AIDS prevention programs aimed squarely at gay men are on a roll in Ottawa after a reversal of a decade of government funding neglect and a re-ordering of priorities by local groups.
The AIDS Committee of Ottawa and Pink Triangle Services have made giant strides to focus on gay men’s health strategies. And years of lobbying by grassroots experts has finally had an impact on government priorities, which had tragically been focused almost solely on other at-risk groups for too long.
The first wave of prevention campaigns were aimed at gay men after AIDS appeared in Canada in 1981. As the community moved to safer sex practices using condoms, the transmission rate fell and government and AIDS groups shifted focus to other at-risk groups. But by the mid-1990s, transmission rates among gay men again rose; this time government and AIDS groups largely failed to respond.
In Ottawa, two men a week are infected with HIV, yet before 2000 the community had gone virtually silent about AIDS and HIV.
” No one protested about the different allocation of funds — I have been fighting since ’98 to reinstate funding for men,” says Barry Deeprose, a co-founder of AIDS Committee of Ottawa and one of Canada’s leading AIDS activists. “[In the late ’90s], the rates of transmission were going way up. I fought and fought for the funding. We have really been fortunate to have it gel in Ottawa as it has.
“We have got to get the message out,” says Deeprose. “Why are these people vulnerable? It’s no longer adequate to say just wear a condom. What we have to do is look at the predisposing features and why men are still practicing unsafe sex. There are issues around isolation and depression,” says Deeprose.
Gay men are more vulnerable to unsafe sex when they are feeling depressed, such as after a break-up and when they use drugs, he notes.
Deeprose is encouraged by the return of government funding and the quick response by PTS and ACO in implementing programs aimed at gay men — with the help of the local Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative.
There are four people now working in Ottawa full-time or part-time on gay men’s health prevention issues, including HIV: Nicholas Little, Adam Graham and Danny Clavette at ACO, and Rick Barnes at PTS (and another position will soon be on-stream at PTS).
Little has been the Men’s Outreach Coordinator at ACO since April 2006 on a project funded with a grant from the AIDS Secretariat at Health Canada. Little’s mandate is to work with gay men and men who have sex with other men (MSM) in the Ottawa area. His position requires hands-on outreach to improve prevention and to help educate men about how to have safer sex.
You’ll often find Little stationed directly where men meet to have sex: in bars, baths, parks, online, and at any other special events where men might meet up. Little hands out lube and condoms, answers questions, and makes referrals to other organizations. Little helps out with Queer And Questioning Trivia Night at Swizzles (to start again in January), and organizes “pos parties” to improve integration and remove stigmas concerning HIV-positive men in the community.
Little says that he tries to reach out to a wide diversity of men through his outreach.
Another new member of the prevention team is Adam Graham, who is the Gay Men’s Prevention Coordinator at ACO. Graham was hired full time in September, overseeing the program. He often looks to the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative for guidance in his prevention work, and works with various partner organizations such as the Ontario Gay Men’s Strategy, and the Ontario Ministry of Health. Right now, his time is taken up mainly with a project called Snowblower, a health fair for local gay men scheduled for February.
Ricky Barnes, the HIV/AIDS Prevention Coordinator at PTS, does outreach with Ottawa’s gay and MSM communities. His funding comes from the AIDS Bureau of Ontario. He is working on a study about depression in gay men and men living with HIV as well as on the Be Real campaign, which is a website and outreach program. One of his main concerns is the self-esteem of gay men.
“I look at the decisions being made by the [gay men in the community] and why they are being made. HIV prevention goes far beyond latex. The condoms are important, but there are some underlying issues facing gay men and the adequate health resources in their lives,” says Barnes.
Pink Triangle Services will soon be adding a new position in their line-up, focussing on local Asian gay men’s HIV/AIDS outreach.
Deeprose is happy to see the funding coming back to gay men’s health issues. “This prevention outreach is long, long, long overdue in the AIDS community in Ottawa it is returning from a decade of neglect.”