to engage youth in dialogue about the many questions they’re embarrassed to ask. It’s important because it provides a space that focuses specifically on their culture and environment. And it’s important because it helps peel the many layers of identity that cloak racialized youth in the Western world.
Through collective creative energy, we teased apart our struggles and pulled them to the surface leading us to many uncomfortable conversations. But these conversations allowed us to examine how large, abstract concepts such as homophobia, racism, classism and sexism impact our daily lives. Art has that power to unpack, flip and reimagine issues while allowing us to create some healthy distance from the everyday.
One of our most memorable activities was called Back to the Future, a reflection exercise that consisted of writing a letter to your future self to be sent back in a year. We worked hard to build trust with the youth and believed we created as much of a safer space as we could, but after this activity, we realized that even a safer space sometimes could not feel safe enough.
Some youth came out as queer in their letters, some invited us into their secret dreams and some made promises to fix what’s broken in their lives even though many of these challenges were beyond their control. Most importantly, the #teaseproject demonstrated to us how creativity, humour and strength could do wonders in managing the intersecting issues in our lives.
We just celebrated our first year with an exhibit and launch of #thecollection, a booklet documenting our journey and the artwork produced during the project. We’re now embarking on a new year and a new cycle. Our plan is to continue with the same model but gear it towards developing a sexual health campaign that reaches out to South Asian communities with a special focus on youth.
At the end, there I was, standing in front of the door again. Palms sweaty. Heart racing. Mouth dry.
But this time I was nervous because of a different set of reasons. I was nervous because I was saying goodbye to my young teachers. I was nervous because they showed me how my black and white high school years drove me to this colourful place. A place where art managed to give us the very words and images we have been searching for by opening doors to a deeper consciousness of who we are.
My young teachers complicated and completed the picture for me. And that is one hell of a tease!
Are you a South Asian youth? Wanna be part of the movement? Tag #teaseproject with your images and artwork that deals with gender, culture, sexuality and identity.
If you’re interested in ordering a copy of #thecollection or want to explore initiating arts-based models in your community, contact ASAAP.
About the author: Nedal Sulaiman is currently the Youth Health and Communications Coordinator at ASAAP. He’s spent the last decade working in media education, production and community health with racialized, queer and youth communities. You can reach him at