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Still a gay disease

Still a gay disease

Mon, Dec 1 is the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day. And yes, it's still a gay disease.

Not exclusively, obviously. In terms of the world's population, not even primarily. In Canada gay men aren't even the group with the fastest-growing rate of infection. Young women, aboriginals, people from sub-Saharan Africa are all highly vulnerable groups.

But gay men remain the group in Canada with the highest number of infections. And yet, despite the history of AIDS in the gay community, support for those with HIV or AIDS is far from wholehearted.

The new website HIVstigma.com was launched by the Gay Men's Sexual Health Alliance — a coalition of AIDS service organizations from across Ontario — precisely to combat the condemnation HIV-positive gay men can face from other gay men.

That problem can be exacerbated if one is gay within a homophobic ethnic or religious community, but even within what we think of as the mainstream gay male society that disapproval exists.

And it makes things worse. If a man is afraid of what might happen when he discloses his status, he might simply choose not to do so. The result can be to minimize the use of condoms and spread the virus further.

"If someone is living in an atmosphere of stigma, that can impact the underlying personal and sexual interactions," says Murray Jose, the executive director of the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. "Having a community and environment that's less stigmatizing makes it easier to disclose status, share experiences and challenge people who don't use condoms."

One of the primary factors in the increasing stigmatization of those with HIV is the growing criminalization of those who remain sexual. This, too, is an issue that affects gay men.

Xtra has reported on several cases involving HIV-positive gay men being jailed for having unprotected sex. Ryan Handy, for example, was convicted in March of aggravated sexual assault for having unprotected sex with an older man who freely agreed. Handy — who at the time of the incident was suffering from mental illness — was sentenced to eight months in jail. His accuser, who remains HIV-negative, cannot be named.

A report released in November by the International Planned Parenthood Federation says that 58 countries, including Canada, have laws that punish people for transmitting HIV, and another 35 are considering such laws.

"A simplistic 'law-and-order' response to HIV and the way in which individual court cases are reported in the media only serves to intensify a climate of denial, secrecy and fear," states the report. "This creates a fertile breeding ground for the continued and rapid spread of HIV."

What it also does is remove individual responsibility. The idea that someone else is responsible for your sexual health is misguided and foolish.

"If you ask a person about their HIV status, you have to assume that a) they're telling the truth and b) they know their status," says Shannon Thomas Ryan, the executive director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention. "It's not the only approach gay men should be relying on."

Use a condom, in other words.

Gay men are still taking the lead in the fight against AIDS in Canada. The majority of the clients and staff at AIDS service organizations are gay and gay men certainly still take the lead in raising money for the fight.

Which makes eliminating the stigma against HIV-positive gay men that much more important.

A year ago the federal Tories cut $1 million dollars from AIDS service organizations in Ontario. Federal AIDS funding is still millions of dollars short of what was promised. Many with HIV face not only the stigma of the disease itself, but the homophobia of religion or culture.

To fight those battles gay men need to fully accept HIV-positive men.

So on Dec 1 remember the history of AIDS, remember those who have passed, remember to take responsibility for your own safety and remember that those with HIV are not second-class citizens or public health risks.

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