Helping Other HIV-Positive People Be Less Afraid, Less Ashamed and Less Lonely: Part 1 of the Nic Holas Interview
April 18, 2016
One of the top issues on my list of things to address in the coming months is to create a stronger dialogue surrounding meth. That includes creating more ways for people who are using but want to get help to get help -- or even just connect with others in the same boat -- and creating more options for those not using to participate in solving the problem. Finding ways for us to get people to stop ignoring the guy on Grindr who mentions he's partying. Just generally finding more ways to get more people involved. The more we talk about it, write about it, post about it, meet about it etc., the sooner change will happen.
The hard part, for me, has been figuring out how to go about this. Don't get me wrong, there are some terrific programs and groups in the U.S. already, but I want to find ways to expand on the established options or perhaps help enhance what is out there.
Some examples might be: Do we create catch phrases that use harm reduction techniques that guys can add to their profiles on sites like Grindr? Do we create a large scale campaign like NOH8 that faces the problem head on? We can't depend solely on Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) or rehab to get people out of the throes of addiction, so do we create other options or expand on what we have?
I think CMA and other 12-step programs/meetings are VITAL and VERY important. I think rehab facilities and all that they do are VITAL and AMAZING. But I feel like there aren't a lot of options OUTSIDE of these meetings or full-on rehab for guys who are using -- or even just for guys to connect and support each other, and maybe bring along a friend who's using who might be thinking about stopping.
It takes a lot to have the courage to be ready to attend a CMA meeting or check into rehab, but what if there was a group of guys recovering from meth that met on Friday nights to watch movies or something fun? Back when I was using and I wasn't ready for a CMA meeting, I might have been ready to hang out with those guys instead of using that night.
My friend Sean Strub sent me an email a few weeks ago and said, "You've got to check this out." I went to the linked site and I was like, "BAM, this is exactly what I'm talking about!" There's a group in Australia that is already doing exactly what I mentioned above and doing it well.
After thoroughly exploring the site, particularly the meth materials, I contacted the co-creator of the group, Nic Holas, to find out more and find out if he'd be interested in doing an interview with me. He said yes!
As humans, I believe we tend to focus on our bubble before any other bubble. To understand your work and your programs I think my American readers could learn from hearing about how another country handles the issues they face every day. So I'd love it if you could explain the differences and similarities between LGBT related issues in U.S. and Australia, in terms of the communities, the health care, support and government.
I love this question because it reminds me to be grateful for how good we have it in Australia. Our LGBTIQ community is protected from discrimination by law (passed in 2008), we have a number of openly gay politicians, and a trans woman recently came very close to being named Australian of the Year. LGBTIQ people live openly in cities, towns and the outback, and we are slowly rolling back outdated laws that target us or adjusting laws to include us on issues such as adoption. Most states have squashed old convictions of men who were arrested for homosexual activity back when it was still illegal, for example, so they no longer have a criminal record. However, HIV criminalization is still an issue.
That being said, we still don't have marriage equality, which is quite frankly bizarre and very frustrating. For me, it's frustrating because it's a movement I struggle with, and the longer it takes to achieve, the harder it is for us to work on other issues. Add to that, we continue to struggle with ending the HIV epidemic (75% of HIV-positive people in Australia are gay men/men who have sex with men), and only very recently have our trans and intersex communities started to be recognized and supported. Like anywhere, we experience violence, discrimination from religious organizations, unfair targeting from police and exclusion from parts of society, and we are disproportionately affected by depression, suicide and problematic use of alcohol and other drugs.
We have universal health care, and I have to say that's one thing that makes life in Australia very different from the U.S. Our response to HIV has also been quite different from the U.S.', and while I think we maybe congratulate ourselves a little too much (it's not over!), we really were one of the world leaders during the AIDS crisis.
Why? It's a combination of a few things. First there was the sheer luck of geography. We are very far away from NYC and San Fran, and although a lot of Australian gay men were visiting both places, our distance created a small time lag before the start of the epidemic. We also have a fraction of the population, which helped.
However, the real key to our success came down to empowering the affected communities and the political leaders of the time -- refusing to let moral judgements about those communities prevent them from receiving support. It helped that the government of the day was the Labor Party (our version of the Democrats) but amazingly, the response to AIDS was a bi-partisan commitment from both sides of politics. That's impossible to imagine today and unimaginable in the U.S. between the Republicans and the Democrats.
Australia moved quickly, and the key populations (gay men, people who inject drugs, and sex workers) were all supported by government policy and community organizing. It didn't happen overnight, but needle exchange programs were rolled out for injecting drug users, and sex workers were empowered to use condoms and demand that their clients wear them. As a result, not a single transmission of HIV from sex worker to client has occurred in Australia.
When HIV treatments changed in 1996, we slowly started to see a decline in AIDS-related deaths. Now, AIDS is virtually non-existent in Australia, and we've stopped publishing the number of deaths because it's so few. HIV is still an issue; rates have started to level off, but we had a few years of increases, but treatment uptake is high and we're close to getting PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] included in universal health care (currently a lot of guys order it online, or get it as part of a trial).
Tell me a bit about yourself and where you see yourself in five years.
