ACON’s Young Gay Men’s Project has provided peer education workshops on HIV and sexual health to over 10,000 young gay and same-sex attracted men since 1988 – firstly under the name Fun & Esteem, and more recently rebranded as SPARK.

In 2018 the project turns 30, and as a lead up to the big year, Star Observer takes a look at the history of the project and the special place it has in the hearts of thousands of gay men in the Sydney community.

Beginning in 1988, the Young Gay Men’s Project was started as a response to the AIDS epidemic that hit Sydney hard in the 1980s and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1984. As one of ACON’s first projects, it mobilised the peer-based model of education, whereby health messaging was delivered in social spaces where young gay men were taught about HIV and sexual health by other young gay men.

In fact, the need for this sort of education back in the 80s and early 90s was paramount. One of the earliest project officers, Timothy Conigrave – author of Holding the Man, was part of the project before ultimately losing his life to AIDS.

As such, the aim of the project was to provide a safe, confidential, and non-judgmental space for young gays to learn about HIV and sexual health, and to simply meet other young gay guys without fear of persecution.

The project has also helped countless young gay guys when coming out to family and friends, and to form friendships that are still strong today.

As Ben M puts it: “To have found this workshop was such a relief. It was like a lifeboat in a storm. It provided education and most importantly, a group of likeminded people you could relate to. The group helped me connect to other young gay men and boost my self-esteem at one of the lowest times in my life.”

The format that most Fun & Esteem participants will remember is the workshops.

Facilitated by peer volunteers that have been trained by ACON, the workshops bring together a group of young gay gays to learn about HIV and sexual health, and to explore issues like coming out and what it means to be gay.

According to James Gray, Associate Director of Policy, Strategy and Research at ACON, the reason the project has seen over 10,000 guys go through its workshops is because it is run by peers for peers.

“The success of the Young Gay Men’s Project over the last 30 years rests on the shoulders of the volunteer facilitators. Many of whom, went through a workshop, had a life changing experience and decided to give back to the community by becoming a facilitator,” James says.

After many years as Fun & Esteem, The Young Gay Men’s Project identified a need to freshen up the feel.

As ACON’s Young Gay Men Community Health Promotion Officer ,Tim Wark explains: “Although Fun & Esteem has such a strong historical and cultural connection within the gay community in Sydney, the name no longer resonated with young same-sex attracted guys. In fact when we engaged consultation on the Fun & Esteem name, young same-sex attracted guys described it as sounding like a ‘church group’ or ‘school event.’

“In response to this feedback and in consultation with the community, we changed the name from Fun & Esteem to SPARK and responded to the growing need to engage online by increasing online engagement through Facebook and Grindr,” Tim says.

“While retaining its core groups for all young same-sex attracted guys, the project has responded to the specific needs of minority communities by developing a culturally specific workshop for guys from an Arabic and Middle Eastern background. We are also developing a workshop to be delivered in Mandarin.”

As the project approaches its 30 year anniversary we asked the two current project officers, Angus Molyneux and Harrison Sarasola: “What lies ahead?”

“One of our biggest challenges will be to explain to the community that there are now more ways to protect against HIV transmission than just condoms. With the advancement in medication we now have two extremely effective biomedical approaches to prevent HIV: PrEP and Undetectable Viral Loads. Though, it is still important that the guys understand that condoms and regular testing still remain the only way to protect yourself against STI’s.” Harrison says.

Angus added: “We need to make sure that our programs also cater to the diverse range of identities within our community. It is no longer as simple as gay men sleeping gay men, and as such, we need to make sure we represent this diversity and for guys to know that SPARK and the workshops we offer are for them as well.”

To find out more about SPARK, visit sparkonline.org.au.

So what are you waiting for? Get amongst it today by liking SPARK’s Facebook Page or contacting via email: spark@acon.org.au.

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