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Monday, April 19, 2010

Who Speaks for Me?

I was interested to read this article on gaynz about the magazine "Collective Thinking" and how Body Positive (BP) and others view it and where it should be.

Now, let me declare my potential conflicts of interest up front: I have written for the magazine a number of times. I have close links to NZAF as an ex-Chair of the organisation. I have also served my time on the Board of Body Positive back in the 90s, and I have helped run a number of support groups for BP over the years, I think I co-facilitated five of them in the end, as a volunteer. I also carry out research at University into life with HIV for gay men in New Zealand.

So I'm sort of in the thick of it to some extent.

Do HIV+ people in New Zealand need some sort of magazine or forum where they can connect or at least feel as though they matter? Yes, definitely, and like Ray Taylor I'm a fan of the idea of turning it into an online resource.

Is BP the right group to be running this? Well, personally, I don't think so. They like to claim that they are the national organisation for those of living with HIV, and that claim is typically unquestioned. But there have been bitter fights in the past between BP and people trying to set up HIV support networks in other parts of the country. Yes, I'm airing some dirty laundry that none of the gay media have ever picked up.

We don't all get on. We don't all agree. Just because we have HIV doesn't automatically mean we form a community.

A lot of the resentment from people out of Auckland in the past came from people thinking BP was doing a typical Auckland take-over, trying to take ownership of their groups yet being blind to the needs of local people, or even HIV+ people in those places who do not think BP does such a great job in the first place. In many ways the relationship has a strange echo of how BP complains about the NZAF. To be blunt, not everyone living with HIV respects and listens to Body Positive, yet they get to claim they are our voice.

They do in fact do a lot of good things under difficult circumstances, but their main problem is one outside their control. More and more people who get diagnosed with HIV find that after the first shock, which may last months, or years for some, they don't actually want to be in a group of HIV+ people. Simply having the same virus in your body as someone else doesn't create a single coherent group of people. And today more and more of us are getting on with life, and actually have no need of the services they provide.

BP was set up in a time of crisis, when people were getting horribly sick and dying. When I went to my support group there one of the facilitators died 3 weeks into our 12 week session. It was 1994, and it was a different world. In those days there was a clear and obvious need for peer support groups, in those days you knew you would get sick, and need help, and die from AIDS. I spent 3 years focussing on my impending death, was sure I'd never be able to have a meaningful career again or form loving relationships. Well thanks to the power of western Medicine, I got all that completely wrong, I'm glad to say. But in that time it did feel important to be with others who understood, who were going through it as well. But that was a different time.

HIV+ people in New Zealand do need strong advocacy, especially around maintaining access to the best quality medication, and in dealing with bigotry, isolation and stigma. And for some people, an HIV diagnosis is still something that overwhelms everything else in their lives and changes it in such a way that they find returning to "normal" life impossible. All of these things are important, and BP does what it can in these areas.

But lots of us aren't in that situation. Frankly, and I say this without malice, BP is not relevent to me as an HIV+ gay man today, and I know a lot of other guys in the same position. As we actually have a very small pool of people living with the virus here, it become even harder for them to stay relevent to people who are getting on with their lives.

We do need some sort of national organisation for all HIV+ people, but every time it has been attempted, it has collapsed at the first hurdle due to personality clashes and differing ideas of what it should be. BP ends up as the voice, but they aren't my voice, they don't speak for me, and I know an awful lot of HIV+ guys around New Zealand who are in the same position.

What's the solution? I'm not sure. But we need to adapt to a very different world and a very different population of people living with the virus. BP, or any other group that claims it can speak for people with HIV needs to ensure they are relevent not just to one small group but to the majority. And that may be an impossible task, but it's worth pointing out.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

So How's the Family ?

It's easy for a lot of us to think that now we've got all those legal battles behind us, you know, we're legal now, can't be discriminated against for being a homo, can get a Civil Union if you want, to think that it's just fine and dandy for everyone else who's gay in the country, but as I've been reminded a few times lately, it's not the case.

It's pretty hard for most of us to avoid family and the impact they have on us. And if you're queer, it can be really hard if the people you've grown up with and known since you were born freak out when they find out that you're not going to follow the straight and narrow path they just assumed you would naturally take.

Family matters. Their opinions of us are important, even when they're negative. And I don't know why but I've heard quite a lot of stories recently from people who have had really shitty experiences with their families.

Outright rejection is the most obvious and hurtful. I am actually stunned to hear that people's parents have refused to speak to them since they came out - this still happens today. And it can go on for decades, or till death in some cases. My parents were pretty shocked back in the 70s when I told them, and it took my Dad a long time to come round, but he did. Even then I was never excluded from the family, he and I just wouldn't talk when we met at Xmas or birthdays. I was lucky, my brothers were great, and my Mum was able to adjust and after the shock of the news, there was no problem.

But I've been hearing such hideous nasty stories from so many people lately - it makes me realise how lucky I am. I just can't imagine what it would be like to be totally cut off from family, but a number of people go through that, and it must be shit.

Then there's the other form of family cruelty, where they never really accept you, but still see you, but refuse to acknowledge your partner, or demand you never talk about the important things in your life as a queer - what you do, where you go, who your friends are, why you have a broken heart. They only want to accept a limited, sanitised version of you, one that won't embarass them in front of the neighbours or at work or in Church. And of course, it's always your fault for the pain and embarrassment, not theirs. They've done nothing wrong, but they sit there stewing in guilt and silent condemnation. Man I'm lucky I didn't have to put up with that. I thought we'd all got past that now, but I was wrong. It still seems surprisingly, and unhappily, common.

Another form I've been hearing about from people is when you think your brother or sister is fine with you being queer, their partner, wife or husband is cool with it, you go to their place for dinner, baby-sit the brats, then one of their kids turns out to be one of us - and bang! You're a demon. And you mustn't talk about it ! Even if your niece or nephew has come and talked to you about it. "Back off! This is something we'll deal with ! Keep your nose out! And don't you dare tell Mum and Dad!"

That response, to me, shows that in fact they were never really cool with you being a homo in the first place. They were able to put on a good front, they probably even really convinced themselves that they had no issue with queers - until their own offspring suddenly force themselves to confront the mess of bigotry that sits there like a leaking sewer under a nice tidy garden. In fact the brother or sister you thought loved and accepted you never really did; or why react this way?

And yet we listen to people constantly telling us that "The Family" or "Whanau" is the building block of society, the best safest place to be for kids, a warm sheltering place of love that will take you in no matter what. Yeah, right.

As I said, I have been lucky - a few nasty moments when I was a lot younger with my Dad, but we moved beyond that. And it's easy for someone like me to think that things are so much better than they were.

But for a lot of people that's not the case. They are rejected and emotionally abused by the people they should be able to trust the most. No one can exert the same power over us that family can. They know all the buttons to push in ways that others don't. And when they turn on us, withdraw their support and love, leave us because suddenly we are sick scum in their eyes, the result is devastating for many, and the consequences can be terrible.

It's good to remember that with all the legal and social gains we've made, it can still be a nasty cold unwelcoming and unloving world for a lot of us who don't fit the straight model.