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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Body Positive: Taking the Long View

Ructions at Body Positive and unhappy members. 

Where have I seen this before?

Before we go on, let me be upfront that I do know some of the people involved on all sides of this: that’s NZ’s HIV world for you. And if I’ve got any dates wrong, please let me know – but be forgiving,  I’m painting in broad brushstrokes here.

My first contact with BP was back in 1993, and I was a member of the Board for 1994 – 95. Mike Butters was the first Executive Director of BP, and if my memory serves me right, he was the first person to have a paid position with the organisation. That in itself pissed off some members, who thought any work done should be voluntary and any money we had be used on supporting people living with AIDS.

 Of course it was a very different era. We didn’t really talk about HIV then, it was AIDS, as everyone was getting sick and dying of AIDS. I attended a 12-on-12 support group (twelve HIV+ people meeting for twelve weeks) and one of the facilitators died in the third week.

But being on the Board at that time, I do remember the issues of it being “too Auckland” and the Board not listening to members as issues that arose. And these issues often arose from people who were desperately sick, getting ready to die, angry and confused and ready to lash out, and also with no real understanding of the financial limits of the organisation. They seemed to think BP could do more for them than it actually could.

Even though Mike was paid, we only had funding from local charities – no government support, and BP’s office was based in one of the buildings at Auckland Hospital with the Burnett Centre:  we basically had one room out of the Burnett Centre.

In short – we never had the money to do what we’d like to do.

I do know for a fact that there was an attempt in 1994 to set up a Wellington branch, but it didn’t work because there wasn’t enough interest shown from HIV+ people there to run it as a voluntary concern. There was also an attempt to set up a group for straight men alienated by the gayness of BP – the “Straight Arrows” I think they were called. It didn’t last.

Mike Butters left and went to Sydney where he died of AIDS in 1997 if my memory serves me right. He was the loveliest, sweetest guy, and his hard work in getting BP established at a more professional level at that time deserves to be honoured. He worked in a much more hostile world for people with HIV than today and it saddens me to see how he has been written out of the BP story by others. He really was a hero.

After Mike, Grant Hall became ED for a while, and without wanting to speak ill of the dead, let’s say he wasn’t really cut out for the role. Others can correct me if I’ve got my details wrong here, but he wasn’t paid as he wasn’t able to manage the funding applications needed to keep it all going. There was no Ministry of Health funding as there is today. 

Next Keith Marshall came along as a volunteer ED with Jack Dragicevich and they both stepped in to try and clean up the mess as best they could. At the time I wondered if it wasn’t better to let the organisation fold, as there was so little interest from members in actually doing anything. A lot of people wanted BP to do everything for them, but very few seemed willing to actually put their hands up themselves.

In the early 2000s there was a lot of pressure coming again from HIV people that BP was too Auckland-centric, but this was coming from Christchurch, not Wellington, and there were attempts to set up an independent Christchurch HIV+ peer support group.

After Keith Left, Jack stayed on as Bruce Kilmister came into the ED role, which he was able to turn into a fully paid position again.

All three main HIV support groups, Body Positive, Positive Women, and INA benefitted from the lobbying done in finally gaining some Ministry of Health funding, but even that is minimal.

For me personally now, Body Positive is irrelevant. I have no need for it, and that is the case for most HIV+ gay men in New Zealand I suspect. Even though they claim 800 or so members, hardly any are active. Over the last few years when friends have told me they have sero-converted I have suggested they join BP and each time had a very clear “No, not for me”.  One mate a few years back reeled back in horror and said “Oh God no I don’t want to sit around going ‘Boo hoo I’ve got HIV’”

Many people with HIV today are living pretty normal lives and do not see the need for BP in their lives. They aren’t sick, they haven’t lost their jobs, they’ve dealt with the initial trauma of the diagnosis, and they keep going with their lives. Yes, they are the fortunate ones. For others an HIV diagnosis upends their lives entirely and they have high social needs – but BP isn’t resourced in money or staff to really deal with them.

If significant numbers of HIV+ men are going “It’s nice you’re there but I have no need for you” it calls into question their reason for existence.

Personally I’d love to see BP grow more and be able to do more advocacy and support work; it should be our voice to government – but as ever it comes down to money.

For the entire time I have known it, BP has been chronically under-funded for the work it has tried to do. Over the last few years it has tried to do more, with free testing, and setting up the Wellington office, as well as catering for some very highly dependent people.

