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NZAF: Rachael

Fri 27 Jan 2006 In: HIV

Rachael LeMesurier It was only a little over a month ago that the board of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation found itself strung up by its short 'n'curlies by members at its AGM. But things have calmed down somewhat since then. The only thing you'll find strung up at the Foundation now are Christmas cards – including two from the stridently anti-gay political party United Future. The presence of Yuletide greetings from the party that is home to Gordon Copeland, the self-appointed gatekeeper of God's standards and architect of the anti-gay Marriage (Gender Clarification) Bill, does somewhat undercut suggestions that the Foundation has some political repair work to do with parties on the right following its difficult year. “We refuse to treat people as they sometimes treat us, which is treating us like caricatures with two-dimensional positions,” says NZAF executive director Rachael LeMesurier. “We appreciate that everyone in New Zealand, including politicians, have multiple layers to who they are, and that includes their family members, who their neighbours are, and who they work with. They are highly likely to have lesbians and gays in their lives.” However, there didn't appear to be any cards from the National Party on the mantelpiece. Both deputy leader Gerry Brownlee and “PC eradicator” Wayne Mapp were publicly critical last year of the NZAF board's proposals for a 50% Maori quota, and references to the Treaty in its Constitution and job vacancies. LeMesurier has no anxieties about this. She thinks the criticisms were something of a pot/kettle/black scenario. “Gerry Brownlee tried to criticise the board for even dealing with the Treaty,” she says. “Firstly, all NGOs try to deal with the Treaty out of recognition of where we live. And secondly, the National Party is making overtures to the Maori Party. There must be some relevance, otherwise what are they up to?” What would the Foundation have done though, if National had won the election last year? “We would have argued just as effectively as we have under any Labour government that what we do is based on evidence, based on trying to contain a public health risk, and all of it is working with a human rights framework. It's really clear that we are not party specific. We will talk with any government. Having said that, we will also engage very strongly on anything that we think that they're doing that's homophobic, or detrimental to our mission.” CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORM But last year saw proposals from the NZAF board that many saw as detrimental to the Foundation's mission, and LeMesurier found herself caught right in the middle of it. She says now she has some regrets about the way she handled the situation. As the primary liaison between the board and the Foundation's staff, she says she probably didn't make clear to the board just how much fallout potential there was in its proposals. “It was hard at many levels, particularly because it can be quite a lonely position,” she says. “That's because of wanting to try to honour the integrity and the trust that the board have in me, that the staff have with me, and hopefully, some of the members and stakeholders. It's a tricky thing to walk. I don't know whether I did it all that well. But that was where some of the pressure was, to act professionally through all this.” Did she feel that the motion of "no confidence" in the board at the AGM was, partially, a motion of no confidence in her as well? “I do take things very seriously,” she says. “And everything – whether it was Bill Logan's speech at the gala dinner or stuff that was on message board – all of that I pay attention to, it's important. But at the same time, I can't (a) take it personally and (b) try to respond to each and every one as an individual message, because many of them are conflicting.” She had a similar view going into the AGM, where she and the board were able to see the rumblings of discontent from staff and members in a concentrated form, face-to-face. “It was very difficult to try and gather if there was one loud voice vs. a whole range of very different voices,” she says. But did she see no consensus emerging from members at the AGM? “There definitely is a consensus, and the consensus is keep to your knitting. I think that was a very fair comment. I do think, however, that boards in New Zealand are perennially challenged with how to deal with the Treaty.” THE QUOTA ISSUES AND THE TREATY But do they all decide to deal with it in such a controversial way – mandating that at least 50% of the board seats be set aside for Maori? We know that the vast majority of people affected by HIV in New Zealand are gay, and the word ‘gay' was nowhere to be seen in the board's proposals. Some, including Foundation staff, said the proposals were homophobic because they saw them shifting the Foundation's focus away from gay men. Some said it even paved the way for a homophobic-Maori takeover of the NZAF. What was in place to stop a future board being populated with Alan Duffs and Bishop Vercoes? LeMesurier says that issue already existed, as there was nothing in the existing Constitution to mandate a gay male presence. However, she says it was always assumed, even by the current board. “But it ain't in writing,” she says. “So my wish is – let's take that clear message and ask the membership and the working group to find a way to ensure that there is a protection of gayness on the board. Gay maleness, actually – you don't want a bunch of lesbians either, running it.” Back