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New campaign takes on HIV stigma

Website looks at attitudes among gay men

A new campaign in Ontario is trying to erase the discrimination faced by HIV-positive gay men in the province.

The campaign, launched in early October, consists of a website called HIVstigma.com which directs visitors to information on a variety of topics including sex, prevention and the law. It also offers a guide to community resources and discussion groups moderated by HIV-positive gay men. The site is being advertised extensively across Ontario.

The campaign was created by the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance — a coalition of AIDS service organizations across the province — and funded by the Ontario government.

“I would say that HIV stigma is something we don’t really recognize,” says Shannon Thomas Ryan, the executive director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention. “It’s another form of oppression right up there with racism, homophobia and sexism. It really contributes to risk for HIV infection and really affects quality of life.”

Murray Jose, the executive director of the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (TPWAF), says the stigma around HIV in the gay community contributes to the spread of the virus.

“If someone is living in an atmosphere of stigma that can impact the underlying personal and sexual interactions,” he says. “Having a community and environment that’s less stigmatizing makes it easier to disclose status, share experiences and challenge people who don’t use condoms.”

Ryan agrees that it’s crucial to stress the use of condoms.

“In the ’90s it was very rare to see porn without condoms,” he says. “Now it’s almost the norm.”

He says gay men have to assume the responsibility for protecting themselves.

“If you ask a person about their HIV status, you have to assume that a) they’re telling the truth and b) they know their status,” he says. “It’s not the only approach gay men should be relying on.”

But Ryan says he hopes the discussion groups on the site will also help visitors feel more confident about disclosing their positive status.

“Why would we ever judge someone based on their status?” he says. “Very few people would ever be afraid of disclosing their diabetes status. But a lot of people are afraid to disclose their HIV status.”

Jose says the site is already providing a forum for TPWAF’s clients.

“I think the campaign and website are becoming opportunities for our clients to talk,” he says. “They can share and give examples of stigma. Ideally it would have an impact for those of our clients who are within the gay community. Let’s try to work on that and have the community start to talk about it.”

Ryan says he doesn’t know how long the funding will continue.

“Things being what they are I’m sure those levels of funding can’t be sustained forever,” he says. “But this website is a very new and innovative project. There’s a lot of resources behind this campaign that a small group like mine could never find. Big issues like stigma need cooperation.”

Jose says the website can be a valuable tool for addressing changing needs in the future.

“There’s the capacity to look longer term,” he says. “How do we build over time, what are the needs on the ground?”