By Bill Daley
“SexuWellness” is, well, kind of an unusual name for a sexual and reproductive health drop-in program. But then this program, targeted at women and open to people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, isn’t your average dry, overly clinical sex ed class of old.
“Our angle is to create something exciting,” said Amy Miller, manager of Howard Brown’s Women’s Health Services. And they do, with topics like masturbation, queer sex and body positivity, and the participation of Early to Bed, the feminist sex shop, that sends its sex educator to take part in the discussions.
SexuWellness drop-in nights, at Howard Brown Health’s Rogers Park location, are designed to be safe spaces for attendees to learn, ask questions and get any health services they might need, from pelvic exams to mammogram referrals to birth control to testing for sexually transmitted infections.
“What I love about drop-in models is that we’re really bringing people in for the programming, and we’re creating, like, a community space where people feel comfortable,” Miller said, “and then while they’re there, they might get an STI test, or they might say, ‘Yes, I’m due for a Pap, and I feel comfortable enough in this space to do it.’
Because we’re seeing a lot of people don’t go out of their way for a medical appointment, especially women, especially queer women, who might not feel as comfortable in a medical setting or even are just not familiar with Howard Brown at all.
“Our angle is to create something fun and positive and exciting for people to come and participate in,” she added.
Miller said drop-in night themes are always related to sex and body positivity, and feature experts in sexual health and sexual pleasure. June’s event focused on body positivity itself, which Howard Brown Health noted was fitting as that particular Friday marked the start of Chicago’s big LGBTQ Pride Weekend.
The session was led by Latonya Maley, director of Howard Brown’s Broadway Youth Center, with occasional commentary from Julia Napolitano, a sex educator with Early to Bed.
or nearly two hours, Maley wove together practical health information, inspiring stories, spirituality and even a period of meditation as she discussed the importance for all to “feel good about our bodies.” She spoke of health, self-care and self-love, authentic beauty and the need for building community. Maley also reminded the 10 people in attendance that their health care provider “is the Robin to your Batman.”
Among those listening was Leigh Ketelsen, a 21-year-old college student at Loyola University.
“It’s interesting and educational, and you learn so much,” said Ketelsen of the drop-in nights.
She is an organizer of Students for Reproductive Justice, a nonregistered group of Loyola University students that counts among its activities the free distribution of condoms to students who request them, and she has been a regular at the sessions. “It’s a very inviting space. It’s cool. I like it a lot,” Ketelsen said, praising the “general mojo of the environment and the learning space.”
Howard Brown Health has long specialized in meeting the health needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning community. But, as Miller noted, the agency has most often been identified with the health needs of gay men.
Surveys have shown that people didn’t realize “there was a space for women at all at Howard Brown” based on the agency’s past, said Carlyn LaGrone, women’s health outreach and education coordinator at Howard Brown Health. Now, the agency is working to make women and people who are gender-nonconforming feel welcome.
“You belong here, and we want to help you,” LaGrone said.
Miller said a previous attempt to offer a women’s drop-in program took place at a Howard Brown Health center during clinic hours. Women walking in found “a waiting room full of diverse gender folk,” she said, so they didn’t “necessarily walk in, ‘Oh, this is my night, this is my space.'”
“We didn’t see the numbers,” Miller said.
Hosting this rebooted drop-in program at night, after the Rogers Park clinic has closed, is a way to create an “intentional” night and space for women, she said, and it has “helped create a sense of belonging.”
Feeling comfortable and free to discuss topics that aren’t always easy to discuss is important, LaGrone said.
“I think we’re really empowering a lot of people,” she said. “I think that people are really excited about our SexuWellness, which has been a really good thing for our team. It just kind of charges us to want to do more.”
Asked whether the program was drawing more women who identify as gay or straight, Miller and LaGrone said the sessions draw a mix of people. Attendees aren’t asked their sexual orientation, Miller said, unless they are seeking medical services.
“Just anecdotally from the folks we’ve talked to, they’re asking for a lot of queer sex work programming, so I know they identify somewhere on the queer spectrum,” Miller said. “And I would say the majority are bisexual or pansexual.”
Miller and LaGrone say they are pleased with the numbers of attendees since the drop-in session was relaunched in March. The monthly sessions have drawn mostly Loyola students like Ketelsen, and Howard Brown has relied on student volunteers along with social media to get the word out throughout the community.
“We’re really excited to be a positive queer-affirming, sex-affirming, sex-positive space for not just Loyola students but for any woman,” Miller said. “We’re empowering women to take charge of their own bodies, to make decisions that they feel are right for them, and we’re just providing the tools to make that easier.”
The drop-in sessions are conducted on the fourth Friday of the month 5-8 p.m. at Howard Brown Health’s Rogers Park location, 6650 N. Clark St., Chicago, Ill.