Totally Outright is a thought-provoking, leadership and community-building program for young gay men. It’s designed to introduce them to community leaders, mentors and experts in gay men’s health. It’s about building a community of well informed, sexually-savvy young men who can communicate with a wide range of people to enhance gay community health.
The program was created by the Community Based Research Centre (CBRC) in British Columbia and then further developed and delivered by Health Initiative for Men (HIM), a gay men’s health organization in Vancouver. It’s been running in that city since 2005; now a version is being offered in Toronto - more of that later.
I recently had the opportunity to chat about Totally Outright with Jody Jollimore, the program manager at HiM. Here’s our conversation.
John McCullagh: Jody, what’s Totally Outright?
Jody: In a sentence, John, Totally Outright is a leadership program for young gay guys. And we use a very broad definition of gay, so we include other guys who have sex with guys, and trans men who identify as gay.
Around twenty guys get together over two full weekends for a series of workshops teaching them how to be, as we put it, healthy, sex-savvy trendsetters. These workshops cover all sorts of important topics. We start with a backgrounder on a history of gay health activism in Canada and BC, and build from there, with presenters speaking about gay sex, policy making, assertiveness training, harm reduction, coming out, and a lot more. Really, a lot of the skills that young gay guys could use navigating the community. It’s no wonder that a lot of them liken it to “gay high school”, where they pick up some important and fundamental skills and information.
John: So it’s not so much a support program as a skills-building course. Tell me more about the the skills the program aims to build among these young men.
Jody: They’re quite diverse but some are built more directly than others. For instance, the mental health presentation may be more useful for some guys at that time than others, but it gives them the tools to find help should they need it and to understand how being a gay man might affect their mental health. Then there’s a workshop on assertiveness training, to directly teach the guys how to be more assertive in their lives with what’s important to them. That could translate to negotiating condom use and peer pressure or asking a guy on a date or their boss for a raise.
A great strength of Totally Outright is the peer education aspect. For example, a participant may not himself find the drug-related harm reduction workshop especially useful because he doesn’t use drugs, but he’s now a resource among his friends. After the program, the guys themselves become ambassadors, the trendsetters as we call them, for the skills and information they’ve picked up.
John: Why was the program developed?
Jody: It was conceived as an evidence based HIV prevention intervention for young gay guys, encompassing an approach to address the social determinants of health in that population. The model has continued to develop into a capacity-building program that not only increases the leadership skills in the participants, but also provides guys with an option to continue to pursue a career in gay men’s health or to take a role as a community leader.
John: What kind of guys, Jody, do you look for to participate in the program?
Jody: While Totally Outright is open to all young gay men, we’re looking for participants who’ll benefit themselves and their community. We look to see how they’re involved in other groups and organizations, working or volunteering, or how they have demonstrated ambition and dedication through the experiences they describe to us. We’re looking for guys who’ll remain active in the community or their group of friends after the program, to really put what they’ve learned to use.
John: How does Totally Outright work?
Jody: It gives great health promotion information in a ready-to-use format. It engages the guys and the presenters – who are all volunteers – with the community. And it begins relationships among the guys, other organizations including those who provide the presenters, and the larger health care community. We hear from participants that one of the most important things that guys take away is the experience of getting together with other gay guys, in a non-sexualized way, to have a chance to talk about the realities of their lives in a safe and empathetic atmosphere. It’s a powerful experience!
John: What are the components of the training, which I understand takes place over two full weekends?
Jody: There are three different components: the presentations, outreach, and a group project. Most of the time will be spent participating in the presentations, which we always work on making as interactive and engaging as possible. At the beginning of the program, the guys are separated into groups of four or five, and are tasked with developing an idea for a program or service that would improve the health of the community. The scope is very broad, and we’ve had groups come up with fantastic ideas: a dedicated community centre, a shelter for runaway youth, and an outreach program to visible minorities, for example. They’re given time during the two weekends to work on it, as well as some time during the weekend in-between, and then at the end of their program they present their ideas to everyone, including the other participants and many presenters.
The outreach is on the second Saturday, which is the longest day of the program. Rather than ending at five as we do on the other days, we bring the guys back to the HIM office where we have some presentations on campaigns, media, and outreach. Then we break the guys into groups and spread them around Davie Street to actually apply some of what they’ve been learning, as well as letting them try their hand at doing outreach, one of the volunteer opportunities they will have after the program ends. The outreach component is often cited by the guys as one of the most fun parts of the program, and they really do seem to have a great time.
John: It does indeed sound fun. So what, Jody, have you learned over the years that you’ve been delivering Totally Outright?
Jody: John, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that given the opportunity young guys in our community can be counted on to really help themselves and others. There’s a lot of talk about how disengaged youth are, but Totally Outright demonstrates year after year just how active and involved young guys can be.
John: Totally Outright looks like a great example of how we’re redefining the way we do sexual health promotion among gay men. Thank you, Jody, so much for talking about it to PositiveLite.com.
Jody: My pleasure!
The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) is now bringing Totally Outright to that city. Rui Pires is the Gay Men’s Community Education Coordinator at ACT. I recently talked with him about the Toronto version of Totally Outright.
John McCullagh: Rui, why did ACT decide to organize a Toronto version of this program?
Rui Pires: First and foremost, John, young gay men account for the majority of HIV infections among youth in our city (85% in 2009). And while Toronto has some wonderful programs for young gay men, there are not nearly enough services and supports that address sexual health and pre-existing problems such as social marginalization, stigma, internal and external homophobia and bullying. Totally Outright addresses HIV prevention within the context of these issues, while also acquainting youth with other services and resources that they can access. As the Vancouver model seems to be achieving these objectives, it makes sense to implement it in Toronto.
John: What are your hopes and expectations for Totally Outright?
Rui: Given the current community attention placed on bullying and teen suicides, I hope this program will help break the isolation of gay and bi male youth by bringing young gay and bi men together not only to talk about things like relationships, loneliness, negotiating safer sex, or be able to talk to their friends about HIV and sexual health related topics with some self assurance. But I also hope it’ll be a window through which they can see how older gay men are leaders in addressing HIV, how some men have lived with HIV with dignity, and see what needs to be done to address HIV and the stigma associated with it. I hope this will cause youth to see promise in the response to HIV that is particular to being a gay or a bi male.
I hope that the message they can take away from the challenge of AIDS is the value of volunteering, getting an education and looking at how they can give back to community. When I talked with young men who took the Vancouver program, and are now in Toronto, I am impressed by how many have gone on to take up leadership positions in the sexual health field. Some are working on related university degrees while others have gone on to volunteer in the field. I hope we’ll be able to hear people talk about the Toronto program as being inspirational, as they already do about the Vancouver one.
John: Good luck with the program, Rui. And thanks again for speaking to PositiveLite.com about it.
Rui: My pleasure, John. It’s very important for the community to know about the work we do so I appreciate the opportunity in speaking with you!
Totally Outright is a program for gay guys between the ages of 18 and 26.
The next Totally Outright program offered by HiM in Vancouver will take place on the weekends of March 10/11 and March 24/25, 2012.
In Toronto, the program will be offered on Saturdays in March and again in June.
Guys from outside Vancouver are invited to apply as arrangements can be made for transportation and accommodation. Toronto’s Totally Outright program is looking for participants primarily within the city and offers no accommodation.
You can apply and get more information as follows:
HiM, 310-1033 Davie Street, Vancouver, BC V6E 1M7
Telephone: 604 488 1001 Email:
ACT, 399 Church Street, 4th floor, Toronto, Ontario M5B 2J6
Telephone Rui Pires: 416 340 8484 ext. 264