I had the awesome privilege of spending 2014 working on an amazing project at Planned Parenthood Toronto. They had secured a grant to develop youth friendly, peer-created sexual health resources, to address the fact that sex education in Ontario (and like, everywhere) has been failing young people, most especially queer and trans young people, whose experiences and needs have been invisible inside that pocket of education for too long. There have been some shifts in Ontario’s sexual health curriculum since this time, which is pretty darn exciting (and heavily controversial) , but while educators are catching up to new curriculum, and while queer and trans youth are still so marginalized in the education system, there is serious need for additional resources for young people in sexual minorities.
I got to work with fourteen genius young people on this project. We spent several weeks learning about all sorts of things related to queer and trans sexual health, and then began to think about what it was that we wanted to create. We gave workshops with other groups of youth about queer dating and consent, about navigating relationships we choose and ones we are stuck with, and about gender identity and expression. We also wanted to create some concrete things, something that could live on and be passed around long after this group no longer had the funding to work and learn together.
One of those early days of sunny spring, we moved our meeting outside to the park across the street from the Sherbourne Health Center where we often met and one volunteer led us in a writing exercise. He gave us the prompt what I really needed was… and folks spent a few minutes writing about the unmet needs of our younger queer and trans selves. There might have been some tears that day. Lots came up in the sharing of people’s thoughts, but a common thread that ran through was the need for supportive community. We weren’t in search of promises that things would get better, but folks to let us know that we were already okay. That our feelings of marginalization are legitimate. That our identities and experiences matter. That we are using our skills of coping and survival every day. That we aren’t alone.
Maybe the link between sexual health education and affirmations seems fuzzy to you, or the link between affirmations and feminist fitness. I had a formative moment in my learning about working with marginalized youth when I was a new grad from social work school, working at Project 10 in Montreal. I read a zine about HIV prevention made in the 90s (I wish I could tell you the name of it, but I don’t remember!). There was an interview with a young man with HIV who wanted to push against the ways that info about sexual health for young queers often focuses on long term consequences of “risky” decisions around sex. This guy explained that these kinds of messages just bounced right off of him, because he didn’t think he would have a future to be concerned about. Building supportive community, representation, and legitimacy to young people’s experiences and identities are key components in demonstrating that as a society, we give a shit. This isn’t about promising young people that things will get better; it’s about making space for wherever they are, however they are, right now. When young people feel seen and valued, that can have a powerful impact on how we feel about ourselves and our ability to create change in our own lives as well as within our communities. In a context of care and value, the possibilities of working through decisions about health are way more vast.
We couldn’t give everyone parents who support them unconditionally. We couldn’t guarantee that teachers would use their names and pronouns. We couldn’t promise that friends would accept and love them just as they are, or as they might become. But we know the power of words, of recognizing yourself in someone else’s experience, and so we came up with the idea for the Affirmations Deck.
A subcommittee was struck and we began to meet and dream up a list of affirmations. No idea was a bad idea, and we eventually amassed a list of hundreds of statements. Piles of pizza were consumed while we wordsmithed and narrowed our focus. We laughed our butts off over affirmations like it’s okay that you started a fight at that family gathering and it’s ok that you weren’t really 18 when you went to that website. Some of them came out real funny in first draft, like the ways I use my body in sex is only the business of me and the people i’m sexing with and your fantasies don’t have to be real life commitments.
We eventually arrived at a final list of 62 affirmations, and set about designing the cards. The motifs that surround the words on the cards were hand drawn, and they correspond with the themes that the cards address, which are also printed at the bottom of each card. That means that if you want to pull out all the cards about identity, or all the cards about consent, or all the cards about bodies, you can find them both by their labels and also by the drawings on the cards. Affirmations that reference more than one theme have a blend of multiple drawings. The font that the group selected is called OpenDyslexic, an open source design that was made to be more easily read by folks with dyslexia.
These cards have spread far and wide from their original printing in the fall of 2014. Physical decks have made their way to community organizations serving youth across Canada, into the hands of queer and trans youth across the country, and even to folks who are incarcerated. The cards are also available as a free printable PDF, so anyone with some cardstock and a printer can make as many sets as they desire. If you’re a Toronto local, you can walk into Planned Parenthood and ask for a free deck at clinic reception. The deck has also been featured in the brand new LGBTQ health anthology The Remedy, edited by femme force of nature Zena Sharman.
If you run a clinic or community space, you can leave a deck at reception for folks to look at. You can stick your favourites in your locker or on your walls. You can colour them in and mail them to your faraway friends. You can give them to your therapy clients or your doctor. You can give them to parents who want to support their kids, however their genders and sexualities develop. You can hide them in library books with queer subtext. You can use them as writing prompts, or as debriefing tools in workshops. You can burn them ceremonially and make wishes on their ashes. You can write your own affirmations that speak to your personal experiences. You can use them however you like. Please do use them, and share them with folks who might benefit from their tender magic.
Carly is a 32 year old white genderqueer femme. She is a freelance workshop facilitator in Toronto, mostly working on community building, body autonomy, intersectionality, queer sexual health, trauma survivorship, and keeping people alive. She likes roasted vegetables and bitter foods, and hates cantaloupe and anything gelatinous. She thinks that leopard print is a neutral and that prisons should be abolished. She is also a tarot reader- find out more at http://www.tinylanterntarot.com