Again and again over the last 20 and more years it has been the same story as BP tries to find a way to work for its members, to deliver basic services, to be there.

It would be good to know just how all the funds it has received over the last 5 years or so have been spent, and a full audit of the organisation would help give everyone a clear and realistic picture of what has been done and what can be done now. In fact I think that’s essential if we are going to have a rational discussion about what BP is going to be in the future and I call on the Board to do this.

If there was not an adequate funding stream in place to support the Wellington office, to be brutal, it shouldn't have been established. That was poor management if it's the case.

A full audit will clear up issues and show us all just what can and can’t be done with the funding available.

What I have see again and again is a pattern of a volunteer Board giving up their time, regularly facing criticism they don’t relate to members and they focus too much on Auckland.

And it all comes back down to money. BP needs to be funded properly, and we should make this a political issue and stop attacking each other. We should protest and engage with politicians to get funding for the organisation.

Otherwise there will be another band-aid for a few years and another crisis will arise. The pattern will continue.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Gentrification of Being Gay

I took this photo as I left Urge on its last night/morning of business.

I like to think the white ball is the ghost of all the accumulated cum that was spilt in those walls, slowly rising up to gay heaven.

Because let's face it, there was a lot of sperm spilt in there over the 17 or so years it was in business.

And yes, some of it was mine, and I helped other guys spill some of theirs too.

I recall a few years back being in Sydney and talking to an Aussie in the Oxford who'd been over to Auckland and Urge the week before and he excitedly told me how he'd been given a blow job while standing at the bar. Maybe I'm jaded, but I was like "Yeah, that happens there."

And it wasn't just cum, remember Troughman? And others of his ilk lying on the floor in the toilets and hoping for a drink straight from the tap. He swore he could tell what drugs people were on by how their urine tasted, and sometimes got high off too much P in their pee.

But Urge has gone, and I doubt we'll see a bar like it in Auckland again.

The vibe changed in intensity and emphasis over the years it was open, and it moved from leather bar to bear bar, but it represented a physical space where you could meet friends, dance, drink, be somewhere  safe on your drugs if you were taking any, and have sex if you wanted. Hell, some guys even met and fell in love there and are still together.

Twinks were often too scared to walk in, imagining (or wishing?) they'd be thrown in a sling as soon as they crossed the threshold.

Gay bars like this used to be pretty common in all major western cities - LA, London, NY (how I loved the Mineshaft!) Sydney - of course you can still find them in Berlin (why do you think that place is so popular?) but generally speaking gay bars are finding it hard to stay open, and more and more guys are able to hook up on apps or online, so there is less of the old outrageous in-your-face sexual abandon that used to be a hallmark of urban gay life.

John Rechy (every young gay man should read him) coined the term "sexual outlaw" to describe the world he moved in during the 60s, 70s and 80s as both a hustler and a man dedicated to enjoying the hunt for sex. It's a term that captures part of that era so well. He describes the pursuit for sex in alleys and backyards, parks and beaches, day and night, that used to be so common. How else were you going to meet a guy? How else were we going to fuck?

Don't forget - we were outlaws, we were technically engaging in acts that could send us to jail, destroy our careers, and have our families disown us. Different times.

And today Urge has gone, a white-washed empty box sits there now, probably to be filled with a chi-chi little dress store or art gallery, or maybe an artisanal toast cafe for hipsters. Because the whole area is on the way up, slowly I grant you, but it is changing.

So many of the younger generation (Kids these days!) seem so bland and boring in their rush to marriage and conformity. No outlaws they ! Even if they do hook up with strangers through the apps and have a few hours of wild fun with some guy it's all done so nicely, behind closed doors.

Vapid, conformist, monogamous - all the dull trite detritus of suburbia seems to be the template for being a gay man these days.

The emphasis seems to be so intent on being normal, on being part of the crowd, not on standing out. I can understand it, the assimilation and normalising of being a homo has made the world a lot better for many who in the past would have ended up married and leading stunted lives of deceit and desperation and drowning in alcoholism  - I get that.

But gentrification always means pushing one group out at the expense of another. Slums get turned into desirable residential areas. The poor and marginalised get moved on  - communities are broken up, links destroyed and histories forgotten. Capital and demographics conspire against us.

We didn't just lose a valued social space when we lost Urge, we lost a part of who we were as a community of men, and I miss that.

