We’ve been talking about teaching people long before they are adults in order to have safer, more well informed members of society. I feel Advocates for Youth are doing their part in creating generations of educated teens. With that, I reached out and their own Wesley Thomas agreed to share his experience with the organization as the Program Coordinator for LGBTQ Health and Rights. He shared a lot of insight on what Advocates for Youth is all about, how it helps and more.
Kendra: When did you start to embrace the importance of safe sex as a career?
Wesley Thomas: When I was an undergraduate, there was an incident that occurred on campus involving a sex worker. There was no information about what happened, but rumors throughout campus spread very quickly. And any conversation that was happening was shame-based and vilified the sex worker. I knew that I, and my fellow students deserved a better and more open conversation about sex and sexuality. I used my membership in my fraternity to create an panel styleforum of students, parents, and faculty to discuss sexuality related topics to dispel myths around sex called “Sexology 101.” The series was so well attended that it became a staple program of my fraternity for almost every semester that I was a student there.
Kendra: As the Program Coordinator of the LGBTQ program, how does what you do differ from the rest of the organization?
Wesley: The great thing about the work that I do at Advocates for Youth is that we don’t work in silos, the issue areas of our work, and of the lives of our youth activist, intersect. While some staff may work may be in capacity building and training for school districts and youth-serving providers around LGBTQ youth related issues, I have colleagues that monitor and address policies that discriminate or further marginalize LGBTQ youth in schools and communities on the local state and federal levels. I have the opportunity to work alongside staff that do international LGBTQ work and address the landscape of acceptance, access, and visibility in other parts of the world.
Kendra: In your time with Advocates for Youth, have you noticed if guys or girls are more receptive to the information you are teaching them?
Wesley: This is an interesting question because I have worked in mixed settings. I have worked in single gender, or “all-male”/”all-female” classrooms, as well as mixed gender classrooms, and I find that young people across the board are very receptive if you are intentional and affirming of their experiences. Even the most quiet, or resistant students in my programs don’t end that way. I’ve learned that trust is very important to youth especially when engaging adults, and if I don’t work to gain that trust early on, in reality, no one will be receptive.
Kendra: Do you feel that people should embrace sex education even younger than high school? Because as of right now, I believe most schools don’t touch the subject until at least the 10th grade.
Wesley: I think we are navigating sexuality related issues for all of our lives. From the moment that we are assigned a sex a birth, to when we are learning to say “No” when don’t want other children touching our belongings on the playground, we are constantly navigating the larger concepts of sex, gender, and orientation. Sex education should be complete, accurate and age appropriate. That means starting in kindergarten and building upon skills to adulthood. In my mind, is something that is cradle to the grave in terms of when it should begin and end.
Kendra: Do you think teaching safe sex to teens correlates into safer adults?
Wesley: For me the term “safe” really is contingent on the person you are, and the values you hold in your life. However, what safe sex does teach, or build upon rather, is communication and negotiation skills that is invaluable in adulthood. Some would say that this is being responsible, but I feel that these skills prepare teens for a world where they will constantly have to express their worth and value in places where others may not see it. Teens learn to fight for a stake in their own lives beginning with their sexual health, and ideally transposing into other facets of their identity.
Kendra: When it comes to what you’ve seen with Advocates for Youth, what do you feel the kids respond to most when teaching them about sexual health?
Wesley: Honesty and facts. Young people are very perceptive, and sometimes they come to the table, or classroom, with more information than we do. Therefore, it is essential, to me, to create a space where I share the information that I have as a professional and academic, and provide space for them to share their experiences (to their comfort) and ensure that they are supported and affirmed in that experience. Many of these young people are coming from adults telling them what they “should do” for most of their day, but in the spaces I facilitate they are the experts. And as experts, I want us to share what we know to make everyone (including myself) better prepared to address the disparities and stigmas that exist in this work, and in our daily lives.
Kendra: There aren’t too many programs out there for an adult to stay informed about things like this. Do you feel there should be some sort of program for adults who may’ve missed out on these lessons?
Wesley: The great thing about the landscape of sex and sexuality is that for adults there is also spaces for them to engage in these conversations, and learn more. Many cities across the country have community based, AIDS serving, youth serving, or reproductive health organization that provide much of the information for adults. Advocates for Youth has a Parent Center that allows parents to learn alongside their child. Agencies like Planned Parenthood and Gender Spectrum, to name a few, work across the generations to provide access to information and resources to learn about sex and sexuality related topics.
Kendra: Lastly, what do you feel are the highs and lows of teaching kids about safe sex and sexual health so that they can go on to be responsible adults?
Wesley: A high for me is that I get to do the very thing that I love, and be the very person I never had in my own life. As a Queer Black man, I never had someone that looked like me in the front my classroom talking to me about safe sex and sexual health. I had no one to talk to me about same gender attraction, and it brings me joy every day that I can provide that for young people that I work with. On the other end, a low for me is that there are not more adults that are invested in normalizing this conversation. To me, this is a missed opportunity to positively change the growing health disparities impacting the most marginalized youth including our young women of color, LGBTQ young people, especially young queer and trans youth of color.