art-353-aids-Geoff-Honnor-300x0“So if this is the best job in the Australian HIV sector, why are you leaving?”

Fair question, I thought. Though the slight but discernible note of -‘gotcha!’ – was a tad irritating.

‘Well, mainly because the sector is awash in bright, talented young people who shouldn’t have to wait till they’re my age to demonstrate it.’

‘Right, so what’s the real reason?’

Here’s what I’ve learned: if you’re after a quiet life, never use selflessness as the rationale when announcing your intention to leave the best job in the Australian HIV sector, six months before your contract renewal date.

In fact, don’t say anything at all until you absolutely have to. You’ll find very quickly that people think an ‘announcement’ is an inexplicably weird and disturbing thing to do and possibly related to being sprung engaging in the sort of unspeakable goings on that elderly folk should eschew.

On the admittedly sparse upside, announcement provides an unbeatable backsliding prophylaxis.  You can’t really say, ‘those bright, talented young people? I’ve reconsidered. They can wait. In fact, they can eat my shorts. Seventy is the new sixty.’

By the time I did depart (1 November) it felt totally right to do so, but there had been moments when I’d have reconsidered in a heartbeat had the die not been so publicly cast back in February/March.

If I singled out the most memorable moment of the three tumultuous years that encompassed my tenure as ACON Director HIV Sexual Health, it might surprise some.

It wasn’t the launch of Ending HIV – ground-breaking moment though that was – nor the launch of a [TEST]. It wasn’t having my arm clutched by a breathless queen when I arrived at Fair day 2013 who cried, “Oh my God. The ACON stall! I haven’t seen anything so erotic in years.” I did quicken my pace but it turned out to be the Ending HIV sandwich board boys and the Tradies oiling up; basically, what you’d see at Bondi, albeit with marginally more tats.

No, it was actually an event that took place in the last weeks of my incumbency. It’s October and we’re upstairs at the Colombian, on the ‘kiss of crowd pulling death’ that Monday is generally assumed to be. Yet, lo! Dozens of erudite, opinionated gay guys are engaging with a whole range of deeply ‘dangerous’ topics from bare-backing to the lived realties of HIV.

A glamorous panel – Kane Race, Lance Schema and Jonny Seymour – has assembled to share insights and I’m kind of facilitating an interactive dialogue between panel and crowd. Engagement is passionate, sometimes funny, but never heated or rancorous and is basically a reprise of the inaugural discussion that took place at the Oxford a month or so earlier.

The Panel on that occasion included Michael Yates from the ACON Young Gay Men’s Team, Ian Down from the Kirby Institute and the brave and erudite Nic Holas.  

At the end of the session an older guy came up to me and said, ‘thanks. I’d given up hope of being able to participate in a constructive dialogue about this stuff in Sydney. ‘   I told him any and all thanks were owed to the guys in the room. “We just created the space.’

So…. what’s so remarkable about a couple of community forums?  Firstly, the subject matter: in what little public discussion there’s been about say, bare-backing, a nuanced understanding has generally been missing in action.

Secondly, the fact that gay men were prepared to engage so constructively – and honestly – about bare-backing, drugs and sex, the role of condoms and the end of the unbeatable prevention incentive that presented in a pre-treatment HIV diagnosis was pretty much eye-misting stuff as far as I was concerned.

Before we could engage and mobilise gay men to end HIV we had to reinvent the way we engaged with gay men, so Ending HIV grew out of concepts brainstorming following a year of shredding our gay men’s engagement framework and rebuilding from the ground up on peer principles.

This simply means acknowledging that our ‘expertise’ is in being gay men who live, love and fuck in our community with an ability and interest in offering informed harm/risk reduction advice to that community. It’s our point of difference and also our advantage.

It also means that the issues at the heart of the Ending HIV initiative were thoroughly dissected by the gay men’s engagement team as part of a ‘cultural journey’ shift to questioning and challenging as a way of delivering a more dynamic form of engagement. The idea was that this would, in turn, provoke a much more honest and informed community discussion….hence the Colombian eye-misting……..

That journey is now for others to lead and while there’s no guarantee in respect of the endpoint, it’s eminently attainable.

The adage that goes, ‘if you’re too risk averse to chance failure you’ll never succeed’ has some resonance here and frankly, if there’s a viable alternative to the combination prevention underpinnings of Ending HIV, its proponents haven’t exactly been forthcoming .

One thing that does emerge with crystalline clarity is this: there is nowhere in the developed world in comparable epidemic settings, driven by sex between men where a sole focus on condom reinforcement is delivering a sustained decline in HIV transmission.

Sounds like a great topic for a community forum….

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