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Making connections: Bridging racial divisions in the LGBTQ2S* community

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LGBTQ2S* rights have come a long way, and we know there’s still a long way to go. Yet some things are continually overlooked, like the glaring gap in conversation and action around race.

“It’s a major problem,” says Uzoma, a Winnipeg woman who identifies as black, and prefers to go by first name only for safety reasons.

She’s the initiating force behind a new queer people of colour (QPOC) group that held its first dance party for QPOC and allies during Pride this year. Although Winnipeg has many strong LGBTQ2S* groups, most are white-dominated. “There’s a danger with the queer community just because the experience of being queer in itself is an experience of existing on the margins,” says a local queer woman of colour who is using the pseudonym Jill for fear of backlash.

“There can be a tendency to think that because we exist in this space, we don’t have to deal with the issues like racism, or we’ve figured that stuff out. We haven’t.”

Ray Hogg’s experience as a local black gay man and artistic director of Rainbow Stage, is one of finding himself in a homogenous Winnipeg culture, where the environments he works in every day are mainly made up of white people. He attributes this partly to Winnipeg being a small city. “I haven’t directly been on the receiving end of any overt racism in the queer community or any other community in Winnipeg. But I am on the receiving end constantly of systemic racism…. Those who have straight privilege or white privilege or cis privilege… naturally and without thinking, discriminate against me and fail to recognize that they’re doing that.”

Uzoma says the QPOC group is necessary because, “(It) triggers a conversation that people (who are not directly facing the issues) have not been having.”

Hogg would like to see people take the responsibility of actively empathizing. “As a community, the queer community is an oppressed community; it’s a misunderstood community and it’s being discriminated against. And so it behooves us as gay people, or whatever you want to call us all, to think about other marginalized members, and care for them.”

Albert McLeod has seen some of the ways marginalization plays out on the front lines with the most vulnerable, in his work with two-spirit youth.

“For aboriginal youth coming into the (queer) scene, a lot of places they get exploited,” he says.

In his work as a co-director with Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, and the AIDS movement, McLeod has seen a lot. “There’s been a history of many aboriginal youth—they come to the city, they’re HIV-positive within a couple of years, then get discarded and then they move away to other cities, and that’s where they die. It’s life on the very fringes of society.”

Winnipeg is home to the largest urban aboriginal population in Canada, and Manitoba as a whole encompasses the territory of at least 63 First Nations.

Part of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba’s advocacy work is bridge- building between the aboriginal community and broader LGBTQ* community. The organization also offers workshops to schools and does research on two-spirit people’s experiences.

One academic project published from the research, titled Aboriginal Two-Spirit and LGBTQ Migration, Mobility and Health, draws a parallel: “Colonization is sometimes presented in public policy discourse as a thing of the past.” The result, according to the report, is that indigenous people are rendered invisible and current colonization is ignored and enabled. “Similarly, some people may underestimate the effects of homophobia given the advances that have been made in Canada regarding same-sex rights. Yet the results from this study clearly show the continuing impact of colonization, racism and homophobia on many people’s lives,” reads an excerpt from the study.

“The intersection of gender and race is a dangerous place to be,” says McLeod, quoting a friend.

Denying that racism is a problem in Winnipeg’s queer community can only perpetuate it, says Uzoma, but being willing to feel uncomfortable means being willing to grow.

The QPOC group in Winnipeg will be working hard to bring more events to the community as the year moves ahead. Dance parties, Sunday pickup basketball, open-mic nights and more are in the works.

Uzoma says from there, “We’d like to formally put together a presentation for other LGBTQ organizations… on the unique issues of queer people of colour.”

recognizing racism

Racism isn’t always obvious, but it is always wrong. Here are seven tips to recognizing racism and battling it.

Recognize the difference between centering people of colour and indigenous people’s concerns versus tagging them on. Being truly inclusive means opening up and being willing to transform. It also means taking leadership from queer people of colour and indigenous people.

Show solidarity—don’t date/sleep with people who write things like “no Asians” on their Grindr/ online dating profiles. That’s not a preference, it’s racism.

Recognize that experiences of homophobia and racism compound to make life harder and more limited for the people who experience them. Know that being queer does not make you immune to experiencing white privilege. It is easy for LGBTQ* people to see homophobia and transphobia, how social systems favour heterosexuals and cis people, and the suffering that causes. Understand how whiteness gives or denies privileges as well.

