There’s a baking tray on his lap, filled with condoms and other goodies and featuring a one-of-a-kind dildo that feels like human skin. It’s guaranteed to catch your eye and before you know it, you find yourself in a discussion about the latest lube.
Welcome to the world of Nicholas Little, the new men’s outreach coordinator at AIDS Committee of Ottawa. Tonight, Little sits at the main entrance to Centretown Pub, one of his outreach venues.
His approachability is Little’s stock in trade.
“I am myself, ” says the 27-year-old man with a buzz cut. Whether he’s working or not, he strives for transparency.
Little greets patrons as they go in or out of the pub. He’s often found with a volunteer tagging along. The company helps pass time faster. Tonight, he’s working alone.
A man in his late 20s, an immigrant from Pakistan who Little greeted upon his arrival, comes back to talk. He’s not fully aware of which behaviours are safer for avoiding HIV/AIDS. Little reaches in and gets him a brochure from his backpack — not a common request when he’s working a bar.
In a bathhouse setting, Little is given a room where one-on-one interactions and deeper conversations easily occur. Either way, he waits for people to approach him rather than take the initiative.
He has a passive approach in interactions, as well. “I’m not a condom pusher,” he says, noting that people are weary of health workers. There is a need to recognize that people make their own choices and to value their rights, he explains. “It’s about making choices that [match] your values and are based on factual information.”
There’s a diversity of values and choices expressed in the queer community. A way of living life may be good for one person but not the next. Some of us use condoms every time. Some do not. Some take drugs, others do not. Little’s approach is to make sure people know what options are available if you choose to lower your risks.
Some people find it easier than others to make risk-lowering choices. Depression, for example, can have an affect on someone’s judgement and increase their susceptibility to taking risks.
“As a gay man, I know that I want to reduce risk,” says Little, getting inside the head of someone having difficulty. “A great way to do that, for anal sex, is to use condom. But fuck, sometimes, I feel depressed, you take risks when you’re depressed because life in general is damn hard.”
Still, even the basic knowledge about prevention, like condom use, is oftentimes not easily accessible. Factors like education, social stigma and poverty have an impact on the choices people make.
And this all contributes to the current trend, which is seeing a growing rate of HIV infection.
Last year, 1,805 males (15 years and older) were diagnosed HIV-positive compared to 615 females, according to a study issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
While the number of people contacting the virus from needle injection has levelled off, the increase continues among men who have sex with men, a trend that has continued since 2001.
But Alain Desroches says the report only reflects those who have tested positive. It doesn’t include the large number of people who don’t even know they carry the virus, says the staffer for the Public Health Agency.
Little says there is too much focus on people who are HIV-negative. Most of the posters and other HIV/AIDS advertisements in bars and clubs are targeted at those without the virus. But for those who are infected, these posters evoke a hidden and negative message — one that suggests that HIV-negative people need to guard themselves from HIV-positive people who are out to get them.
And that’s degrading, says Little. The prevalent attitude toward HIV-positive people seems to be that “that’s too bad,” he says.
“There are so many ways to get rejected, and it makes it so hard to keep self-confidence, and self-confidence plays a huge impact on our ability to negotiate risks, to assert ourselves when we want to use safer sex, or to find reduction strategies,” says Little.