4 min

Master of joinery

Phillip Banks builds community like he builds furniture

Credit: Kevin Teneycke

This guy is one of our community’s cultural building blocks, contributing to the identity of Vancouver’s gay community. For years, he has been an advocate for gay men’s health issues and is bringing a batch of fresh ideas. I had a really good chat with Phil (whom I’ve know since I was 17, when we were both animal-rights activists in London, Ontario) in Puppy Park on a crisp fall afternoon in the Gaybourhood.

Michael Venus: So let the folks at home in on your job and what you’ve been up to Mr Banks.

Phillip Banks: I work at AIDS Vancouver and I am the coordinator of the gay men’s health programs. It’s a sort of more recent version of the Man to Man program which was developed in the ’80s to address HIV prevention. My job enables me to work with other community groups to address HIV transmission and address issues surrounding how to live a healthier and longer life with the disease. Back in the earlier days, my job would entail going to the bars and handing out the condoms. If you are older than 28 you will remember this! Through the mid-’90s the focus shifted to face other things as well, like spousal abuse, bashing, drug and alcohol abuse. We do a lot of discussion groups and support-like groups, a lot of times guys just get together and talk about what’s going on in there lives. We also do lots of campaigns. In January, we did the Cocktail or Condom which looked at side effects of HIV drugs. It wasn’t your standard prevention campaign. We have an upcoming event that we are putting on called Euphoria and it’s a Gay Men’s Health and Wellness event that will have a street fair component on Bute Street, Saturday September 28 from noon till four as well as many other events throughout the week. There will be tons of entertainment including Synergy, Joan-E and some live demos on Yoga and Tai Chi. It will have tons of vendors and exhibitors, lots of community organizations, sports leagues, recreation groups, social groups and so on. So many people want to get involved, including NOCIRC which is an organization opposed to circumcision. This stuff will be happening all around town, and there will even be a sweat lodge in Maple Ridge. We really want to broaden the scope because gay men live everywhere. We will even have a cruising class with Michael V Smith called Cruising with Miss Cookie. Another main reason for these types of events is because there is literally no money. For about seven years the funding was cut back for gay men’s health and AIDS. Since no organization can pull this all together on their own, we have joined with others to make this coalition due to all the cutbacks and lack of resources.

MV: So what is this thing I heard about some new space?

PB: Well for years we’ve been operating out of the Pacific AIDS Resource Centre, and I think being there has limited gay guys coming down and checking us out just because a lot of people don’t even know we exist. So our plan for our new location is to make gay men’s health more public and accessible. We are opening on Davie at Hornby; we actually just signed the lease today.

MV: Wow that’s great! Let’s make Davie a little more Gay-vie!

PB: Yea, I was talking to a friend who has been in the community forever and he was saying how one of the things he has noticed here and in San Francisco is how the sense of brotherhood within the gay community has changed. There was a time when it was about taking care of each other, especially during the height of the HIV Crisis. Gay men helping other gay men-even ones they didn’t know. For a community, you need a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood because we are not alone. We have our lesbian sisters and, of course, our tranny brothers and sisters. In the last decade the focus was on the visibility of the businesses that cater to the gay community. There is a lot more than a gay market in our community. So this store-front is creating one more space for the gay community. We will have a launch in November.

MV: Well on to the next … let’s hear more about yourself.

PB: I’ve lived here since ’93. I moved here from Montreal but originally I am from Ontario… I think I know you from there, you look familiar.

MV: Yeah aren’t you from Windsor? Or is it Chatham? Leamington!

PB: Yes it’s Leamington, home of Heinz Ketchup. I came out right after gay liberation and more when the whole AIDS crisis was happening and then I became an AIDS activist in Montreal with ACT UP. When I moved here I got involved with YouthCO AIDS Society. From there of course I moved to AIDS Vancouver and there I do HIV prevention and community development work because I think a lot of prevention can happen with community development. Healthy communities support healthy individuals so that’s what I do. I also make furniture; that’s my passion. At a young age I discovered a passion for activism like Amnesty International and PETA, well at the time SETA (Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Through activism most of my energies went out to people which I found got to be draining me. So I started to pick up on the fact that when I would walk by a well-built table, for example, my jaw would drop and I realized there was something going on here. I would get that tingly sensation inside. I just wanted to touch wood, to make things. So I did some joinery work at BCIT and learned how to make cabinets and tables and furniture works and that’s sort of where my passions lie. I find it very meditative and it’s like getting into a trance and I started to realize that good design also contributes to good living. I live in Gastown because I wanted to live around some well-made artifacts from days past. In Vancouver, it seems we are in a teenage stage where we want to not trust the elders and destroy everything old and it feels like the architects are worried about who can make it bigger or shinier.