One of America’s most successful programs for reducing new HIV infections among young gay and bisexual men comes to Vancouver this June.
“We’re going back to an empowerment model, which is what the HIV movement was built on,” says Michael Reid, YouthCo’s community engagement manager. “It’s taking responsibility for the health of your community.”
The Mpowerment Project, which will be presented by YouthCo, aims to expand HIV education and awareness among young gay and bisexual men through workshops and ongoing peer support.
“As community groups we’re failing to reach huge segments of this population because we’re not meeting them where they’re at,” says Reid, who is supervising the project. “Young gay guys deserve a better community, but they have to build it for themselves. The Mpowerment Project gives them the tools to accomplish that.”
The workshop component will include information on sexual health and other aspects of sexuality, including how to meet guys, have enjoyable sex and forge long-lasting relationships.
“We are trying to reach directly the young gay youth at the community level and open up a dialogue about HIV and other health issues. It’s always, ‘Look at this poster, see your doctor,’” he says. “Mpowerment will also offer a three-hour, one-off workshop talking about healthy relationships, how to have fun with sex. It’s very sex positive, very gay positive.”
Reid believes YouthCo is the first Canadian organization to implement an Mpowerment program. He hopes it will serve as a call for young gay men to get involved and take responsibility for their community.
“We’re also trying to break down cliques, which cause a lot of damage in the gay community,” he adds. “There’s a lot of bitchiness and prejudice against each other and we hope to create an environment in which to talk about it and do something about it.”
Mpowerment will be funded in part by a two-year grant from the federal government, as well as a donation from TD Canada Trust. YouthCo has also received support from the Health Initiative for Men (HIM), which helped with program planning and volunteer recruitment.
“I think it’s a great project and well suited for YouthCo,” says HIM program manager Jody Jollimore. “YouthCo has a history of engaging youth and doing that effectively, and it makes sense to have a program for young gay men at YouthCo. I think it will harness their expertise working with youth and provide them an opportunity to work with more young gay men.”
Mpowerment was developed in the early 1990s by research psychologists Susan M Kegeles and Robert Hays, who were alarmed by the lack of sexual health services targeted toward young gay men. The program has been implemented in more than 200 urban, suburban and rural communities across the United States.
Kegeles, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, says the project helps foster safe, empowering and supportive communities.
“The young gay male communities tend to be very fragmented, and a lot of young guys only know how to find companionship for sex,” she says. “They may cruise in parks, meet online or in bars, but where do you make friends? Where do you find people who really care about you? Where you can just be yourself — as gay as you want to be, as flamboyant as you want to be — and nobody puts you down?”
Kegeles believes peers can encourage safe-sex practices beyond the reach of doctors and other professionals. “It’s really different if your best friend or close friend talked to you about that, as opposed to a professional person,” she says. “I want to take young gay men and get them enthusiastic about talking with their friends and have them going out and talking to people about their project.”
Mpowerment participants host social events to foster positive discussions about community and sexual health. “If you simply throw parties and didn’t do anything else, you’d be creating situations of risk,” Kegeles says. “Instead, it’s good to throw events and get HIV prevention into it somewhere — you might distribute condoms, or you might have a conversation in some way.”
Mpowerment is the most effective HIV-intervention model, according to a 2005 fact sheet on cost-effectiveness of HIV-prevention initiatives by the Rand Corporation, a US-based global policy think tank. The fact sheet suggests that Mpowerment programs could prevent 9,000 out of the total 40,000 new HIV infections in the United States each year.
Mpowerment is also included in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Compendium of HIV Prevention Interventions with Evidence of Effectiveness.
The Compendium, which was first released in 1999, found that “men who participated in the Mpowerment Project reduced their frequency of unprotected anal intercourse significantly more than the men in the comparison community.”