Do not make statements to the effect that gays are the last oppressed minority. That’s not true. Don’t pit racial and cultural struggles against struggles for LGBTQ* liberation. The movements are intersected and can make each other stronger.

Recognize that people of colour and indigenous people are not responsible for educating white people about the suffering they experience due to racism. Do your own research and reading and don’t ask invasive questions.

Start conversations about race with your white friends with a focus on creating a supportive space where you can ask questions and make mistakes.

If someone tells you you’ve been racist, don’t take it personally or get defensive. Instead apologize and commit to doing better next time. Take the time to reflect following the incident and learn why it was racist.

fighting racism

Our interview subjects offered the following advice to being more inclusive:

Think about where your organization is located and whether people of colour and indigenous people live there, too. Are you inaccessible, or white-dominated, because of your location?

Know that people of colour and indigenous people are the experts on their own experience. Listen.

Recognize that two-spirit is not necessarily the same as being lesbian, gay or queer. It’s a culturally-specific term from another context. Also, some indigenous people identify primarily as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, etc. Just because someone is aboriginal doesn’t mean they identify as two-spirit.

Know that most racism is subtle and systemic. Overt discrimination does not need to occur for something to be racist.

Expose yourself to diversity.

Ask people of colour and aboriginal people what their needs are and how you can meet those. Take their answers to heart and take action to reflect that.

Hire aboriginal outreach workers in your service organizations, and make sure they are not tokenized. Reflect on what makes or does not make your organization a place people of colour and aboriginal people want to work.

Work on incorporating Elders and elders (seniors) into the LGBTQ* movement.

Do your homework on language: terms like berdache are colonial terms used by Europeans (and subsequently academics) to refer to gay men and two-spirit people at the time of contact. The term two-spirit is a word used to reframe colonial history, since two-spirit people predate settler society.

Be willing to be nervous and uncomfortable. Crossing the social lines that divide communities and uphold racism takes courage, commitment and time. Forge genuine relationships with people of colour and indigenous people.

Published in Winnipeg’s OutWords Magazine, Sept. 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a writer of German, Scottish and English descent who is committed to social justice and believes privilege at the expense of others hurts everyone.

HIV: unlocking some of the stories behind the numbers

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http://www.outwords.ca/content/mystery-hiv

Unlocking some of the stories behind the numbers

HIV is a charged topic for many because of the stigma, history and reality that surround it. But for gay men in Manitoba and nationwide, it’s a topic worthy of attention. Gay and bisexual men and other MSM continue to make up the greatest proportion of new infections: over 46.6 per cent in Canada in 2011. And MSM (a category created to be inclusive of behaviour rather than just identity) represent 50 per cent of all people living with HIV in Canada according to CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.

While numbers in many other populations are going down around the country, those for queer men continue to rise. In Winnipeg, HIV prevalence among MSM is 19 per cent, states the M-Track survey.

After decades of scientific research, public education and detailed knowledge on how to prevent infection, it may seem confounding that infections are still on the rise. It’s a very complicated issue, according to Olivier Ferlatte, research education director at Vancouver’s Community-Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health. He’s worked in HIV research for about a decade. “If there was a very easy answer, I guess we would have probably resolved the epidemic,” he said. Government funding, or lack thereof, as well as approaches used to address the issue are both factors.

The need for a targeted strategy

Ferlatte said there is a lack of funding for HIV prevention that is targeted toward gay men in particular, despite the fact that they represent nearly half of new infections. “Also what we’re seeing is that the efforts that we have are perhaps not really addressing all the causes of the epidemic.” Ferlatte’s research shows HIV risk among gay men is connected to both mental health and substance-use issues. The approach often used for educating gay men about HIV and encouraging changes in behaviours isn’t bad, but it isn’t addressing connected issues that actually increase HIV infection. “One of the shifts in the last several years has really been shifting from dealing only with HIV… to basically looking more at health more holistically and running services that are about gay men’s health,” said Andrea Langlois, manager of community-based research at the Pacific AIDS Network. “And so yes, HIV is within that, but so are other STIs, so is depression, so are all of those related issues.”

However, one of the challenges with this new approach is how to bring services into smaller communities, since a gay men’s health clinic would depend on a dense population to make it worthwhile. Langlois said partnership organizations within smaller communities are one way people are talking about making it work.

