2 min

Hassle Free broke the law

Anonymous testing was a vicious fight with 'phobes

FEARED BACKLASH. Program director Robert Trow says anonymous testing is essential. Credit: Xtra files

A mere 16 years ago, the staff at Church Street’s Hassle Free Men’s Clinic broke the law and provided anonymous HIV testing.

Gay men were afraid – of straights, of government, of each other.

“In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, many of us feared a backlash against gay men, as if we were somehow responsible,” says Robert Trow, program director of Church Street’s Hassle Free Men’s Clinic.

“Even in the gay community itself, some men felt that AIDS was our payback for the promiscuous lifestyle of the late ’70s and early ’80s. At the same time, we were very concerned about what action different levels of government would take.

“Many clinic patients [gay and straight] were worried about government lists of people with AIDS, or of anyone who had even asked for information about AIDS. In some American cities, health departments, urged on by a vigilante mentality in the community, had even closed gay steam baths and sex clubs. For some gay men, even coming to a clinic for information, let alone getting tested, was just too risky – unless it could be done anonymously.”

Initially, there was no treatment for AIDS, and HIV testing was only offered to those who appeared sick. When an accurate test became available in November 1985, many ignored the option – because once tested, the authorities would know.

Hassle Free, the community sexual health clinic, began anonymous testing immediately.

Trow says staff realized that it was the only way of guaranteeing to high risk men and women that they could be counselled and checked out without anyone finding out.

Toronto Public Health opposed anonymous testing, and had the support of the Ontario Health Protection And Promotions Act, that required reporting of all sexual transmitted diseases (STDs). The chief officer of health could penalize violators, though exact penalties weren’t set in the legislation.

Joanne Ackery likes to make an epic battle sound easy. A manager of the STD program at Toronto Public Health, she says staff ordered Hassle Free to stop – then relented.

Hassle Free was reporting general statistics to the province – information about transmission among gay men that health authorities had no other way of getting.

It was four more years before Public Health proposed “non-nominal” testing – using a code on lab slips instead of the patient’s name.

This might have been reassuring to some, but the code could still be linked by the doctor ordering the test. Then City Councillor Jack Layton presented a motion supporting anonymous testing, which passed.

The Star and The Globe And Mail ran editorials in support. AIDS Action Now took to the streets. By this time, condoms were widely used and the public perception of gay men had improved significantly – as straights turned to the community for information and support around the disease they too were facing.

Some drugs which showing short-term positive effects. And gay rights were finally included by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Then everything blew up again.

In 1990 the provincial medical officer of health, Richard Schabas, tried to reclassify HIV as a virulent disease – which could mean quarantine for HIV-positive people not practising safer sex.

More lobbying, more pressure. In 1991, the new provincial NDP government moved to legalize anonymous testing, where the Liberals had not.

“And the rest is history,” says Trow. Eight anonymous test sites were allowed across Ontario.

Hassle Free continues to demand greater access to testing. HIV is still a reportable STD, so once a patient goes to a physician for treatment, the doctor is required to report to Toronto Public Health the patient’s HIV status. Anonymity only goes so far.