Rob Alexander has a simple message for members of Ottawa’s queer community: get tested.
Alexander, the gay men’s health and wellness coordinator at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, says the organization is focusing on spreading awareness about STI testing, including rapid HIV testing, during Pride this year.
The theme for the ACO’s Pride campaign is Looking Back, Moving Forward, a theme Alexander says will reflect on some of the history of the organization and the AIDS movement while also promoting newer initiatives. “There’s a long history with ACO and Pride,” he says. “We identify it as our biggest outreach campaign the entire year — during Pride and specifically, the Pride parade.”
He says Pride presents an opportunity to reach members of the community who normally wouldn’t access the ACO’s services, such as men who have sex with men (MSM) who live in suburbs like Barrhaven and Kanata.
The ACO is also trying to reach the population in Gatineau through partnerships with le Bureau régional d’action SIDA (le BRAS). “Again, it’s a population that we don’t necessarily reach with our programming, but when they’re here for large events like Pride or participating, it’s a good chance for us to let them know that, you know, we’re not just the ACO running services specifically for HIV and AIDS,” Alexander says.
The testing initiative is part of Let’s Get Fresh, the ACO’s two-year campaign focusing on holistic approaches to gay men’s health. It will encourage gay men and other members of Ottawa’s queer community to access health services and get tested for HIV and other STIs, including syphilis and gonorrhea, which Alexander says are “rampant” in Ottawa. “It’s amazing how many people are just not aware,” he says.
Large events like Pride attract tourists, and when people from all over convene for celebrations, STI rates often go up, Alexander says. He notes that after last year’s Pride, the ACO noticed a spike in both the number of people accessing testing and the number of positive results, suggesting that while people may know where to get tested, they aren’t necessarily doing all they can to prevent transmission and exposure.
Testing is currently available through the ACO, Ottawa Public Health, through Gay Zone, and at the Somerset West Community Health Centre, Alexander says. To promote these services, the ACO has designed a postcard to be distributed at Pride.
Alexander says the organization is also trying to reach trans men and MSM. Gay Zone, he says, provides confidential and anonymous STI testing, and clinic staff have received training in order to address trans-specific health issues.
In addition to their efforts to promote testing and make health services more visible to the Ottawa Gatineau population, the ACO is looking at past campaigns and the history of the AIDS movement. The organization has connected with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Alexander says, and will be using the iconic Silence=Death slogan in some of their programming materials
The ACO is also bringing back Captain Condom, a series of comic strips aimed at promoting condom use at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “Captain Condom has been around forever within the AIDS movement,” Alexander says. “What we discovered in doing our research is that Captain Condom and the whole Captain Condom campaign originated here in Ottawa through the AIDS Committee of Ottawa.”
Ethnocultural resource coordinator Preet Bhogal says the ACO has reconnected with the original artist, Stephen Yeates, who has provided them with some original artwork and a history of the comic. They will also be taking a look at what programming was historically done to target women and the lesbian community, Alexander says.
“We’re creating a website link through our ACO website which is going to be whole history of the AIDS movement and focusing on some of the campaigns that have come out of Ottawa,” Alexander says. The organization will also take part in the parade, with a retro-themed float and ACO-branded condom packs.
The emphasis, Alexander says, is not so much on reminding people of all the terrible things that can happen if they engage in sex during Pride, but rather on giving them the tools to enjoy themselves and celebrate safely. “It is a time of celebration, so we don’t want to be the bad guys,” he says.
“The strategy that ACO abides by is the sex-positive message,” Bhogal says. “Ensuring that people have enough information out there to be able to make whatever decision they feel is right for them.”