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Six Months In: on a personal note

Tue 16 Aug 2011 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

Shaun Robinson is enjoying the role New Zealand AIDS Foundation Executive Director Shaun Robinson has passed the six month mark in a role leading an organisation which is crucial for the health of the gay community. In the final part of our series, we chat about how he is finding the role. Robinson's dedication to the job is underlined by the fact he is living away from his family five days a week and commuting back to the Hawke's Bay every weekend. That's because his partner had a job opportunity which came up around the same time as NZAF call: "We're going to review it after a year and see where we're at," he says. "In some ways that's got its advantages for everybody; when I'm here I can work really hard and when I go home I can be totally there for the family." He's living with his sister in Auckland and says he is enjoying the energy of the bigger city, along with being part of the gay community in the way he can in the role. "It's very colourful and creative and exciting," he says. "And I am enjoying the job. I think that I've had a lot to offer from day one because all organisations have a lot that is similar. So any of the challenges I see here, while they've all got their particular spin or their own particular variant within the NZAF, I've seen them before. That's one of the advantages of being old enough and ugly enough ... there's not a lot I haven't seen before. Some of the variations on it are pretty new and I guess some of the material is new enough to be interesting to me, but it's still part of what's driven my working life since I was about 20 – it's about social justice and care for people and trying to really contribute something positive to humanity, all of those things I find really motivating. "And the people here are fun people to work with, so that always helps. It's been pretty interesting because probably the average age at the NZAF now is about 31, so it's the youngest staff that I've ever led and that leads to some amusing and interesting things. I think Tony [Hughes] and I are the only two people that reach for an actual phone book when we want to look up a number." Robinson concedes it's been a 'pretty interesting' time to have taken on the role, as there are significant changes in HIV science and treatment. "There are number of three year cycles that affect the AIDS Foundation, and I've arrived at the pinnacle of all of them. It's been the GAPPS/GOSS collection phase, it's been the first time we've done the oral swab testing, there's been big scientific field work activity, our contract with the Ministry of Health comes up every three years – it happened to be this year, so I've been straight into negotiations. It's been an interesting time." It's also been a learning experience about gay sex for a man who didn't know Grindr existed just a few months ago. "I find everything about the cultural, scientific, political environment of HIV pretty fascinating. It's also pretty mindboggling. There are times when I go home and my head hurts, just from trying to get my head around it all. But it is early days." He believes the NZAF is doing a lot of great work people simply don't hear about, and is reaching people it has never reached before. "We're working in schools, we're working in a number of gay youth situations, we've been present at a lot of events, we're training a huge range of other organisations, be they health professionals, through to health organisations, through to OUTLine, We're really present out there in the community, On the Positive Health side we're dealing with at least a thousand men a year, with six thousand interactions. We're supporting other organisations like Positive Women, Body Positive and INA through their members. "So I think our reach is really quite huge. And I know, bringing it all down to a personal level, there are gay men in their 40s or 50s going through counselling, such as one has who has never been out and has been living with that dichotomy in their life, going through a process of coming out. It's extremely fraught, leading to some really unsafe sex practices as he experiments with his sexuality, also some big issues mentally and socially and with self-esteem. But I know through the process of working with the staff here that guy's come out of that process much more grounded, in control of who he is and therefore is going to be much safer. And those kind of human stories, as well as the volume of what we do, convince me that we're doing really good stuff. "It sometimes surprises me how much the gay community looks for the negatives in what the NZAF's doing, rather than acknowledging that really supportive good work. Maybe it's a bit of tall poppy syndrome because we've been around a long time. Maybe it's because a lot of change has gone on for the gay community in the 15-20 years and as a very focal point organisation NZAF perhaps gets blamed or caught up in people's confusion about the change. And I think perhaps we need to do a better job of communicating the good stuff we are doing and that's an ongoing thing for us. "But considering we have one of the best records in the world and we're probably one of the most innovative organisations in the world, and the problems that we're facing are the same problems that every other developed nation is facing in terms of HIV, I would think that people should be getting behind us and singing some of those songs as well. "I'm certainly opened to being criticised. If we're dishonest or we completely lose the plot, certainly criticise us, but it would be good to have some of the good stories as well." However Robinson says overall he's felt overwhelmingly welcomed into the role by the gay community. "I think people were looking for a change, coming out of that turbulent period. And I think I've been able to put my finger on some of the immediate issues that were concerning people both inside the organisation and outside the organisation, and to offer some new approaches to those things. "There are some people who take the identity politics position that the organisation should and can only be effectively led by a gay man and I can understand that position, but I don't agree with it, or I wouldn't do the job. If I didn't think I had something significant to add I wouldn't be here." Robinson says most people are more concerned about talking about the epidemic and what's happening and what can be done, than getting stuck on saying he's a straight man and therefore has nothing to contribute. And, he says, that's how it should be. Jacqui Stanford - 16th August 2011

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Tuesday, 16th August 2011 - 1:18pm

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