Sané Dube is membership co-ordinator with Nine Circles Community Health Centre in Winnipeg, a community-based non-profit specializing in HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) prevention.

Dube acknowledged the HIV program in Manitoba is very Winnipeg-centric, and many patients have to travel to access specialized care. An estimated 25 per cent of new diagnoses are in people living outside Winnipeg. In 2013, three outbreaks of HIV occurred in Northern Manitoba, where communities are often under-resourced. An estimated 1,100 people in total are living with HIV in Manitoba, said Dube.

And, aboriginal Manitobans are disproportionately affected. “In 2012, 61 per cent of all newly-diagnosed people were aboriginal,” said Dube. The effects of race and class on HIV infection rates are well documented in Canada and the U.S. A Fenway Health report released in January found that among MSM, black men were especially impacted in the U.S.

The report from the Boston-based GLBTQ* health and education centre also said that in the U.S., HIV prevention is largely targeted toward heterosexuals and other risk groups, despite MSM representing 64 per cent of new infections. Only 27 per cent of HIV education and risk reduction funding in the U.S. was targeted toward MSM. The director of the Centre for Disease Control’s HIV centre, Dr. Kevin Fenton, even acknowledged funding for gay men was half what it should be due to stigma and homophobia cascading down and resulting in underfunding.

Environmental factors come into play in HIV infection and prevention

The U.S. report also named “resiliency factors” linked to lower rates of HIV-risk behaviour among GLBTQ* youth, such as having openly-gay role models among teachers or family, anti-bullying policies in schools and parental acceptance. Dr. Sean Cahill of the Fenway Institute wrote, “Public health departments should fund campaigns and interventions that promote parental acceptance of gay sons as a resiliency factor that can be protective against HIV infection.”

On the flip side, health disparities affecting gay youth, such as bullying and social isolation, can play into higher risks for HIV. “If we don’t address those epidemics, we’ll really never resolve the HIV epidemic.

We need a holistic strategy that addresses many issues, many health disparities that gay men are facing, because HIV is only one. And we don’t have that. I think it’s getting even worse,” said Ferlatte from Vancouver.

The Sex Now survey Ferlatte helped conduct showed gay men today are experiencing as much discrimination as previous generations, and sometimes more. “[People think that] in today’s age, homophobia and discrimination are less of an issue for gay men. Although we have now perhaps made most of the gains we could have made from a legal standpoint, we’re seeing the climate in which young gay men are building their sexual identity, and it’s hostile to that,” he said. “Things like workplace discrimination…. young gay men still feel they’ve been discriminated against, even though they started working at a point when workplace discrimination was [a] protected [grounds]. This has an impact on their mental health, which has an impact on HIV infection.”

The risk of not knowing

In Vancouver, a shocking one-in-five gay men are HIV positive, found a 2008 sexual health survey called ManCount. That’s in contrast to the general population in the city with a rate of one in 100. Numbers are comparable across Canada. Dr. Terry Tussler worked on the survey and said numbers alone are a big part of the increasing infections among gay men. Being in a fairly fixed population means the percentage of HIV-positive men will increase each year as people within the population sleep together.

The survey also found that 2.5 per cent of men surveyed were HIV positive but believed they were negative. Tussler believes rising infection rates are partly driven by men making decisions under the false assumption they are negative. People who are newly infected have a higher chance of passing on HIV, since they will have a high viral load.

On Dec. 1, this World AIDS Day, it will be 32 years since the first diagnosed case of HIV. An estimated 71,300 Canadians were living with HIV as of 2011, according to ACT. And a quarter of Canadians living with HIV aren’t aware they’re positive. A common mental image of the illness harkens from the late ’80s, but HIV and its treatment have changed drastically. Canadians with access to adequate shelter, food and treatment often live long, healthy lives. HIV today is seen as a chronic illness, rather than a death sentence.

Factors such as class, cultural background, refugee status, type of work, trauma and more can play large roles in people’s access to health care, and thus affect how HIV influences their lives.

This year, the first-annual Prairies HIV Conference by Manitoba and Saskatchewan took place Nov. 4 and 5 in Saskatoon.

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He’s a GLBTQ* contributing editor with rabble.ca, hosted a queer-issues radio show called Gaydio, and loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Published in Outwords, November 2013, Volume 205

Written by larkinschmiedl

November 10, 2013 at 10:41 pm

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