When I first started thinking of the Maine, Thankfully series, I found myself excited to talk with folks who are doing work that changes the way most think about community service. The work that Kelly Arbor and Gaelle Win Robin of Maine Educationalists on Sexual Harmony (M.E.S.H.) are engaging in will likely do exactly that. On paper, the goal of M.E.S.H. is to “create a holistic integration of sex and identity and to (re)build a stronger community united with sex-positive awareness.” In practice, M.E.S.H. exists to get people talking and thinking about sexuality, identities, and building communities around those discussions.
In Arbor’s words, they are a “network of educators and change artists.” Turned off by the stodgy conception of sexual education offered to us in high school, the folks behind M.E.S.H. launched the effort to broaden and diversify the way we think about and relate to sex in their daily lives. While they have been at work on the project for the past handful of months, M.E.S.H. hosted a series of well-received kickoff events last week. Included were an erotic poetry reading, a speed dating party built around honoring all identities and preferences, and a cabaret event. They host event in Portland
The motivation behind these actions is to eliminate hate, which is bred by insecurity and ignorance. Ultimately, Arbor explained, M.E.S.H. exists because “we need to create third spaces—spaces that exist outside of home, work and bars—safe spaces where we can create trusting environments and be who we are.”
I talked with Arbor and Robin about their perspective, philosophy, work and how potential supporters might get involved.
How did M.E.S.H. initially come about?
Gaelle Win Robin: We are bringing sex education to Portland, but we didn’t want to do it in the traditional way because I know I didn’t learn anything from sex ed when I was a kid. We want to open our community’s mind to different identities and existences and to validate those things. We have had these staged events because art is one way to get people to share their truest forms, and we are going to have some workshops in the Spring.
Kelly Arbor: Shame and blame culture with regard to sexuality, and how we see ourselves as sexual beings, is everywhere in this country and I would say it is everywhere on the globe. It is a tool to keep people afraid, to keep people consuming things that don’t feed them. One of the things we deal with as a group is addressing creativity, self expression and sexuality. By design we are morphing all of those things together. They naturally fit together. We discuss humor and education and try to open up a conversation about a topic not everyone is open to talking about.
What about your approach is unique to other forms of sex education?
GWR: By bringing light and levity to these conversations, we can also open up dialog about darker parts of sex. Recently a conversation about kink and flogging led to a conversation with a woman who revealed that she used to get beat by her father, so we started to think about how we can have these larger questions about openness while ensuring women with that experience can also feel open and welcome. We are all about creating safer spaces and realize that we need to tailor our message and approach to where we are. When we had our cabaret event last week, we opened by explaining that we would be talking about a bunch of different things, and also by explaining that some of it might be difficult and that we would be pushing boundaries. Because we open it up like that and create that space, people feel as though they are able to participate in whichever way works for them.
KA: At events like that, we warm up with erotic vocab. Getting people to scream dirty words at me is one of my favorite things. [laughs]
I know a lot of people who would be open to your messages and mission at the end of the day, though might not necessarily know how to engage with your approach at first. How do you address folks like these?
KA: There is a ton of assuming and policing in all of our communities, so we wanted to create this inclusive space. We wanted to create a container around which anyone can come in, and to set a tone around which people could act. We had an event where there was a heckler and because of that tone, the group helped to intervene by presenting him options for staying and being respectful or leaving. There didn’t need to be a big scene and he didn’t need to be thrown out.
GWR: That’s the kind of space we want to create. In other queer spaces I have been a part of, there have been instances where people who have been problematic like that at events have been shamed or shunned and told they are never welcome back. It is important to explain why behaviors aren’t welcome and to explain that it makes people unsafe. We can make greater efforts to negotiate and compromise because that is what a safe space is for me. I start to feel unsafe when people are kicked out for no reason.
KA: Sometimes people are shamed as if there is a right way to be, but it is all relational.
GWR: The right way to be is to be one with each other. We all have a common interest and we do the best we can to get along and feel safe and comfortable with each other. When people get shunned from spaces and start to associate being shunned with the queer community… What if those people were trying to explore their own identity? What if they wanted to better understand how to exist in these spaces? And they hear, “You’re a cis straight dude; you’re unwelcome here.” Then that makes me as a queer person feel like, “Wait a minute. I don’t feel that way about people. I want people to be here and feel welcome.”
What are the next steps for the group?
KA: Portland is a ripe, liberal city and while it has been very ready for some of this work, we don’t necessarily have to dismantle structures here. We’re here to heat it up. All the silos are coming down, which is great, and we are figuring out how to help bonding and bridging. How can we help that process and how can we create together?
GWR: Outside of our events, we are going to keep existing the way that we do and keep this conversation going and we hope to see that spread.
KA: And then we homobilize.
GWR: I don’t know if you caught that, but Kelly said “homobilize.” [laughs]
KA: I love homobilizing!
GWR: Yes, we look forward to figuring out how to bring what we are doing to schools and towns and the rest of Maine.
KA: Dialog about these kinds of things is increasingly under attack and it is getting shut down more and more, especially in schools. Hut people want to talk about this stuff so when we present an opportunity to do that they are receptive.
GWR: We are trying to shift perspectives. We are trying to remove that shame about our identities. Even my cis straight friends feel shame about feeling cis and straight. No! You’re allowed to be normative.
I think that’s something I had always been confused by. Where do I exist when I meet that definition but feel repulsed by the behaviors and oppression that often seems born naturally of that perspective and definition? You don’t want to hear from a bunch of cis straight people that they feel left out because, come on, we’ve been responsible for alienating everyone forever.
GWR: As we’ve been having these conversations, and as cis straight people have been included, I have noticed that we’re all ultimately really queer. We can bond about that, about behavior, and about sex.
I don’t think we’ll be able to identify it until we see today in retrospect, but I feel like we live in a culture that elegantly breeds queerness. I was involved in the youth leadership community for a long time and seeing how kids’ attitudes toward acceptance and tolerance and trying on different personalities and identities changed over the course of a decade was heartening.
KA: The littles are on point. We just need them on our team to go home and dig in with their people.
How can people engage in what you are doing or to help the cause?
KA: We are always looking for opportunities to engage and for people to join by showing up and participating, performing, and organizing events.
GWR: M.E.S.H. is a network and so we want to compile a list of people and organizations who support our mission and becoming one of us. We would love to be in touch with anyone who has a venue outside of Portland and wants to host, exist in and M.E.S.H. with. Check out our website or Facebook page and get in touch.