A respected gay men’s outreach worker is no longer employed at AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO).
Mike Hickey, the Gay Men’s Prevention Coordinator, “found out” on May 16 that he was no longer working at ACO, according to an e-mail he sent to the glbtottawacentre listserve. In a follow-up email, Hickey apologized for sending the note, saying it was intended as a personal correspondence.
The executive director of ACO is keeping silent. “He’s amazing; he’s a gem,” Kathleen Cummings says of Hickey. It’s ACO policy not to reveal the reasons for an employee’s departure, she says.
As for the community’s right to know why an acclaimed staffer is gone, Cummings says, “I believe in the rights of the community, but also in the rights of the individual to be honoured and their rights of confidentiality to be honoured.”
Hickey certainly made an impression since his hiring last fall. Since his hiring “I’ve seen condoms in places I haven’t seen them in decades,” says Bruce Bursey, a longtime community activist and co-founder of the Wellness Project. “We’ve had public health workers in the past who were not comfortable dealing with men who go to bathhouses and parks and so on and wouldn’t go there.
Though Bursey never formally met Hickey, he was impressed with the way he handled a CBC interview last fall. “He was very open and upbeat and positive about the challenges he faced in his job. He answered questions [about bathhouses and park sex] in a very direct and pushing-the-envelope way, a way that was very direct, informative and yet respectful of the CBC audience. [It showed] me he had a depth of appreciation of the problems faced by Ottawa gay men and their health challenges.”
Another gay man recalled Hickey’s ability to walk up to one or a group of gay men and start a discussion about sex practices or drug use. He did exactly that on the boat cruise last Pride, even though it was before the official start of his job.
Cummings has already re-posted Hickey’s job. About six weeks ago, ACO hired Nicholas Little as a gay men’s outreach worker. As well, Sarah McGirr has been hired as a part-time women’s outreach worker.
Before Hickey’s hiring, members of the gay community had strongly criticized ACO for a lack of gay employees and for abdicating responsibility for HIV prevention in the gay community. In response, Pink Triangle Services was positioning itself as the organization for AIDS outreach to the queer community.
In recent months, Cummings has made a higher priority of hiring gay staff and re-invigorating prevention programs.
Hickey did not respond to repeated e-mail requests for an interview.
Bursey also notes that syphilis rates in Ottawa are rising, particularly among gay men–and that means HIV rates will also be climbing.
“I would say to ACO and to the city: what are you guys doing to fill the gap? Accountability for public health rests with the city in our system, not the non-governmental organization. If NGOs are not meeting the needs, what is the city doing about it?”