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Ushering in change for people with HIV - Pt 2

Sun 3 May 2015 In: Health and HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

In Part 1 of this interview with the new head of NZ largest HIV-positive men's peer support and advocacy organisation, Body Positive, Mark Fisher explained who he is and his path to the BP corner office. Now he talks about his hopes for change and development and the personal loss which drives him to improve the lives of people with HIV. Body Positive General Manager Mark Fisher It's clear that Fisher wants to bring HIV positive people out of the closet and to provide a geographically wider range of services. But it's unlikely public funding will automatically increase to pay for his plans. Fisher says he will have to develop awareness, education, leadership and community fundraising. “A lot of the feedback that I've had is that Body Positive is very Auckland-centric and so the rest of the country gets left behind. There's a need for support in areas like the South Island and Northland where their own group closed down and now there's isn't a lot of support there. There is a lot of opportunity there in terms of reaching out to the rest of the HIV community and providing stuff to them.” Body Positive, historically an Auckland-centred organisation, is about the only formal HIV peer-support and advocacy organisation focused on gay and bi men left standing. Over the years most other similar organisations throughout the country faded away for a variety of reasons including burn-out. But it costs money to be in a number of places. BP's new-ish Wellington satellite office has settled in but it receives no formal funding for it, it's costs are covered from cobbled-together funds. FUNDRAISING “One of the things I did for People With AIDS [an organisation he became associated with in Canada] was a bike rally as a fundraiser. Around fifteen years ago they were struggling, they were going to go under and a group of guys got together and did a ride from Toronto to Montreal, about 600km, and they raised $42,000 that PWA needed to survive to the next year. I got involved with that in about 2005, just after my partner passed away due to HIV, and that's when I joined up with the bike rally. I got involved with it, started raising money then I got onto their executive and their board. Last year they raised $1,500,000 for PWA. It raises huge awareness... there was one day when we all dressed in red, riding through the countryside in the middle of nowhere and all these people came out onto the side of the road and cheered us on. It's just a huge success in terms of raising awareness and money. "I don't see any of that kind of stuff here. I don't see community fundraisers going on for Body Positive. I see them for the SPCA or prostate cancer or for all these other things. World AIDS Day has a street collection but there are no other events around it... the Sky Tower doesn't turn red for World AIDS Day, all these things have disappeared like it's become underground.” AWARENESS Why has that lowering of the profile of HIV/AIDS and the people with the virus happened? And how is Fisher going to change that? After all, it's pretty clear that most people think HIV is not a problem any more. “Yes, most people think that, it's [because of] the media, or some media at least,” he laughs. “People aren't dying as often from HIV and that's a message the drug companies would really like you to see, [though] I don't see the drug messaging here as I do overseas where you will have a billboard on the side of a bus with someone at a barbecue saying 'One pill a day and everything is fine.' But that's the message that's coming down. “People with HIV are having to live with HIV and take all the medications, and not just the [specifically] HIV medications but all the other medications, it's a huge issue. I would go with my [previous] partner to the emergency room at the hospital and take his huge bag of pills and they would go through them because he was seeing so many doctors and we were going through all the issues that were going wrong with him because we were dealing with his deep vein thrombosis and renal failure all this other stuff and the nurse was like: 'Have you forgotten to tell me anything?' and I would go, 'Oh yes, HIV!' Because the HIV itself was just a small piece of things at that point.” The memories well up for Fisher and he looks down; a big, robust man with a piercing gaze and authoritative presence, he is caught out by emotions so strong tears well up and he is lost for words. He swallows, takes a deep breath, looks up and continues with a slightly wavering voice. “So, any chance of changing that... a good example was the previous Big Gay Outs, where the HIV organisations had stopped going to it. Body Positive and Positive Women used to be involved but they got out of it a few years ago because they weren't getting any benefit from it. “This year I didn't want to have a tent handing out flyers. So we set up a positive-friendly lounge. A place where people can come and feel comfortable, get into some shade, can socialise and mingle, they don't have to be positive, they just have to be supportive of positive people so people aren't being outed by being there. Friendly and visible... raising visibility.” EDUCATION AND LEADERSHIP If funds are scarce there are other ways of at least partially filling the gap, according to Fisher. “One of the things we have just signed up for is to become a partner in the Positive Learning Development Institute, a initiative which started in Canada and is now in Melbourne. It's a way of training leaders from people working with HIV. You go through the course and it builds to the point where you have a network of peers who have become trained and engaged. So that will actually help me to create a network of peer support across the country. Even though I can't get an office somewhere I'll still have a network across the country which is led by people with HIV. So if I get somebody in, say, Whangarei who comes up as HIV-positive they will have somebody they can connect with. We don't need to have an office in Whangarei because of volume but I do still have a need in terms of individuals." In New Zealand we tend to be uneasy with people coming from overseas telling us what we should be doing, is there a possibility that that might be a stumbling block for Fisher, an Australian coming in via Canada? “Possibly. But regarding HIV, I went through it with my partner of eight years. He was positive the entire time I knew him. I lived through that with him. I have a passion around HIV from that experience which I hope I can bring to the table. I'll always defer to the fact that I am not HIV positive and that is one of the things that scares me in terms of being the head and voice of Body Positive. But I will always go to the board, who are all positive, and say what I want to do and see if it is supported. I'll be using HIV-positive people in an advisory capacity to make sure I'm on the right track.” And will it worry him that people may assume that he is HIV positive? “It doesn't worry me and it shouldn't matter. It doesn't matter. And as for the 'foreigner' thing, people want expertise... some of the things I come up with some people may not like, but unless you try you never know.” Jay Bennie - 3rd May 2015    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 3rd May 2015 - 8:26pm

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