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NZAF Board: Keep the gay heart, let them speak

Thu 3 Aug 2006 In: HIV

What a unique organisation the New Zealand AIDS Foundation is. It is a charitable trust composed of staff who are also members. This is unusual; few organisations allow staff to have voting influence over the composition of, and decisions of, the board that is their employer. It is an organisation that has, famously, gone "from grass roots to business suits." Started, in the main, by gay men for gay men, almost all of the early work was carried out by volunteers. Now, almost all is by paid staff. Yet, even with the increasing professionalism of those staff - needed to manage a national health promotion and support organisation dealing with an increasingly complex epidemic - it remains an organisation that attracts people (straight and gay) with passion. Many of the staff could earn far more performing similar work for private or government organisations. At the other end of the scale, some staff have found an effective place in the organisation in spite of coming with little in the way of formal qualifications or even schooling. What they have brought is a lifetime of experience of living in those communities most affected by HIV and AIDS - most notably men who have sex with men. It is an organisation dealing with one of the single biggest global epidemics in the history of the world, an epidemic where millions still die. Even here in New Zealand, blessed with one of the more successful responses to the HIV epidemic in the world, the boundary between a manageable epidemic and an HIV explosion is perilously maintained and continually at risk of blowing out. Indeed, some might argue the latest HIV figures suggest a breakout has occurred and that, unless a new (or is that renewed?) radical change in behaviour among gay men is achieved, is now unstoppable. And it is an organisation that battles this perilous line with little increase (in real terms) of Government funding, and still, in many ways, within a climate of oppression, discrimination and opposition - it's pro gay, pro-sexual approach earning it the suspicion and outright opposition from some sections of society (including some of our leaders) to this day. All the more important then, that the NZAF remains effective in its twin roles of preventing HIV and supporting those living with, or affected by, the virus. And, to a huge extent, that effectiveness is driven by its leadership and the constitution within which those leaders - elected or appointed - must operate. The pending constitutional review of the Foundation is, therefore, an issue every New Zealander should concern themselves with - particularly gay men whose lives and loves were at its beginning and are still at its heart. My particular concern is with two issues. Should the Foundation be solely by and for gay men and should staff, as employees, also have voting membership of the trust? In a small country like New Zealand, there is good reason to support the concept of one, effective, well-funded HIV/AIDS organisation under the umbrella of which various sub-sections can operate according to the needs presented by the epidemic as it evolves in this country. Indeed, we effectively have that now. While the Foundation has, for the most part, remained uncontrovertibly an organisation driven by and for gay and bisexual men, especially with its health promotion focus, it has expanded its support services to encompass all those living with or affected by HIV, regardless of sexuality, gender, race or creed. It has also successfully encompassed and/or supported human rights and HIV prevention programmes for such diverse groups as injecting drug users and sex workers, while at the same time supporting some of the best gay human rights campaigns this country has seen. And, most recently, its health promotion programmes have encompassed the African programme working on HIV prevention and support for the next biggest risk group in New Zealand outside of MSM - heterosexual African immigrants and refugees - and it has successfully advocated for national HIV screening of pregnant women. Throughout most of this time, but especially recently, the Foundation has also been a global voice of influence, particularly on HIV and gay human rights advocacy in the Pacific. But overseas experience suggests that when AIDS organisations have expanded to become all encompassing there is a risk, a high risk, that such expansion is at the cost of their founders - gay and bisexual men - who have become forgotten or marginalised in their own organisation. Indeed it's now hard to hear or even see the gay men's voice at global HIV conferences where once they were the drivers of the international response when mainstream groups wouldn't listen. Like it or not, politicians, philanthropists, health authorities and the like will always have more interest in a heterosexual health issue than a homosexual one. It's not just about prejudice, discrimination or even institutional homophobia - though all of these things are involved - it simply boils down to a numbers game. If we are to have a true New Zealand AIDS Foundation (as opposed to an exclusively Gay male AIDS Foundation) it must be so structured that there is no risk of it ever losing its heart, its foundation and its primary focus - men who have sex with men. I was impressed with a statement at the annual meeting, something along the lines of: "The Foundation can encompass the needs of other groups affected by HIV only from a position of strength and support for its foundation, which is gay and bi sexual men. It is only when we know who we are, and are strong in who we are, and put in place measures to retain, support and strengthen who we are, that we can then invite others to join us." So, I believe in a whole of New Zealand AIDS Foundation, but only if there is absolutely no loss in focus, energy, commitment and funding to its primary purpose, the prevention of HIV among men who have sex with men and the support of those men living with or affected by the virus. The risk, in aiming for this ideal, is that energy devoted to other needs of the HIV epidemic will draw away from, rather than add to, the heart of the Foundation. That must not be allowed to happen and setting the gay heart of the Foundation securely in place in its constitution would be one way to ensure that it doesnít. I believe that if we were to seek to redirect the Foundation back to a wholly and exclusively gay organisation, we would run an even bigger risk of destroying it. In the current global and even local political climate, an exclusively gay AIDS organisation runs a real risk of being marginalized and forgotten. As a prominent journalist said to me not so long ago, when I was advocating for a gay-focussed HIV story and complaining that her organisation's coverage had focused on six babies with HIV and not even mentioned the more than 80 gay men also infected that year: "Quite frankly Steve, gay men and HIV is just not news!" Properly done, an umbrella organisation can strengthen its gay component, not weaken it. It's up to us to make sure it is properly done. Finally, the staff issue. I can't say it any better than Jay Bennie has already said in his GayNZ.com editorial. The field of those who care and who have the skills is too small to exclude their voices from the decision making process. NZAF staff have remained the constant in this epidemic even when, on a very few occasions, their leaders have strayed. Their constancy, their passion and their commitment must be allowed to remain as a voting influence on the leadership of the Foundation. It is up to us, if we want to be sure that the 40 or so staff don't have disproportionate influence, to join and maintain our membership of the Foundation. To be active in our support and to contribute to the process. The silver lining to the board's constitutional controversy last year was a boost in membership as gay men joined, or re-joined, in order to ensure they could have their say and to make the board listen. They succeeded. Let's capitalise on that energy in a positive way and not allow ourselves to lapse back into inactivity or complacency. With the HIV figures the way they are, we can't afford to. Note: Auckland-based media professional Steve Attwood was, until four months ago, the communications and media coordinator within the NZ AIDS Foundation. Before that he was the Foundation's Christchurch-based health promoter. He was amongst those staff members who spoke at last year's AGM, accusing the then-Board of misrepresenting the Foundation's operational commitment to assisting non-gay HIV initiatives. Steve Attwood - 3rd August 2006    

Credit: Steve Attwood

First published: Thursday, 3rd August 2006 - 12:00pm

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