the truck up! Don't we have a lesbian running the show right now? Surely she must set the Foundation's agenda to a certain extent, at least? “Not as much as the board [does],” she says. So how does she see her role? Is she merely a conduit between Foundation staff and the board? “No, it's more active than that.” Longtime activist Bill Logan said at both the 20th anniversary gala dinner and the Foundation AGM that gay men would not listen to a non-gay organisation tell them how to have sex. Did that make her feel sidelined or out of touch? “It doesn't make me feel awkward,” she says. “Our resources, our materials, are all developed by gay men, for gay men, with gay men's focus groups. So I don't have any particular concern. I don't see a lessening of the gayness of our resource materials targeting gay men.” What about Logan's comments that the Foundation had become strategically disoriented? “I think there are a range of different opinions of which Bill is one. I take him very very seriously, I respect what he brings. I'm also conscious that in the minutes of our organisation there's lots of people who've disagreed with Bill historically.” The issue of how the Foundation should deal with the Treaty – if at all – will not be going away anytime soon. In fact, LeMesurier says she's witnessed other NGOs go through the same problems. “In some ways, I was a bit more fortunate than most to see that this was not a uniquely gay thing. This was not a uniquely AIDS Foundation thing, so I had a little bit more of a distance than some others did.” She also says the Treaty has been something of a historical bugbear for the Foundation. “The board has looked at the Treaty in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, and 1996, and 1999 – and there's been blood on the floor practically every time. So I could say it's hugely distracting whenever our board, or any NGO, tries to look at the Treaty,” she says. “But at the same time, as a New Zealand-based NGO, I think it's a challenge to try and integrate looking at the Treaty with our strategic direction.” “I think the discussion around Treaty has to continue,” she continues. “I'm not going to say, the mistake was that there was a discussion about the Treaty. I think that there were definitely mistakes around process, and there was definitely mistakes about the 50% [quota proposal], unfortunately.” LeMesurier surprised many at the AGM when she declared that the current board was one of the best she'd ever worked with. She still stands by that opinion. “Regardless of what some people may feel about the board from their announcement and proposal, they are good people with no malicious intent. It saddened me that people thought there was some kind of connivance, some kind of... “takeover bid” or whatever some of the more extreme things that were said,” she says. “They were sincerely great people. There was no enemy up there. Everybody there wants to reduce HIV. Everybody there wants to make sure HIV+ people maximise their own health and wellbeing. There was no-one on the wrong side of the fence in that respect, and that's what upset me – that people seemed to think the board weren't highly committed, with really good intent.” She doesn't hesitate to say the AGM was her low point of the entire year. “It was really clear from the pressure on Simon at the AGM that it had been a hugely unpleasant experience for the board, and very, very difficult,” she says. “That was a very hard thing for me to witness. How could that have been avoided? I think there was a lot of anger and hurt, understandably, from members and staff, that I would have done anything to be able to avoid, in hindsight.” A SILVER LINING Despite last year's problems, LeMesurier sees a silver lining with the vast increase in membership numbers that the controversy generated. “We're in a very happy position,” she says. “When the 2001 Constitution was being discussed, there was probably a membership of about 60, of which 40 were staff. Now we've got a membership of 150, so we actually have a majority of people who are not staff.” She hopes to see a revision to parts of the Constitution that put staff, who are also members, in potential conflict of interest situations. “I've read papers that [former Executive Director] Kevin Hague wrote and he also pointed out that he was in the bizarre position that as a member, he could appoint his boss,” she says. “What that board chose to do, with Kevin's guidance and recommendations, was to remove the membership's right to do that. Now, I think there are other ways to ensure that the membership doesn't necessarily appoint its own employer when the members are staff. There's a range of options around that, and that's something that I will be making sure are brought for discussion.” PACIFIC AIDS CONFERENCE A HUGE SUCCESS No less huge than the board controversies in 2005 was the organisation of the Pan Pacific AIDS Conference, a huge international and local success and a major achievement for LeMesurier. “It was hugely daunting – but only in retrospect,” she says. “I'd never run a conference of this size, not an international one either, and a lot of it was naivety. There were some things we would never do again in the way that we did, but we met practically every objective, it was just stunning. Absolutely stunning. That excitement, that success, that incredible morale boost for everybody, plus the re-energising that it did, it was absolutely phenomenal.” LeMesurier says the Foundation has not had such a profile in the Pacific region since the mid-90s. Internally, there was a strong sense of pride that the Foundation was a major player at