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A touch of gay is back at ACO

An ounce of prevention

PARTNERSHIPS. Kathleen Cummings says ACO can't do prevention services alone. Credit: (Rob Thomas)

The AIDS Comm-ittee Of Ottawa says it’s turning over a new leaf. But some activists say the funding going to ACO could be better spent elsewhere.

After a period of turmoil, instability and declining credibility with the gay men’s community, the organization is retooling, says new executive director Kathleen Cummings.

Take the Man To Man AIDS prevention program, says Cummings. ACO has reintroduced it to Ottawa under the new name of the Gay Men’s Wellness Project, in partnership with Pink Triangle Services and the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative.

But even the designer of the new project says it’s not enough.

Barry Deeprose, a co-founder of ACO in the 1980s and now the co-chair of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative, designed both the work description and contract for the Gay Man’s Wellness Project, but he argues it’s flawed and not the long-term prevention commitment needed.

The new project is inadequate and will do little to tackle the growing infection rates among gay men in the city, charges Deeprose.

“It sounds great but it’s totally inadequate and it is only short-term. It’s not core funding, it is not ongoing and it is not strategic. It is simply a band-aid solution,” he says.

The Man To Man program was cancelled in October 2003, after federal AIDS Community Action Program (ACAP) funding was cut off.

“We were using the ACAP funding for prevention work for gay men; we were doing park outreach, bath outreach, street outreach, bar outreach. All kinds of things were happening,” says ACO education and health coordinator Michelle Ball. “It was a really big blow when it got cut off.”

But ACAP funding has come back. And while many AIDS organizations are renaming programs to dodge the “gay” word, Cummings says she’s proud that Ottawa will directly target gay men. The new prevention program will be starting very soon. Particulars have yet to be finalized, but Ball says the past project focussed on HIV/AIDS prevention outreach and education for gay men.

Cummings expects the final stages of interviewing and staff hiring will be complete this spring. Cummings also says there is a commitment to hire a gay man for the outreach position, even if a human rights exemption is needed to do so. “We will do whatever we have to do to ensure a gay man is hired for this position,” she says. At the moment, no gay men are on staff at ACO, though approximately 70 percent of their clients are gay.

“It’s about having somebody out there that’s accessible and that will answer questions. Somebody who can hand out condoms and provide a harm reduction approach to reduce HIV,” says Ball.

Ball also says the outreach program will be addressing the stigmas society has attached to gay sex that sometimes leads to unsafe sex.

“Gay men have been taught to hide their sexuality. This has oppressed individuals in a way that sometimes results in people putting themselves in vulnerable situations and more at risk for HIV,” says Ball. “The project coordinator will be able to address that culture, that community and the oppression society has put on gay men in a supportive way.”

But local gay and AIDS activists say reinstating one program is not sufficient to seriously make a dent in the transmission of HIV in the gay community.

Deeprose says Ottawa is in a crisis because there is no core funding for HIV/AIDS prevention services for gay men.

“ACO was given core funding in 1987 for prevention and care. It is no longer doing prevention, it hasn’t for 10 years, but it continues to get fully funded,” he says.

Deeprose says that the Provincial AIDS Bureau, the organization that funds community-based AIDS initiatives across the province, needs to reallocate ACO’s core funding to prevention services.

“The AIDS committee has walked away from prevention, so there has to be another group to take it over, and they should get funding that was formerly allocated to the AIDS Committee Of Ottawa to do the prevention work,” he says.

Cummings says the issue is much more complicated. She says ACO previously took a lead role in Ottawa’s prevention services, but has realized they can’t do it alone.

“It’s not that we’re not committed to working towards reducing transmission, but we see ourselves needing to do that as a partnership,” she says. “We need to respond as a community, not just as an individual AIDS service organization.”

She also says changes in medications and treatments have led to changes in most AIDS organizations, including ACO. Cummings says during the early stages of the epidemic, victims were not living as long so prevention services were more important than support services. As medications and treatments improved, people began living much longer. The need for support services dramatically increased.

“The face and the life of HIV changed and we tried to respond as an agency as best we could,” she says.

Some of the most recent changes under Cummings’ leadership include a new anonymous ACO chat room on gay.com. Former ACO client and current volunteer Gustavo Hannecke answers questions every Monday afternoon from gay men living in Ottawa about HIV/AIDS. The first month of the project was a success and ACO is looking for more volunteers to participate.

ACO has also transformed their former boardroom into the Family Room. Originally designed as a safe area for children to play while their parents access services, ACO has expanded the family room to include family-specific programming and socials.

The longstanding Living Room for PWAs is now open 37 hours a week, up from 17. ACO’s resource centre has three computers running, there is a weekly community kitchen event and a nutritionist is scheduled to start this fall. ACO continues to run support and social groups, including the new weekly sex-positive group Cum Talk About Sex, as well as workshops on pre-employment and job opportunities.

“In the last 10 months we’ve come a long way, and it’s from everyone working as a team,” says Cummings. “The big thing now is building more and more partnerships within the community.”