I'd like to imagine that big ghostly ball of cum is still floating in some magical gay sex-club heaven, radiating joy and love and the sheer earthy pleasure of hard cocks, sweet asses and orgiastic release. I'm glad I was able to have my part of it for real.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Marriage Equality Two Years On.

We’re two years into marriage equality here in New Zealand, and as Green MP Kevin Hague noted, the world hasn’t come to an end yet.

I never saw this one coming, the huge importance that would get tied to being able to get married I mean.

I was attending a conference in Melbourne with Warren Lindberg, sitting in his hotel room and watching on his laptop as Louisa Wall’s bill went through its final reading. That feeling of euphoria was amazing – even more so the next day at the conference when we could celebrate this with our fellow Rainbow health activists and advocates.

Growing up as a young gay activist the last thing I ever thought we’d fight for was marriage. Isn’t it just a patriarchal institution, designed to subjugate women and keep men in power? Why would gay men (or lesbians) ever want any part of that? Even straights were giving up on getting married!
And as gay men, we were busy celebrating our right to have a full and rich sex life, not to get tied down into monogamy, which again seemed like a central plank of marriage.

A straight feminist friend of mine got married recently and she said she really thinks marriage has changed, in the developed world at least. It’s a public celebration of love and commitment, and I think she’s right.

And us homos demanding our equal rights to it have been part of that change – fundamentalist religious types and conservative politicians were right, in part at least. We didn’t exactly change marriage, but what marriage means in today’s wealthy Western world has changed, and that’s been to our benefit.

I find it interesting how so many of my married mates are still happily playing the field, in classic gay male style. We are proof that it is possible to deeply and truly love one man, yet still have fun with lots of others. It’s clear that for many gay men emotional fidelity is what matters. A bit of fun on the side, when it’s mutually agreed on, really doesn’t matter to lots of happily married gay men.
So what’s next for the world of LGBTI political activism and change?

Rights are the things that we are entitled to by virtue of our humanity and being citizens of this country – and we don’t have many of those formal rights missing now, but it’s not all wonderful. I understand there are some holes in the adoption process that disadvantage same sex couples that need to be addressed, and there are still the legal issues around changing gender identity that persist.
Dr Pete Saxton’s comments on this site about the need for health equality to be taken seriously are bang on the money. As a set of communities, we are grossly over-represented in so many negative health indicators that something needs to be done. We have a right to much better care and better trained staff than we currently enjoy.

Kelly Ellis pointed out the huge differences in how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves, that often sit between the experience of trans and differently gendered people compared to gay men and lesbians. And she’s right.

I think central to this is that we’re not actually a united community. The ties that used to bind us have slipped away considerably now. While some of us see the connections between what happened to us, what happens to trans people, and what happens to other minorities, many don’t. I reckon that will gap will continue to grow, more and more young homos of both sexes will fail to see or understand how their lives and rights are connected to other groups. I think it’s an inevitable result of our success in achieving so many rights; more people just want to be normal.

But, even though things have changed on paper, and socially to some degree, it can still be very dangerous even being a gay man. Try walking down the road in Auckland holding your lover’s hand outside any of the very few safe zones such as Ponsonby Road and see what happens. Try having a kiss and a cuddle in a straight bar or pub and see what happens.

Changing people’s attitudes is the hardest thing to do, and it takes time, and it needs the same message coming back time and again – we are as good as anyone else, we deserve what any other citizen of this country does, and we should be able to live our lives openly and freely in every way. This means at work, at home, in the street, in a pub – anywhere.

We actually can’t do that yet. We can’t be sure that we are safe in the same way that straights can. We still have to watch, we still have to be on guard at times, depending where we are – and that’s not right.

Things have changed for the better, I’m old enough to remember the bad old days – if you’re from any part of the Rainbow communities, life is better no doubt. For some of us it’s a lot better, and for others only a bit, but things have shifted and progressed.

I’d suggest that, with a few exceptions, our battles don’t lie so much in the areas of formal rights, like the right to get married, but in changing social attitudes. Until kids of whatever gender variety, of whatever sexuality, can grow up knowing that they are seen as completely normal and an accepted part of their families, communities and society, we have work to do.

And I think bringing about this level of social change is going to be much harder than the fight for law reform and the fight to get marriage equality. But it ties right back to those health inequalities mentioned earlier. The whole LGBTTIFQA alphabet soup that is under the Rainbow will only be able to flourish when we are accepted as full, complete and equal members of society in every sphere.
We’re not there yet.