4 min

Time for a gay health organization

Gay men need a community group specifically dedicated to their health

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary for at least a couple of AIDS organizations in Canada.

Most of these first-wave organizations were formed by gay men at a time when the impact of HIV on the gay community was just beginning to be seen. The energies that had been previously channelled into the gay men’s health or liberation movement shifted to meet the challenge of AIDS.

All these years later the gay community’s early response to HIV has transformed into a global legacy —an AIDS movement of institutions, community organizations, and individuals focused on bringing an end to the HIV pandemic. At its best in the worst of times, the gay community demonstrated and inspired courage, strength, compassion, and creativity. This is a rich heritage with lots for gay men to be inspired by today.

Now, 25 years after we created our first AIDS organizations, dozens and dozens exist across the province. Yet with over 60 percent of new HIV diagnoses in Vancouver occurring among gay men, not even one HIV organization in all of BC has a mandate dedicated to the gay community. Certainly no service organization exists with strong capacity and a clear mandate to promote gay men’s health more broadly.

Times have changed and it’s time gay men caught up.

The organizations we created so many years ago have expanded their focuses in an attempt to deliver important HIV services to other communities affected by HIV.

At the same time, many communities have been creating their own organizations in order to ensure their specific HIV needs are represented. With gay men’s health needs expanding beyond the mandates of AIDS organizations, existing groups may not be well suited to adequately address gay men’s interests today.

It is undeniable that community-based service organizations represent one of the AIDS movement’s most successful tools for responding to HIV. This kind of organization serves to represent the interests of the community that creates it, governs it, supports it and holds it accountable. The fundamental strength of a community-based organization lies in its relationship to its constituency.

An organization’s capacity to meaningfully serve its constituency depends on its ability to understand the unique needs and issues of that community. As gay men we need to seriously consider how to be more engaged in community-driven solutions to our specific and sometimes unique health needs —needs that perhaps no one else will be attuned to.

What I’m calling for here is a new, stand-alone gay men’s health organization. An organization that will establish its relationship to gay men in a number of ways. A community-based gay men’s health promotion organization that will have a clear mandate that names gay men in its constitution, mission statement, and strategic plans.

The organization I’m calling for will encourage and support a strong membership that reflects the gay community and maintains accountability to its gay-focused health promotion mandate.

It will project committed and unconflicted public leadership for gay men’s issues at both the board of directors and management levels, and secure and allocate its financial and human resources accordingly. With this kind of structural support, it will produce consistent and quality programming for gay men in keeping with its mandate and vision.

In this entire country, there is only one gay men-specific HIV service organization. The Montreal-based organization has, since its inception, remained clearly focused on gay men. This community organization will soon expand its focus to address a broader range of health issues identified by Montreal’s gay community.

Isn’t it time we have this kind of organization here in Vancouver? The gay community certainly wants it. In recent findings from the Community Based Research Centre’s Sex Now Survey, 88 percent of gay men said they support the idea. That’s a good first step. So let’s make it happen.

The time for waiting has passed. It’s time for gay men to be able to look to their own organization to take leadership on their behalf.

It’s time to stop competing with diverse interests; that only results in a poor focus on gay men’s health issues and limited resources spread thin.

I’m not talking about creating a single program. I’m not talking about one new project. I’m talking about a dedicated organization.

This is about our right to self-determination. The rights of individuals and communities to organize, make decisions, and lead action, to bring about the strengthening of health among gay men.

The writing is on the wall. Vancouver will have a gay-focused, gay-driven community- based service organization.

It will be specifically focused on gay men’s health promotion in a culturally appropriate, respectful, committed way.

I come to this conclusion after living in Vancouver for 14 years, working in an AIDS service organization for over 12 years and struggling with others to have gay men’s health needs prioritized as they should be.

The time is right. Gay men health needs demand it.

Let’s do once again what we have done so well in the past. Let’s organize, mobilize, and move forward decisively.

Let’s come together and create an organization for gay men that engages the community on the issues that matter to us. It’s time to create a community-based organization that carves in stone its commitment to gay men.

Now is the time for you to raise your voice and be heard. I invite you to write to Xtra West with your thoughts and comments on the creation of a brand new gay men’s health organization. I invite you to get involved in creating something exciting that will leave another strong legacy for future generations of gay men.

And I encourage you to look for ways to support a new organization with your time, energy, and yes… your money.