the conference. “It was on our home ground, in our way, with commitment to a bicultural approach, as much as was feasible in that type of environment,” she says. “That was really affirming – [it let visitors know that] this is our way of doing things.” She believes the Pacific focus of the conference was an important one, not just because there's a perception that New Zealand doesn't care about what happens outside of its own borders. “We feel as an organisation that we can't neglect what's happening in the Pacific because, in a very selfish way, it will happen to us if we don't provide support.” Alarmingly in evidence at the conference were the number of Pacific leaders, and imported Christian missionaries, who preach to Pacific youth, and who subscribe to woefully ineffective abstinence programmes over condoms. There was much talk of the “ABC” programme – Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms. “Abstinence is not complex. It's straightforward – it doesn't work,” LeMesurier says. “What is complex, is people's anxieties about a condom-only usage, and abstinence is the sweetener to be quite frank. I think the UN and WHO have adopted the ABC because they see the 'C' as the core part of the message.” Or is it religious groups putting pressure on for a ‘balanced' message in sex education? “It's not about balance, it's about a sweetener,” she says. “It's about acknowledging that these countries, policy makers, churches, these communities, are not able yet to have a frank and honest discussion about the sexual activity of their community. Anal sex between heterosexuals in the Pacific is quite common, because it's a form of contraception. Yet not one single policy maker or educator has made a public statement about that.” So what on earth does LeMesurier think we can learn from these people? As well as a reluctance to discuss sexual issues openly, for which we can largely thank the Christian missionaries who still darken their doorsteps, nations like Fiji and Papua New Guinea are characterised by virulent homophobia. “There has been some valid criticism about how engaged we are with grass roots community,” LeMesurier says. “What's happening in the Pacific is grass roots communities beginning to gather together and form support groups and activist groups, such as the Sexual Minorities Project in Fiji. This is one way for us to remind ourselves of some of those key purposes that drove us in 1983-85.” The NZ AIDS Foundation itself began as a political grass roots movement, but now exists in a time when the gay community in New Zealand as a whole feels far less of a need to be political. There's a danger that the history of the Foundation could fall into a black hole, and acknowledging its history is something LeMesurier would like to see more of in the coming years. “I think it's something that we haven't done well at all, at the Foundation, and that's partly because we're living it. We're not often in a position to look back retrospectively and say: 'hey we've done some amazing stuff and there's been some stunning people involved, and we've lost some really special people, but we've got some special people who are still here.' That's what the gala dinner did.” Coming at the end of the Pan Pacific AIDS Conference, the lavish 20th anniversary gala dinner was, along with the conference, LeMesurier's high point of the year. “Both were equally important. Both made me feel like I wanted to cry because they were so wonderful.” BUT THOSE INFECTION FIGURES KEEP RISING And yet both events were overshadowed by 2005's biggest tragedy: another major jump in new HIV infections. When we last spoke at length and on depth to LeMesurier around this time last year, she said the Foundation was in good heart to face the year's challenges. She still believes it is, but the high infection rates have taken their toll on staff. “If we're showing any bruises that's what it is. It feels like the mountain that we knew we had, the cloud's cleared and it's three times the size. But that hasn't stopped us at all thinking we've really got to try and work out what different way [there is] of presenting this message; how can we communicate, what is it that people aren't hearing. That's as passionate as ever.” It's a year which has seen both positive and negative men approaching the Foundation to ask what they're doing to stem the rising tide. “My answer is – as much as we can, what are you doing? 'Cos we need everybody in this. It's a bit like domestic violence. In the sense that, we can't just wait for the police to turn up, and wonder what the police are doing about it, we've got to do stuff about it in our own community. It's exactly the same with HIV.” There's a fine line to be trod with HIV prevention. It's undeniable that one of the reasons why HIV rates have jumped so exponentially is because there are more positive people who are sexually active. The potential infection pool is larger. “That's exactly the risk. We've been trying to say to the gay community: "look, the numbers are going up,'” says LeMesurier. “Not only the number of transmissions, but the number of people living with HIV, which in itself is not OK, because each new diagnosis is one that's preventable.” But how far can you go with pushing this message before it appears that you are demonising positive people? LeMesurier says they often receive feedback from positive people saying the Foundation shouldn't soft-pedal the message at all. “We got the best feedback from positive men about the posters that [prevention manager] Douglas [Jenkin] did last year with the toilet roll, and the post it note on the fridge about your fifteenth