4 min

Promoting gay men’s health

Holistic approach as an HIV prevention tool

Credit: John Inch photo

“There are issues around heterosexism and homophobia that make it harder for gay men to access health care services,” says Will Nutland, head of health promotion at the London-based Terrence Higgins Trust, the leading HIV/AIDS charity in the United Kingdom.

“We know in the UK that about 50 percent of gay and bisexual men haven’t disclosed their sexual orientations to their family doctors,” he tells Xtra West. “There is a whole range of potential health issues raised by not doing that. If you don’t talk about being gay, you might not get the appropriate tests if you go in with a particular ailment.”

Nutland had just delivered the keynote address at the Gay Men’s Health Summit at Robson Square, Dec 1. Presented by Vancouver’s Community Based Research Centre (CBRC), organizers say the event attracted about 80 registrants.

In his remarks, Nutland recounted some of his organization’s struggles as it evolved beyond a single HIV prevention focus to include a broader range of gay men’s health issues including Hepatitis B, alcohol and drug abuse, physical and verbal abuse, and fear of displaying affection in public.

According to Nutland, the Terrence Higgins Trust doesn’t divert or dilute HIV prevention funds by focusing on overall queer health as some of his colleagues have argued. He says the more holistic approach improves the impact of available resources by tackling more of the health issues that facilitate the transmission of HIV, like other sexually transmitted infections, non-consensual sex and isolation.

“The best thing we can do is to be educated and look after ourselves,” he says.

This is the second annual Gay Men’s Health Summit. “There wasn’t any kind of gathering of gay men in British Columbia where we could present information, do workshops, learn from one another,” remembers organizer and CBRC managing director, Rick Marchand. “We had no forum in which to do any kind of advocacy.

“Last year we had a smaller Summit,” he says. “We were happy with the results. We had a lot of people at the public education event. We had a community consultation with 50 gay men working in some way with other gay men.

“Even though we have less money this year, we’ve got two full days of programming in place,” he continues. “We learned from last year, and put on a bigger event.”

In addition to more workshops, this year’s summit also included a planning day for participants from around the province working in gay men’s health.

“We’re really trying to promote dialogue among gay guys and have a comfortable and safe forum in which to talk about some of their health and social issues,” Marchand explains. “We didn’t want to make it academically focused. Certainly, we have academics who are participating, but we also have people who are working in the field as health care providers.”

Ronham Gallacher, who has attended the summit both years, as an individual, does not agree.

“This particular conference was really dry, and academic based,” he says. “There’s a presumption that everyone is coming from the same place and that’s not the case. I find it hard to learn a lot in that environment, so I like to take stuff away. It’s easier for me to get it that way.”

This year’s Gay Men’s Health Summit closed with a crystal meth and gay men forum that featured Nutland and a collection of local researchers, counsellors and physicians. Nutland admits to being “deeply cynical” about crystal prevention tactics and the presentation of data on its use and abuse in the UK. He does believe, however, that the media has been very successful in hyping the drug as “public enemy number one.”

Although the panel did not agree on what portion of Vancouver’s gay male population has a crystal problem, they did agree that the drug’s use and abuse is not as widespread as headlines suggest. They also agreed that gay men are more likely to use recreational drugs, including crystal, than the straight population and that a portion of those users do develop dependencies.

Dolan Badger of the Urban Native Youth Association agrees. “The media has overblown the situation with crystal meth, but because of the urgency of the work that I do with street youth, it is a huge problem.”

Asked if he would like to see anything added to the summit’s program for next year, Badger offers, “It would be interesting to see what is happening in the aboriginal community. I’m wondering why Healing Our Spirit isn’t here, which is an HIV/AIDS aboriginal organization in Vancouver and covers all of BC. I hoped that they would include aboriginal people on the panel, and invite aboriginal organizations to the summit.”

But overall, those who Xtra West interviewed felt that this year’s summit was an improvement over last year’s.

“It is a lot better in the sense that people understand more what it’s about, what to expect and how they can contribute,” says Robert Hong. “Before, we were all guessing who was who, who was involved. Now we’re understanding more about what kind of quality information we’re getting here.”

Hong leads Gay Warriors, a gay men’s talking circle at The Four Feathers Society, a tribe of men who self-identify as gay or two-spirited.

When asked if anything was missing this year, he replied, “People talk about holistic health but they really don’t talk about spirituality. They say it as part of their spiel, but how do they demonstrate it within their programs? How do they really address that part of the holistic wheel?”

Gallacher was also interested in a topic that was not featured.

“I came here thinking that I might see something specifically dealing with queer trans men’s health issues,” he says. “I didn’t see that, although I know that there are other trans guys here. I didn’t see that in any of the information given, or in any of the workshops I attended, unless I brought it up, so that was disappointing.”

“You can’t do everything that’s everybody’s cup of tea,” Marchand says. “But having a broad gathering that can attract different ages and different types of gay guys is something that we’re aiming for here. Part of doing things like the summit is really to try to educate the community about the realities of what’s going on with the epidemic, HIV, and bring in other health issues like sexually transmitted diseases.”