Pascal Demaria was a shy 19-year-old, unfamiliar with the pace of Sydney life, when he arrived here last year. And a lack of information was the major obstacle Demaria faced in trying to get a feeling for the local gay community.

I hadn’t really heard about ACON -¦ and I wasn’t really reading gay newspapers, says the New Caledonian.

So, like many before him, Demaria turned to ACON’s Fun and Esteem project for an introduction to gay life.

A friend of mine told me about it, and it was good because I wasn’t especially out and I was a bit timid, and not really aware of what the gay community was about.

Ben Tunstall, a Youth Education Officer with the project, says, Most of our referrals come from word of mouth, so people who have done the group go out and meet someone -¦ and if they see that the guy is young, they always seem to refer them to us.

Since completing the introductory Start Making Sense workshop, Demaria has continued to rely on the services Fun and Esteem provides.

I’m part of a community, and I need to know what’s around and maybe it’s here that there’s the best information about what’s going on in the gay community, especially with sexual health.

To add to this feeling of community, ACON’s proximity to Oxford Street means that clients can get a sense of gay life there after sessions, says Tunstall.

Since its d?t in 1988, Fun and Esteem has seen some 4,000 clients pass through its doors. The service’s longevity also means that its focus has broadened from being a sexual health-based resource to providing other services.

A lot more young guys who make contact with our service for the first time have some level of knowledge about safe sex, so there’s more room to explore other issues, Tunstall says.

These include health issues as they relate to relationships and self-esteem. Because there’s been a high incidence of sero- conversion amongst young gay men in relationships, to combat that we do more work in negotiating sex in a relationship.

The premise is if you boost a young person’s self-esteem, they’re more likely to better manage their health.

The breadth of these services stands in contrast to the initial focus of Fun and Esteem. As part of a one-year commonwealth initiative in peer education, the project began with a definite aim.

Brent Mackie, who worked with the project until 1994, says that Fun and Esteem originated as a safe-sex education program.

The project was unexpectedly popular, says Mackie. The result? People wanted to continue meeting, and there was no youth group at the time, and it just snowballed from there.

And even if the concerns of Fun and Esteem’s clients have shifted somewhat since then, its clients still recognise it as an important youth forum.

However, the services Fun and Esteem provides don’t necessarily extend to a wide range of gay youth. Tunstall concedes that the project’s clients are usually from a certain background.

Often they’re students, middle-class guys, who are comfortable with entering into a place like this, and they understand the concept of ACON and what we’re trying to do.

And attempts to address this imbalance have not always been successful, Ben says.

We’re always trying to target different guys, disadvantaged young people, but because we’re so busy targeting this group, we don’t have a great deal of time to branch out and target other guys.

Despite this difficulty, a number of new, more wide-reaching projects are being considered. Chief among these is a survey aimed at HIV-positive gay men under the age of 26, which may develop into a project in its own right.

Also, says Tunstall, We’ve got a better relationship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander project -¦ so we’re targeting more Koori boys.

We’re using the skills we’ve learned in Fun and Esteem to target young lesbians as well.

In a community so often labelled fickle, 14 years and counting is no mean feat for any organisation. As Fun and Esteem concerns itself more with providing accessible and representative services, it should be able to look forward to many more anniversaries.

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