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Gay Zone celebrates five years of supporting gay men’s health

Steering committee co-chair wants clinic open two nights per week

OPH's Andrew Hendrix, Ottawa board of health member Timothy Hutchinson, OPH's Christiane Bouchard, Diane Holmes, Barry Deeprose, Jeff Morrison and Dr Isra Levy, Sept 25. Credit: Bradley Turcotte

Supporters, founders and staff of the gay men’s health clinic Gay Zone gathered Sept 25 at Ottawa City Hall to celebrate five years of providing sexual health services and social groups to the city’s gay community.

Steering committee co-chair Barry Deeprose says he wasn’t sure how many gay men would access its services when Gay Zone first opened its doors on Sept 25, 2008.

The clinic, run out of Centretown Community Health Centre (CCHC), served about five men in its first few weeks of operation, Deeprose recalls.

Soon the numbers doubled, and the clinic now claims to have seen more than 5,000 men in its first five years, something Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Isra Levy, tells Xtra, “far exceeds expectations in terms of numbers of visits,” since Gay Zone is open only three hours per week.

“We knew so much that this was needed. We had convinced others to go along with us, but we didn’t know if the community would come along,” says Deeprose, who is also the co-chair of the Ottawa Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative (GMWI), the organization that founded Gay Zone. “I am so proud of the men’s community for responding. Clearly, they were waiting, and clearly, we got it right.”

In 2008, members of the GMWI saw a need for a sexual health clinic exclusively for Ottawa’s population of men who have sex with men (MSM), Deeprose says. Rates of HIV and syphilis within the MSM community continued to rise, but many gay men didn’t feel comfortable getting tested at the Clarence Street clinic.

Coincidentally, CCHC expressed interest in developing a joint initiative to address the specific needs of gay men.

Although prepared to fight for the clinic’s creation, Deeprose says strong words weren’t necessary as Dr David Salisbury, then Ottawa’s medical officer of health, scheduled a meeting with GMWI and CCHC immediately.

Salisbury agreed to reallocate funds for a satellite clinic, something Cathy Collett, senior manager at CCHC at the time, singles out as “unique.”

“CCHC said, 'We will open the clinic another night,'” Deeprose recalls. “'We will pick up the cost for security and what have you. Not only do we have all the clinical facilities, we have all the meeting rooms.' This was a new experience to me. It was goodwill, good faith all around.”

Along with main partners CCHC, GMWI and Ottawa Public Health (OPH), additional organizations that helped found the clinic by providing programming and outreach include the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, PTS and the Youth Services Bureau (YSB).

Somerset West Community Health Centre also continues to play a central role by providing staff for HIV testing. In 2012, they tested 153 people.

CCHC board president Jeff Morrison was new to the board in 2008 and says he didn’t realize the significance Gay Zone would have at the time.

“The fact that five years later it has grown as quickly as it has — it’s expanded, it will continue to expand — I think speaks volumes about its value to the gay community,” Morrison says.

Gay Zone provides primary care services, but the clinic goes well beyond that, Morrison adds.

“As a member of the gay community myself, I know all too well the challenges our community faces. Being gay is not always easy. Depression, anxiety, addiction, mental health problems, suicide rates for gay men are higher when compared to the overall population. But that’s what always impresses me about the gay community is our resiliency and our ability to face down challenges,” he says. “In creating Gay Zone, we stared down those challenges we face as a community.”

Somerset Ward Councillor Diane Holmes presented Deeprose and OPH's Christiane Bouchard with a commemorative plaque signed by Mayor Jim Watson, who could not attend the reception due to illness.

“The Gay Zone health clinic is a true example of how a community came together with leadership, commitment and compassion to respond to and resolve a need in our community,” Holmes says. “Creating an atmosphere that inspires greater confidence and security is integral to disperse and dispense any hesitancy or fear that a person may hold to get medical assistance or information that they need. It was a community solution that resolved a community challenge.”

Robert Alexander, of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, highlights Gay Zone’s book club, narcotics anonymous group and cooking group as important social outlets and adds that, beginning in November, Gay Zone will offer a space dedicated to young men.

“We did a needs assessment last year, and one of the things we uncovered was that the younger gay men didn’t always feel comfortable interacting with the older gay men,” Alexander explains.

The AIDS Committee of Ottawa, with YSB and PTS, will co-facilitate the space, separate from the main waiting room.

“Rather than sitting there and being all anxious, as part of the young gay men’s programming they can go and see what activities are going on, and the facilitators will be there for discussion,” Alexander says.

Deeprose envisions Gay Zone moving “beyond the penis” in the future. The clinic will soon have access to an anoscopy clinic, led by Dr Paul MacPherson. Anal cancer is 10 times more prevalent in gay men than in straight men, Deeprose points out, and HPV is a leading cause of the disease. Men can get an anal pap smear to check for anal cancer, something Deeprose says most gay men aren’t aware of.

Deeprose says the clinic is also seeking funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and support programs through the GMWI, which recently filed to become a not-for-profit charitable organization.

But Deeprose’s highest priority is to open Gay Zone two nights a week, a prospect he sees as attainable in the near future.

“I see us getting larger and more diversified. Maybe one day we will have a full-service healthcare centre for gay men,” he says.