clinical appointment that week,” she recalls. “Many people were saying, that's actually portraying HIV as difficult and unpleasant and hard, and not something that you would want. And the positive guys were saying – thank you.” The Foundation has begun to acknowledge this year that there's not just a problem with the safe sex message falling on deaf ears, but that there are some ears that don't get to hear it in the first place. The Foundation's research has shown a huge jump in the number of men who find sexual partners online through dating sites, but the cost of advertising on these sites is prohibitive. One particularly popular dating site, where pictures of erect cocks can regularly be found in members profiles, continues to be incredibly disingenuous about the fact that members use the set for sex hook-ups, thus absolving themselves of the responsibility for providing sexual health information. LeMesurier says that throwing money at a problem is not always the best solution anyhow. “It doesn't challenge us to think outside the box. Saying we haven't got the funding, therefore we don't do it is not an answer I'm happy with,” she says. One potential solution is the development of an alternative hook-up site, where safe sex information could be provided. This is a possibility being considered. HOT, HORNY CONDOMS Also on the cards is a campaign which is designed to eroticise condoms, the Foundation's way of combating an insidious movement which has sought to eroticise barebacking. The idea of eroticising condoms is seen by some men as a ridiculous form of denial. Sex without them simply feels better, they say, and the Foundation would do better to acknowledge this. “The Foundation's not in denial about that. But we aren't in denial about HIV,” LeMesurier says firmly. “We wouldn't be here if HIV wasn't transmitted easily without a condom. And the best way to stop that appalling thing happening is a condom. So when someone says 'yeah, but a condom doesn't feel half as great as what it's like without one,' my answer is 'have you tried living with HIV? That's actually the alternative. Choose between them.'” But the new condom campaign will not be downbeat and doom-laden. was not able to gain access to the photo shoot, and we did try very hard, for purely professional motives, but we understand it involves hot young studs putting condoms on their suitably engorged members. “We appreciate that a piece of latex could be seen, and is seen, as a passion killer,” says LeMesurier. “What we want to say is, it's how you use it. Make it something that's passionate.” THE LAW AND TALKBACK Although condoms are incredibly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV, the Foundation came under heavy public fire last year for supporting a legal decision that acquitted an HIV+ heterosexual man who had sex with his girlfriend, with a condom, but did not disclose his status to her. Wellington man Justin Dalley had previously been convicted on similar charges relating to non-disclosure of his status when he had unprotected sex with another woman. The Foundation valiantly forged ahead in the media, explaining its reasons for supporting the Dalley decision. “It's hard to say we got our message across,” LeMesurier says. “We did the best that we could in that situation, in a very difficult scenario, because everybody launched into the fact that somebody's telling a lie. Now, we can't legislate how many people tell lies. What we can legislate on is using a condom.” A reasonable amount of balance was achieved in the media, with the exception of talk radio. Ignorant rants, fuelled by ignorant hosts, were broadcast to audiences of thousands. Talk radio's illusion of balance is created by the idea that anyone can phone in with their opinion. When the Foundation tried to do this, communications co-ordinator Steve Attwood found himself decimated on air, shouted at and belittled by the host. Learning nothing from Attwood's call, Radio Live host Michael Laws carried on the same lines afterwards, business as usual. “That's something that we need to strategise round this year, is how to deal better with talkback shows,” LeMesurier admits. “But I think we did the best we could, and I think we had good national coverage in respect to TV. I think it was hugely problematic, because fundamentally, people got confused between the law and morals.” The gay community was not immune to this confusion. Heated discussions took place on's message forum subsequent to the Dalley case. “I have heard gay guys say the equivalent of 'why don't we lock positive men up and then it wouldn't be a problem,'” LeMesurier says. “People find it hard to consider in the cold light of day the fact that someone may lie about something that could be a risk to them. However, the fact that the majority of people have lied about very intimate things in relationships is something that we don't really want to acknowledge and bring into those moral debates.” Does she think the fact that Dalley's previous history of non-disclosure contributed to some of the hostility surrounding the case? “He wasn't sparking clean,” she acknowledges, “but actually a lot of people aren't. It was absolutely, categorically clear that he should have received a conviction for the first charges he got where he had unsafe sex and didn't disclose. We are clear that if you basically don't use a condom and don't disclose you're a bloody idiot. You are risking criminal prosecution. However what we've always said is the emphasis should be on the transmission. Disclosure alone does not guarantee non-transmission. All you need is someone to consent to that, and