Year of the Queer: LGBT health organizations continue to address HIV while expanding beyond

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      Something was mysteriously making gay men fatally ill in the 1980s. Some called it gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). Others called it the “gay cancer”. The epidemic was eventually called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

      It’s rare to hear that term used these days.

      It still exists, but as AIDS Vancouver executive director Brian Chittock explained by phone to the Georgia Straight, that’s because medical advances such as antiretroviral drugs have largely prevented the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from advancing to the AIDS stage of infection.

      Chittock said they have considered changing their organization’s name. However, their identity is an ongoing reminder of the tragic historical circumstances from which the agency arose. In a period of decimation, desperation, and discrimination, the success and continuation of the organization remains an example of what Vancouverites can achieve when spurred into humanitarian action.

      On its 30th anniversary in 2013, the agency chronicled its storied and intriguing history in a series of videos. In one such video, Chittock noted that some of the challenges they face today remain the same as those in their early years.

      “We’re still serving the poorest of the poor in Vancouver,” he said, adding that some clients aren’t on medication, and some are still dying of AIDS.

      Ironically, the achievements of the HIV movement have resulted in new challenges.

      “Part of the problem with being so successful with the treatment is that people think AIDS and HIV is not an issue anymore and nobody’s getting it, and that hurts us,” he said. He went on to say that even though they’re still serving more than 3,000 people in Vancouver, they’re facing cuts in donations and decreased funding due to misperceptions about the state of HIV.

      Nonetheless, Chittock draws encouragement from initiatives such as their HIV–prevention program, which targets at-risk individuals and has only had one of about 250 clients become HIV–positive over the program’s four-year run.

      While the organization will mark its 35th anniversary with a Red Ribbon Gala on November 15, its celebrations included its new $2,000 Kenneth Lackner scholarship, which was given to its inaugural recipient, Henry Tran, at the LOUD Foundation’s awards gala on May 10. Chittock said the scholarship was created in memory of former AIDS Vancouver employee Kenneth Lackner, who bequeathed his life-insurance policy to the organization, which turned it into an endowment fund after his death last year.

      While queer male health was preoccupied with AIDS and HIV over the past few decades, medical and social advances have allowed other organizations to arise to address previously overlooked or unexplored areas of health. One such example is the Community-Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health (CBRC), which launched in 1999 and runs the annual Gay Men’s Health Summit in Vancouver; it expanded to the national level during the past year.

      Another example is Health Initiative for Men (HIM), which takes a multifaceted approach by viewing mental, physical, social, and sexual aspects of health as interrelated.

      Arising from the gay men’s resource exchange Gayway, the first HIM clinic opened on Davie Street in 2008, and it has since expanded to a total of five health centres across the Lower Mainland. Their comprehensive range of services and programs covers everything from counselling, sexual-health testing, and workshops to yoga, soup-making, and life-drawing sessions, as well as health-awareness campaigns.

      Although many local LGBT health initiatives may have arisen out of dire and heartbreaking situations, they have developed into organizations that will help ensure LGBT people go beyond mere survival and secure an even playing field upon which they can thrive well into the future.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook. You can also follow the Straight's LGBT coverage on Twitter at @StraightLGBT or on Facebook.