Gay men of Ottawa, you have not been forgotten.
When Rob Alexander left Newfoundland to become the gay men’s health and wellness coordinator for the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO) in July, one of his first tasks was to get acquainted with the local queer community. What he heard surprised him.
“The guys in Ottawa said gay men’s health got dropped, it got sidelined. To put it bluntly, it was ignored,” Alexander says. “So what we want to know, as the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, is why do guys believe that?”
ACO’s "Let’s Get Fresh" report, completed last year, was based on six months of opinion gathering via questionnaires, focus groups and meetings with local queer community members.
“Based on the report and in comments and information that was collected, what we understand is that gay men felt that, particularly within AIDS service organizations, the focus had switched to women’s issues, new-immigrant issues, issues around the intravenous-drug-use population and that gay men had kind of been put to the sidelines,” he says.
While the report sent a clear message to ACO, the organization was unable to immediately address the community’s concerns, Alexander says.
“The 'Get Fresh' report was done by the ACO a year ago, but unfortunately, because of staff turnover and stuff here at the AIDS Committee, they weren’t able to progress, move forward with the report,” he says.
To reengage with Ottawa’s queer men's community members, the ACO is hosting Our Agenda: Let’s Get Fresh Gay Men’s Forum on Nov 27, at Richelieu-Vanier Community Centre. The free event will take place from 9am to 5pm and will feature guest speakers and discussions.
“The forum is basically to review the 'Get Fresh' report that came out, to introduce the Our Agenda: Let’s Get Fresh campaign and look at how we’re introducing this concept of looking at gay men’s health from a holistic [approach],” Alexander says.
One of the forum’s goals is to let gay men know about the services and programs ACO already offers. As a gay man, Alexander says he found the number of queer men who told him they thought ACO offered only HIV/AIDS programming surprising. Currently, ACO and GayZone offer Thursday-night programs for queer men at Centretown Community Health Centre, including yoga, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a cooking club and Chatter, a new monthly group for “15- to 24-year-old guys into guys.”
Speakers at the forum will include a representative from the Canadian Cancer Society’s Get Screened program to talk about the importance of queer men getting screened for colon cancer, as gay and bisexual men have higher risk factors for colon cancer but lower screening rates. The program aims to reduce barriers that prevent queer people from getting screened for cancer.
Paul MacPherson will talk about HPV and anal health issues, while Beck Hood will discuss issues faced by trans men, including the challenge of finding adequate healthcare and support services in Ottawa, Alexander says.
Patrick O’Byrne, who’s leading a pilot project that provides gay men with free post-exposure prophylactic (PEP), will discuss HIV treatment and prevention initiatives being researched around the world, Alexander says. Before the Ontario HIV Treatment Network’s pilot project, queer men who might have been exposed to HIV during consensual sex had to pay between $1,000 and $1,500 for PEP medication.
Alexander, who’s worked in the HIV/AIDS field for 27 years, says that in the spring ACO plans to launch an outreach and prevention campaign to encourage queer men to get tested for HIV and STIs, but in the meantime, he wants to get the word out that ACO is interested in all aspects of queer men’s health. He hopes as many queer men as possible will attend the forum to share their thoughts, opinions and ideas.
“One of our key purposes of Our Agenda: Let’s Get Fresh is to let gay men in the Ottawa area know that ACO is not just about HIV and AIDS,” he says. “It’s about gay men’s health, it’s about social programming for gay men, it’s about talking about issues around addiction, mental health and physical health.”