Article Title:The NZAF: Rumblings of discontent
Author or Credit:Jay Bennie
Published on:22nd January 2002 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:24
Text:On a number of fronts questions are being asked, frequently and for the moment quietly, about the work of the NZ AIDS Foundation. Any one of these questions would be a genuine cause for worry, but coming as they appear to be doing, with a rush, there is a heightened sense of concern emerging. I have been approached by a number of informed and community-conscious people from within the gay community, the gay HIV community and even the Foundation staff itself about the seeming lack of safe sex campaigns in recent years; the dropping of the mandated HIV positive person position on the Foundation's board; a spat with the Hero Trust after which the Foundation appears to have abandoned the high profile Hero event as a vehicle for safe-sex promotion; and the singling out of a senior staff member for possible dismissal due to his determination to be involved with resurrecting and guiding New Zealand's biggest gay community event. There is possibly a strong, reasoned Foundation strategy and execution behind the following observations, but the secondment of the NZAF's director for many months on other governmental work and the increasingly low profile of the Foundation do little to dispel the impression that the NZAF is lacking in verve, community contact and focus. Discontents largely confined to mutterings and grumblings (though representatives of the HIV community have been way more coherent than most) are a little difficult to define, but here goes. A quick look at the gay community's most widely read publication of record, express, shows that over the past two years - ignoring staff vacancy and Red Ribbon Appeal Day ads, and acknowledging that I am missing a couple of issues - the NZAF has actively promoted safe sex in just eleven of fifty issues. Of those, three recent ads advise against "barebacking," an unsafe sex culture prevalent amongst a tiny group of men. My own quick holiday-time check of 25 randomly selected sexually active men at Lateshift cruise club indicated only one seemed to understand the "barebacking" term, and didn't practise it as a culture. How many at risk men, it has been wondered aloud, responded to the Foundation's five-times-advertised Virtual Nurse service (25 out of the 25 had never heard of it and never used it)? And why was there a full page ad last year exhorting gay men to have safe sex at Mardi Gras, yet none relating to Hero which sees many of the same temptations and risks on offer. The remaining "And Then He Kissed Me" ad and associated condom pack seemed to disappear with hardly a ripple. Sure, there have been a few other promotional items. But a thin leaflet produced mid- last year aimed at Maori youth which mentions neither sex, HIV or safe sex seems a singularly oblique effort. A informative leaflet and small poster produced 18 months ago for Polynesian people seemed to be nearer the mark and the just-released Heavy Duty booklet for leathermen is not at all bad. But, like "barebackers" (as opposed to people who just have unsafe sex) leathermen are another micro-micro-minority in our community. The NZAF also seems to have been singularly unable to spur relevant and interesting safe sex stories in express, and elsewhere (and to be honest it's no better here at the emerging which has yet to receive any proactive media liaison from the Foundation). Most express HIV stories concentrate on largely admin matters such as fundraising, World AIDS Day events, people living happily with HIV, human rights work, staffers returning from conferences, treatment developments and HIV memorials. Rarely are these subjects translated into a safe-sex context. How comfortable is the Foundation with this state of affairs which has gone on for two years at least? Bearing in mind the "second wave" of gay HIV infections being experienced overseas and the Foundation's own claim for at least a year that the wave is likely to hit New Zealand "in about two years," there may be a good reason for this lack of visible and sustained promotion of safe-sex to the gay community. Perhaps now is the time we should hear it and be reassured that the Foundation is indeed proactive and "on the job." The NZAF and the Hero Trust had a falling out a couple of years back which appears to have resulted in Hero being ignored and even shunned. Look at last year's Hero magazine and parade, it's two most visible elements. Not one bit of NZAF safe-sex promotion (and precious little by Hero itself admittedly) in either. And a partyboy friend recalls that the Hero Party seemed similarly bereft. Has safe-sex promotion throughout the highest profile gay event in the country been sacrificed to the Foundation's spat with Hero? Then there's the strange situation whereby the Foundation's Burnett Centre Manager Wayne Otter is facing possible disciplinary action over his audacity in joining the interim Hero Task Force and then the new Hero Incorporated Society. Just another outcome of the spat, or something deeper? Foundation staffers and board members have in their terms of appointment an agreement not to join community organisations (somewhat bizarre for an organisation which should surely be using all possible resources to stay in touch with and guide the gay community) so Otter's decisions to stand for these community-elected bodies is likely seen as provocative. But he is being singled out. A Foundation Board member was allowed to stay on both bodies, and remains within the current Hero executive to this day without censure. Foundation director Kevin Hague's reasoning that the board member has less of a publicly visible connection to the NZAF than Otter does not wash. There is no "...but it's ok as long as nobody much knows about your involvement with the Foundation" provision in those terms of appointment. Moving right along, and the recently announced removal of the one position on the NZAF board set aside for people who actually have HIV has caused outrage in those circles. The NZAF says skills are a higher priority on a slimmed-down board than just HIV status, but dumping the position seems to be chucking the baby out with the bath water. A significant part of the Foundation's work is facilitating the needs of people with HIV. And who better than a person who contracted the deadly virus to understand the psyche of those similarly at risk? To not have an HIV person on the board will seem either patronising or out of touch, or both. There are hundreds of people in New Zealand, gay men in particular, with HIV. If the Foundation takes enough care and effort, surely it can find just one who has sufficient skills and enthusiasm to be appointed? The New Zealand AIDS Foundation grew out of our gay community and is still gay men's best chance of fighting the HIV epidemic in New Zealand. The above assemblage of observations and concerns suggests that the NZAF needs to do some good, solid communicating with its primary clients - plain old gay men who bonk other gay men in the age of HIV - or undertake an evaluation of its policies and activities. Or both. I can't offer any skills to do an evaluation but I can make a public invitation to the Foundation, which is populated by many professional and genuinely good people, to use, or any of the gay media, to effectively address these issues before community disaffection with the NZAF becomes an epidemic in itself. Jay Bennie - 22nd January 2002    
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