3 min

What happens when AIDS grows up

Giving up on tired plans, we must pick up old wellness threads

According to Bill Ryan, HIV prevention campaigns aimed at gay men in Canada have exhausted themselves. Ryan has worked locally, provincially, nationally and internationally on issues related to sex education, prevention, and supportive care since 1985. He is also a leading figure in a recent movement that aims to completely change the way we approach HIV prevention work.

Gay men’s prevention campaigns have run out of innovative ideas and the programs they do roll out tend to result in very little behavioural change, he says. All too often, campaigns consist of posters, posters and more posters that don’t respond to the real challenges gay dudes struggle with, both in and out of the bedroom.

As evidence, Ryan points to a recent series of Quebec prevention posters that feature gay guys fucking in cemeteries and a straight couple doing it atop a funeral pyre. In the post-AIDS era, these posters speak an outdated language of death sentences, nightmares, shame and fear, which devalues the 20 percent of gay guys who are positive and has little effect on those who aren’t.

The post-AIDS what?! The post-AIDS era. A term that surprised me when I first heard it, considering that HIV rates are once again climbing in Ottawa. Pre-emptively optimistic, perhaps? Will Nutland from the Terrence Higgins Trust in the UK argues we (or at least, those of us in privileged nations) are living in a post-AIDS era given an 80 percent fall in HIV-related deaths.

He’s not saying HIV is no longer important — just that it is playing out in our lives in a very different way now. Ryan agrees with Nutland, noting how dramatically our outlooks have altered since HIV-positive gay men now live longer, more stable lives thanks to increasingly effective medications. That ultimately translates into renewed hope for the future for both HIV-positive and HIV-negative men. Hope motivates individuals and communities to care for themselves today to be ready for opportunities tomorrow.

That’s big news. It changes everything. It finally gives us a chance after 25 years to catch our breath, count our triumphs and evaluate what we’ve been doing. Those triumphs include decisively disproving some of the myths held by the heterosexist mainstream. They said we were deviants of family values but we demonstrated the loving support of our chosen families, caring for one another even as we died when others wouldn’t come near us.

They said we were too obsessed with sex and drugs to get organized, yet we mobilized and forced them to give us the life-saving meds they otherwise tied up in bureaucracy.

They said we were emasculated wimps too immoral to save and by direct action we forced them to take their hypocritical morality out of health care and replace it with life-saving harm reduction practices.

They said we were inherently, pathologically sick and therefore doomed to disappear and we went on to survive this epidemic, all the while winning Supreme Court battles recognising our rights, filling the streets with Pride celebrations that seem to double in size each year and having damn good sex every step of the way. Gay men are creatively resistant. We pioneer new ways to care for each other. We are a community of survivors to be envied and emulated.

You know, before HIV came along and, more importantly, before we were hit by a whirlwind of fear mongering underpinned by willful denial of our community’s possible destruction (Reagan never even said the word “AIDS” publicly until 1987!), gay men had already begun creating alternative health models that spoke frankly to the challenges in our lives.

By the 1970s (mere years after Stonewall), we had already begun collectively countering health tactics of coercion and manipulation (“Say no to drugs!” “STDs are punishment for promiscuity!”) that assume individuals are neither smart nor capable enough to make decisions for themselves based on uncensored facts.

So we began supplying ourselves with honest and up-front info about drugs. We shared tips on how to fuck in the bushes without getting bashed. And we recognized that our health is more than the mere status of infectious diseases. Health is knowing how to make a budget and stick to it. It’s about learning to set boundaries with families who can’t yet accept us. It includes communication skills and fitness know-how and cultivating spirituality and finding a safe, affordable place to live. And yes, it also includes reducing harm while enjoying sex and drugs.

Bill Ryan isn’t advocating a new approach to gay men’s health and wellness so much as a passionate renewal of a movement we had already begun building before being blindsided by a virus.

It’s in this spirit that we’re launching the second edition of Snowblower, a winter festival for guys into guys. With over 35 events in just 16 days looking at the full spectrum of why it’s so great being gay, we want local guys to come in from the cold this February and take credit for the amazing resiliency of our community. Snowblower demonstrates our fierce determination that gay men’s lives will be defined by nobody but us.