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Editorial: The complex Poster Boys problem

Sun 24 Feb 2008 In: Safe Sex View at Wayback View at NDHA

Over the past few days the New Zealand gay community has had to try to come to terms with the incredibly awkward situation brewing around the NZ AIDS Foundation's Safe Sex Poster Boys campaign. The NZAF's Safe Sex stars To recap, the accusation that one or more Poster Boys has been engaging in unsafe sex despite assuring the community that they each stand committed to safe sex and the use of condoms, has been working its way around the glbt communities for some weeks. The allegations included the suggestion that NZAF staffers had been made aware of the apparent hypocrisy some time ago and that one such 'staffer,' who we now understand may in fact not be on staff but is instead closely associated with the NZAF, had told the teenager making the original allegation not to spread it around. This week the allegations moved beyond the whispering grapevine when they emerged as a publicly accessible conversation thread in our Forum. The Foundation quite properly went on record in the Forum as taking all such allegations seriously and said it is investigating this particular matter, though it was not specific about when the investigation commenced. At that point also chose to take the matter seriously and report the situation to the wider community, knowing that the harsh spotlight of media and community scrutiny would not make anyone's position in the affair easier, but in line with our objective of keeping New Zealand's glbt communities informed and in touch in a timely and independent manner. While some difficult situations are better resolved in private, this cat was already half out of the bag and unlikely ever to be quietly pushed back in, such are the dynamics of the gay rumour mill and, more particularly, the internet age. That was our moment of difficult decision making more or less over. For the real players in this affair there is some way to go, and the going will not be easy and may not lead to a tidy or even equitable conclusion. As much as we are conditioned to strive for win/win outcomes, this may just not be possible here. For instance, will the teenager making the allegation of unsafe sex within a recent and brief relationship he had with a Poster Boy who had already committed to promoting safe sex for the NZAF be believed? Should he be believed? How can anything be proven short of video evidence or a confession of something from either party? If any unsafe sex was informed and consensual there might be a glimmer of an 'out,' except that the issue of public credibility joins the personal ethics around unsafe sex. The Poster Boy at the centre of the main allegation (there is also a claim on record that another Poster Boy has bragged about having unsafe sex but this editorial is focusing mainly on the most public allegation as being representative of any others) must be facing a difficult time. But his fellow Poster Boys are for the moment unfortunately also caught up in the controversy, as it would be unfair and unethical for any individual to be named, or effectively identified. In the public perception it could be any of them. And don't forget that in the cold light of day these are only allegations, so why should a fingered Poster Boy ever be named unless he can be proven 'guilty as charged.' For the AIDS Foundation many important issues are at stake. Was the campaign flawed because this eventuality couldn't ever be fully ruled out?  Did it do everything possible, or at least reasonable, to forestall this possibility?  And what of the person who is said to have told the complainant not to spread his allegation around. Was he or she callous or misquoted, or are there circumstances surrounding that conversation (and the allegation for that matter) that we are not, and can never be, privy to? Where will this all leave the Safe Sex Poster Boys campaign if, as seems all too likely, there is no clear and/or publicisable resolution? Can it maintain enough credibility to be effective? And if not, could the NZAF find the resources to create and deliver a replacement campaign within a reasonable timeframe? And will those regular critics of the NZAF be somehow proved right or wrong, or merely have a renewed license to keep up their criticisms? Beyond the parties directly involved, or indirectly affected by, this whole can of worms, there is the issue of personal commitment to safe sex. How many men who have sex with men can honestly say that they have never had a single unsafe sexual encounter in the twenty years since condoms were proven to be an effective barrier to the transmission of HIV? Might we come to understand that, rather than an epiphany followed by instant and enduring commitment, human nature means safe sex needs time and support to become an infallible habit? Which begs the question, is this alleged incidence of unsafe sex a pointer to what, despite the best efforts of all concerned, happens in the real world surrounding "use a condom every time" campaigns. And if it is, should the NZAF tweak its approach to preventing HIV transmission to include something like negotiated safety, which in places like Australia has not been the success some had wished. Public discussions of the nature of HIV and its epidemiology, of human nature and of the sexual imperative are discussions our communities must have from time to time. This may be one of those times. Men who have sex with men, including gay men, are these days far too isolated from the realities of contracting HIV and efforts to keep men safe from it. Those men bonking out on the fringes of any sense of gayness or community are even more oblivious. The Poster Boys campaign is part of a vital move to get us all more involved in the relentless fight against HIV and AIDS. Anyone pitching in to help further this currently unfashionable cause is to be commended. It will be a tragedy if the current controversy generates continued disillusionment and disconnection amongst gay men, five more of whom are identified as having contracted the virus right here in New Zealand every week, after week, after week, after week... [Update note, Monday 25 February, 4.00pm: The NZAF has subsequently reported that its investigations show the claim of unsafe sex by one of its Poster Boys was false and malicious. See Daily News for details] Jay Bennie - 24th February 2008    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 24th February 2008 - 12:08am

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