Fighting stigma and breaking down barriers is what the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO) aims to do this week with the launch of a Magnet Party — bringing HIV-positive and HIV-negative men together in a stigma-free and safe environment.
Michael Burtch, the MSM Community Developer for ACO is the driving force behind the party.
“The idea behind the Magnet Party is to bring the positive and negative community together to create a dialogue around HIV, safer sex practices and concerns that affect the HIV-positive community — and the queer community by-and-large, since such a disproportionate number of queer men are affected by HIV,” says Burtch.
Burtch, along with drag queen Sapphire Champagne — who are both HIV-positive — will be hosting the event and encouraging dialogue between the poz and neg partygoers. Throughout the evening they will be distributing safer sex supplies, tackling safer sex practices, addressing issues around HIV stigma and talking about issues that directly affect HIV-positive people, including the criminalization of HIV.
In short, the party aims to tackle a lot of complex issues in a fun, lighthearted way that helps people — specifically HIV-poz guys — to create social networks while having a good time in an accepting environment.
“Because being HIV can be very isolating, we are looking to getting people together in a safe space where they feel comfortable to disclose, where they can meet other people and share similar experiences,” says Burtch.
Although the event has been planned for months, it’s happening at a time when the gay community is divided over the issue of the criminalization of HIV and the arrest of a gay man for non-disclosure of his HIV status.
However, Burtch feels that there are other reasons that may deter people from coming to the event — people may not be comfortable coming out and disclosing their status, they may be worried about being labelled as HIV-positive when perhaps they are not or in fact they are unaware of their status.
“There are a lot of reasons why people may not feel like coming to this event, and so I think there are a lot of barriers to engagement that we are going to encounter with this project,” says Burtch. “But I think one of the reasons why we try to do something like this is because I think we can change people’s perceptions on what it does mean to be HIV-positive by hosting this party and hopefully take some of the stigma and fear away from the idea of even socializing with HIV-positive people.”
The theme for the party is tattoo art. The theme was adopted after Burtch held community meetings with HIV-positive people on the real or perceived things that HIV-poz people can’t do.
One of the things that came forward was the perception that poz people could not receive tattoos. Concerns raised by people included health risks and the possibility of being denied services after disclosure to a tattoo artist.
The event is co-sponsored by Wicked Wanda’s and the event’s resident tattoo artist, Tiffany Francoeur, designed the tattoo-themed poster.