I am a writer, and an HIV activist who lives in Sydney. I was born here, but I didn't grow up here. We moved around a lot and I spent a significant part of my childhood in Malaysia. I come from a big blended family, and I'm lucky because I also see my queer and poz communities as a family. We certainly argue like a family! I started out wanting to be a theater director and playwright, and I did that for a few years before suffering an artistic crisis of feeling as if it wasn't "enough." It turned out I just needed to be a part of work I'm proud of, and I still get to do that sometimes in between the writing and activism. I've also done sex work, which I think is important to acknowledge, as there is still a lot of shame associated with that industry.
My days are so varied, which I love because I don't do so well going to the same place every day to do the same job. Some days I'm jumping on a plane to contribute to an HIV event/talk/workshop somewhere, other days see me sitting in my little writing room -- which has a big window looking out to the world -- in which I work on an article or column (and when I am disciplined, my book). Wherever I am, I am definitely connected to the Internet because the most significant part of my activism is running The Institute of Many's (TIM) digital gathering spaces for the HIV-positive community.
In five years' time, either I will have gotten better at saying no to things and asking more people for help, or I'll be in a coma. The last few years of being an activist have been incredibly rewarding, as well as rather challenging.
Tell me about how The Institute of Many came about and what it means to you.
The Institute of Many started in late 2012, at a weekend workshop for newly diagnosed HIV-positive guys in Sydney, at a place called ACON (which is sort of our GMHC or SF AIDS Foundation). I met an American guy named Jeff Lange, who like me was about three weeks in since diagnosis. Some of the other guys had been living with HIV for over two years, but only just starting to acknowledge they had to deal with it. Others were consumed by fear around disclosing their status to anyone, and others still hadn't had sex for months. Jeff and I both felt differently, and despite both being very new to HIV, felt we were kind of on top of it all.
That didn't make us feel superior to anyone in the room, but it did make us realize that if we could feel that way about our HIV status, then that was a privileged position to be in. I'm a big believer in paying rent on your privilege, so we started to dream up ways to help other HIV-positive people be less afraid, less ashamed and less lonely. What that looks like today are multiple digital spaces and meet-up chapters under the TIM banner, which people living with HIV engage with based on their needs: For some people it's just a Facebook group they check every once in a while, or use to ask a question when one comes up, for others, our events are the only place where they'll be openly HIV-positive. Other people believe in TIM as if it's a movement, and say it has changed their lives.
TIM has certainly changed my life. As the co-founder who does most of the public-facing work, I unfairly get most of the credit for TIM's success, but in truth TIM works because everyone involved is committed to challenging the way the world thinks about HIV. A lot of people think TIM's done great work at shifting the public's perception of HIV, but I'm more proud to witness HIV-positive people shift their perception of themselves as a result of joining TIM.
TIM seems to be consistently growing, but it's still just a group of like-minded individuals. After reading the TIM values I would argue that they are values that every LGBT person should adopt, far and wide, to really make change and to bring us closer to ending new infections and diminishing all of the various problems facing our community. How do we get everyone on that same page?
Oh man, somedays I wish TIM was a group of like-minded individuals! It would make my job a lot easier. The only thing TIM members have in common is their HIV status, and part of the reason it works is because all these different people from all walks of life come together and discover just how differently other people see the world. The TIM Values came about because some people in the group were being so combative, and forgetting that a fellow human being was on the other side of the screen.
So, we asked everyone to respond to a series of questions based on key issues affecting the HIV-positive community, as well as the topics we knew always caused an endless, futile argument. How people responded informed those values. We don't ask that the people who join TIM adhere to those values and make them their own, as people's lived experiences are so diverse, but we do refer to them as a way to curb discussions that turn into endless arguments.
I'm not sure we'll ever get the LGBTIQ community on the same page. More than ever, there is greater disparity between various parts of the community when it comes to power, visibility and access. The closer certain groups get to acceptance (and power), the greater their disdain for others in the queer rainbow. I'm ashamed of how my fellow gay men can be so quick to turn their backs on other gay men who pose a threat to the new target of "respectability." How lesbians and gay men exclude and invalidate the experiences of trans people and bisexuals. The list goes on.
I can't remember who said it, but just before the U.S. achieved marriage equality, a gay man remarked in the media that once they had that "what more was there to do?" I mean, a black man has a 60% chance of acquiring HIV before turning 30, and some folks are so terrified of trans people using the "right" bathroom they are demanding x-rays be installed to check the gender of anyone using it, but by all means, put your feet up!
It's hard to make people care about something that doesn't affect them. However, the more people that stand up and say "I'm poz" or "I'm trans" or "I use drugs," etc., and not as a cry for help but as a shout to announce that they are there, that they exist, then the harder it gets for others to pretend that they don't see them.
Stay tuned for the second half of my interview with Nic where we really delve into Turning Tina as well as talk about creating a group like TIM here in America!
|Wizards of Poz, the Turning Tina Campaign and The Institute of Many (TIM): Part 2 of the Nic Holas Interview|
|More HIV Activist Profiles and Personal Accounts|
Wizards of Poz, the Turning Tina Campaign and The Institute of Many (TIM): Part 2 of the Nic Holas Interview
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