there's no criminal prosecution.” “Don't risk anyone on the altar of moral perfection,” LeMesurier concludes. “If that's the case, every one of us is going to be crucified on it. And catch HIV.” The Dalley case, along with certain speakers at the Pan Pacific AIDS Conference, threw the media spotlight onto HIV demographics other than gay men. There were calls from some quarters, even as high as NZAF board level, to make the Foundation more inclusive for women, heterosexual men, and refugee communities. These calls alarmed some stakeholders, who saw a scenario where the group bearing the overwhelming burden of HIV, gay men, having resources which were fought for long and hard, would see those resources divvied up and drawn away to service a minority. Does LeMesurier see the Foundation, founded by members of the gay community, being made over in an attempt to become all things to all people? “We cannot,” she says. “Firstly we're contracted [not to]. Our primary amount of money is for prevention with gay men. It's the largest part of our society, that community is most at risk. A huge majority of the transmissions are amongst gay men. We've got to focus. We can't change the contract even if that were our intent, and it's not.” “I think at the same time, however, things are different from where they were ten years ago,” she continues. “There is a larger heterosexual diagnosed community than there has been.” This is true. It is also true that this heterosexual community is comprised largely of African immigrants and refugees. Despite predictions of a native heterosexual holocaust blasting the Foundation ramparts over the last twenty years, it has never come to pass. GAY MEN REMAIN THE PRIMARY FOCUS However, funding has recently been received by the Foundation for the running of a prevention programme amongst African immigrant communities. “It's a first for the organisation,” LeMesurier says. “I do believe we can, just like the [UK-based] Terence Higgins Trust which is really similar – though they're three or four years ahead of us – they've got an African prevention programme which is a small part of what they do, compared with the majority which is their gay men.” So there's no chance of a lessening of services to the gay community this year. If anything, LeMesurier tends to turn the volume up some more. “One of the goals for 2006 is to raise the profile of what we do in our positive health programmes, to make people aware that there's a lot of resources and services available,” she says. “Not only for gay men, for free counselling, around anything to do with sexuality, or couples, or relationships, it's paid for – it's free. It doesn't have to be HIV-related. We're contracted to deliver that – as well as pre- and post-test HIV counselling, as well as those who have fears or anxieties around HIV. But we are contracted for gay men for sexuality issues, and relationship issues. So that's something that people don't know about.” The closure of Auckland's AIDS hospice, Herne Bay House, last year will see the Foundation this year helping to make people aware of what other services are available for positive people, in the form of respite care and social services. “A lot of HIV healthcare needs have been mainstreamed,” she says. “There's less HIV discrimination. It's still there, but there is less. So there may be respite establishments that we can train up to be far more aware around HIV, and that's the one that gets recommended for the Auckland region.” Although the Foundation is jointly administering with Rainbow Youth a programme for glbt people in schools (“Out There”), there are no plans for any visits to high schools. In an increasingly risky HIV environment, is LeMesurier concerned that there's a gap in the sex education curriculum? “No-one's talking to young gay men. They may be talking to them thinking they're heterosexual in school. But I think the problem is in individual schools, because there are schools that are talking about sexuality and diversity because it's in their curriculum. If they follow the curriculum, it's there.” STAFF CHANGES There have been some comings and goings at the Foundation this year. Several of its HIV counsellors moved onto private practice. LeMesurier is pragmatic about the changes. “I've always had that view, it's one of the roles that NGOs don't accept easily – we are always going to be feeding trained up experts out into the public sector and private sector, and they are just HIV/AIDS ambassadors wherever they go.” Policy analyst Emily White has moved on to pastures new. Manager of Administrative and Support Services Vivienne Javins, who has been with the Foundation for nearly 16 years, is about to do the same. “Emily was a special personality for us all, and added very much to the family feel here,” LeMesurier says. “And Vivienne – that's going to be major for us. We wish her the best with leaping off into private enterprise.” With all the troubles of 2005, did LeMesurier ever feel like packing it in herself? “No, never. Never had a point at all, throughout... maybe because there was a lot of stuff going on. Even in some of the most difficult times, there was good stuff. Wonderful staff here, you could get laughter in the middle of difficult times. Similarly, I've had good relationships with people on the board. So, no. And I want to be very much part of this organisation for a good number of years yet.” She still loves the job? “Love the job. Lucky. Lucky as hell.” Chris Banks - 27th January 2006    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Friday, 27th January 2006 - 12:00pm

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