Ottawa’s new gay men’s safe-sex outreach worker knows his way around bars and bathhouses.
“I know what a bathhouse looks like,” says Mike Hickey. “I’ve worked in one. I’ve mopped up a lot of semen!”
Hickey – a self-identified 27-year-old queer slut, artist and sex educator from Newfoundland – aims to address a problem heard repeatedly in Ottawa in recent years: the lack of sex-positive HIV/AIDS prevention staff and resources specifically for queer men at a time when exposure to the virus is increasing again.
Hickey is a funny guy, who seems to fit the mould of the friendly, outgoing Newfie – but with a queer, sex-radical twist. It appears that this combo of comfort in his body and comfort in a range of queer men’s spaces appealed to Pink Triangle Services, the AIDS Committee Of Ottawa and their partner agencies, who recently hired Hickey to be Ottawa’s new Gay Men’s Health And Wellness Outreach Worker.
Chatting with him confirms that he knows how to navigate his way through varied discussions of sex and health.
“I am very comfortable with my sexuality,” he says. “I am very comfortable being a sexual person.” Admittedly, this was not a seismic revelation, given Hickey’s earlier self-introduction as someone who’d “spent the weekend drinking, and fucking” his boyfriend who’d just visited from Toronto for Hickey’s birthday.
Indeed, Hickey seems to understand how to set a tone and create a space where strangers can be free to talk about things both hot and safer in a non-judgmental way. This may be due in part to his own penchant for exploring his queer sense of sexuality.
Growing up in St. John’s, researching and trying to understand his identity, Hickey says, “I was able to explore things like voyeurism and polyamorous relationships, fisting and multiple partners, and being a slut. And being a slut is something that I really cherish. I think it’s something that’s really specific to a queer experience in a lot of ways – or it’s something that a queer experience champions in a lot of ways.”
Having begun his new job the Monday before Pride weekend, Hickey says he’s starting to get a feel for the city, talking to people and developing a plan for how and where he’ll try to work. “A large portion of it is going to be going out to places where gay men congregate, wherever that may be, and making my presence known – that I’m here to answer questions, or to provide information, or access to services or condoms, or a smile.”
In fact, Hickey has a lovely smile. He’s also an ardent feminist, and an advocate of “pro-choice philosophy” – allowing people the self-determination to make their own decisions and to guide their own lives.
“Having experienced homophobia and heterosexism, culturally and institutionally, makes me a very strong champion of my right to self-determination, my right to express my sexuality, and the ability to express myself as a sexual person within the context of a city, of a culture.
“And I think that I would be remiss to deny anybody else that opportunity, whether or not their decision-making process or their specific choices would be my choices. I think that’s where the pro-choice philosophy comes in.
In general terms, an impetus toward self-determination and liberation is more pronounced in Hickey’s stated politics than any orientation toward equality. Maybe it’s part of his nature as an artist.
Hickey was trained at NSCAD in Halifax and Concordia in Montreal, then worked in artist-run galleries in St. John’s and Calgary, before he began teaching sex ed in the classroom, including Calgary high schools.
Some of his performance and video art has explored the relationship between art and sex ed, two of his professional passions. One intriguing piece involves Hickey, a chat room, white Calvins, a webcam, Viagra and a lot of conversations about safer sex. “It was linked to the history of art making, but it was certainly, I think, taking it a step to the left,” he smiles.
“I was always an activist,” he says, recalling distributing condoms and sex ed info as a teenager with his social justice group at high schools and public events in St. John’s. “And I was always going to make activist work as an artist.”
As for his desire to do health promotion work with queer men in Ottawa, Hickey says he thinks it’s people and their stories that will help fuel him.
“People are amazingly resourceful and amazingly smart. Seeing them refuse to be unhappy and refuse to allow a system that institutionalizes homophobia and heterosexism to stand in their way of enjoying their lives and seeking out information about how to be healthy and happy… I mean, come on. It warms your heart at the worst of times.”