Not a Gay Men's Disease

By Thomlinson, Adam | Canadian Dimension, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

Not a Gay Men's Disease


Thomlinson, Adam, Canadian Dimension


Aids is not a gay disease, but critics say the soldiers who fight it rally under the rainbow standard. Aids, and the fight against it, started largely in the gay community. Since then infection rates have soared among the rest of society, he some say aids organizations are still focused on gay men.

AIDS is not a gay disease, but critics say the soldiers who fight it rally under the rainbow standard. AIDS, and the fight against it, began largely in the gay community. Since then, infection rates have soared among the rest of society, but some say AIDS organizations still focus on gay men.

In Ottawa, criticisms of the AIDS movement have taken the form of a sticker campaign on downtown billboards and street lamps. The stickers attack the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO), asking "What does your orientation have to do with your disease?"

Ron Chaplin, a board member of the Committee until 1999, says the stickers first were noticed when he was with the group. It was a time when infection rates were rising in Ottawa among intravenous drug users, many of whom came to the ACO for help.

"The new clients felt the Committee was too gay," he says. But attempts to accommodate these concerns led to a backlash from the gay community, which until that point had been the focus of most AIDS groups.

Many AIDS organizations are gay-centred, but with good reason, Chaplin explains. "They're gay for a reason, and the reason seems to be nobody else is doing it."

Despite changing infection rates, the fight against AIDS has remained largely in the hands of gay men. "When I look around at the activists across the country," says Chaplin, "the core of the cadre is still the gay man, despite the changes."

Across the country the number of new infections among gay men is on the decline. From 1985 to 1994, gay men made up 74.7 per cent of all new cases. From 1997 to 1999 the number was 37 per cent. At the same time, the numbers for intravenous-drug users, Aboriginal people and women were all on the rise.

In 1999, Health Canada said 20.7 per cent of adult cases of HIV were intravenous-drug users, compared to only 12 per cent in 1996.

According to the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, an Ottawa-based group, Aboriginal people make up only four per cent of the Canadian population, but between 15 and 20 per cent of new HIV cases.

Health Canada figures said in 1999, 16.5 per cent of adult cases in Canada were women -- that's up from 11.9 per cent in 1996.

"Most of the groups were set up for homosexual men," says Daniella Boulay of the Centre for AIDS Services of Montreal for Women (CASMW). "Most of the services went predominantly to gay men. And they still do."

Community-Specific Health Services

As infections spread to virtually all parts of society, groups had to broaden their focuses to include everyone who came to them for help. The AIDS Committee of Ottawa put together several programs to address specific demographics. They now have continuously running programs for gay men and for women, and have shorter-term programs for other groups. Their women's program has been running for seven years.

"We do our best to provide services that don't discriminate," says Brent Oliver of the ACO. But many of the ACO's community-specific programs were met with a lack of interest. "We didn't get the response we wanted from the specific ones."

Whereas cities the size of Ottawa are too small to cater to community-specific groups, the situation is different in Toronto and Montreal. There are now many community-specific groups in such larger cities, mostly splinter groups from the broader organizations -- but still predominantly catering to gay men.

In Toronto, for example, the Asian community has two different AIDS groups. The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention and Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS) serve different parts of the Asian community, but both exist as alternatives to broader AIDS groups. …

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