Year of the Queer: Coun. Tim Stevenson was political catalyst for B.C.'s globally admired life-saving HIV treatment

It's a story that's not well known to many residents of the city

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      Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson will be in the spotlight on Wednesday (May 23) when the City of Vancouver raises flags at Vancouver City Hall to designate this as the Year of the Queer.

      As the first openly gay church minister and cabinet minister (provincial or federal) in Canada, Stevenson has been a pioneer in advancing the interests of the LGBT community.

      But sometimes this has taken place behind the scenes.

      An example occurred after he was nominated as the NDP provincial candidate in Vancouver-Burrard in 1996. Stevenson told the Straight that the party leader and premier, Glen Clark, phoned him up to say he would like to meet him for breakfast. Stevenson had never met Clark before.

      “He said ‘What do we need to get the gay vote? What would really help us against [Gordon] Campbell? It’s going to be very close,’ ” Stevenson recalled.

      He replied that gay men were spending $10,000 per year on an antiretroviral treatment called AZT because it wasn’t covered by PharmaCare. Stevenson said he told Clark that offering provincial funding for this would be “huge”.

      “He looked at me and said: ‘It’s that simple?’ I said that’s a very big deal in our community,” Stevenson continued. “He said, ‘Okay, if we win, we will put that on PharmaCare.’ ”

      Clark followed up by holding a news conference with Stevenson at St. Paul’s Hospital with the parents of Dr. Peter Jepson-Young, who had died of complications from AIDS in 1992.

      The NDP under Clark won the election and since then the B.C. government has been funding antiretroviral drugs and investing massive amounts of money into research, which has led to HIV/AIDS being converted into a chronic disease in this province.

      “That’s where I really learned a huge political lesson for myself,” Stevenson said. “You make deals that firm things up. So I’ve operated like that, trying to work behind the scenes in order to make things happen.”

      At the 25th-anniversary dinner for Positive Living B.C. in 2011, famed HIV doctor and researcher Julio Montaner gave credit to the city and the province for their ongoing support.

      “Without them stepping in and saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to commit to this fight,’ there would have been no St. Paul’s [B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS],” Montaner said. “There would have been no AIDS program. We would have been just like VGH or the UBC hospital at the time. ‘You are on your own and God save you.’ Thanks to them, we stepped up to the plate.”

      B.C. was the first province in Canada that virtually eliminated the transmission of HIV from mothers to their children. B.C. drove down HIV-transmission rates through the B.C. centre’s innovative treatment-as-prevention approach, which was later adopted by the governments of China, France, the United States, and Brazil.

      Countless lives have been saved as a result.

      The program that the Glen Clark government initially funded continued to receive strong support from B.C. Liberal health ministers, including Colin Hansen, George Abbott, Kevin Falcon, and Terry Lake.

      Stevenson said he never went running around making a big issue about how he managed to get antiretroviral drugs originally funded by the provincial government—and what flowed from that initial announcement.

      “People don’t know about these things,” he said.