Did you know you’re considered high risk by health authorities? Yes, the urban gay male population is considered at high risk for several recent health trends: barebacking and the transmission of HIV, syphilis, and crystal meth use.
Gay men of all ages are said to be at particular risk, but young gay men most of all. The gay community knows it. Health experts know it. Health bureaucrats know it. The general public knows it. Hell, even the politicians know it.
There’s a sense of urgency about getting the message out, an urgency that has resulted in this newspaper carrying repeated and on-going coverage of the issues. As we move into yet another World AIDS Day on Dec 1, it’s a good time to take stock, ask where we are in terms of overcoming these challenges. And ask what government is doing to reach our community.
The federal government continues to disappoint. A year ago, the Parliamentary standing committee on health acknowledged that funding for the Canadian Strategy on HIV/AIDS required $100 million a year in funding to be able to make a difference. In May, the federal minister of health announced a ramp-up of funding from the current level of $42.2 million a year to $84.4 million at the end of five years. This year’s increase hasn’t been distributed yet-and when it is, it has to be spent by May! By the way, Canada’s per capita spending on AIDS research and programming is behind Great Britain and Australia, even though our infection rate is higher. Shame on Paul Martin.
There’s progress being made locally in communicating risks directly to gay men. Last year, the BC Centre for Disease Control got its act together. For years, government bodies had been reluctant to directly reach the gay community by advertising its message in the gay paper. With the 2003 syphilis campaign, the BCCDC finally grew up and realized you have to speak to people on their own terms if you really want to communicate. A couple of issues ago, they did the same with a frankly worded AIDS education campaign. “I love dick,” proclaimed the ad, guaranteed to get the attention of virtually every single gay reader. “But I’m not gonna be one.” Then it explained how to stay safe.
Now, that’s a breakthrough in the kind of frank language required to get the attention of our community and have us take them and their health message seriously.
Strangely, the ad for the following issue was pulled after the first one appeared. Clearly, someone got scared-and it wouldn’t be our community. I’d guess that some real learning went on in the ministry of health, learning that resulted in the ads being back again for good this issue-see page 6.
Last week, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority hosted a major conference addressing crystal meth use. Experts spoke of how the gay community, especially the heavy partiers, is at risk. I’m intrigued to see if the regional health board has the intelligence and the courage to directly target gay men through this paper with the kind of frank advertising that could make a dent in crystal use. Bets anyone?
The AIDS community is trying to do its bit to address barebacking. BC Persons With AIDS Society just distributed a pocket-sized publication, “A Vancouver Guide to Sex Positive.” Available at local bars, bookstores and tubs, the booklet is aimed primarily at HIV-positive people and strongly encourages them to practice protected sex every time. BCPWA deserves additional kudos for their section on barebacking; recognizing that some people are going to do it no matter what others say, the section offers tips (without guaranteeing scientific accuracy or that they will work) on how to reduce the risk of transmission during condomless sex.
There is, however, an unfortunate error in the guide. A section listing high-risk activities includes multiple partners. Not true. For 20-plus years, the Canadian AIDS movement has been consistent in insisting on the truth about transmission: it’s not about how many you fuck, it’s about how you fuck. Be a slut, but wear a condom is the movement’s mantra and underpins legal, moral and health positions taken by the gay community.
It’s a tragic flaw in an otherwise magnificent booklet, an example of our community doing its bit to teach each other how to reduce health problems.
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.