Friday's announcement of the redundancy, after sixteen years of sterling commitment to HIV prevention, of Douglas Jenkin, underlines just how little the NZAF now values experience, passion and first hand knowledge of the people it is supposed to reach out to and save from HIV infection. Jenkin, whose appointment three years ago as Campaigns Coordinator always seemed to be a manipulative sidelining away from his prime area of expertise, was one of the few people left at the Foundation who was personally and professionally steeped in the culture of horny gay and bi kiwi men at risk of contracting HIV. What Douglas Jenkin doesn't know about our sexual drives and cultures and horny bits frankly isn't worth knowing.
It's also hard to escape the conclusion that Jenkin, a charming and down to earth individual who doesn't need to resort to the jargon of the latest marketing trends to formulate and communicate his perspectives, might be leaving the Foundation with a certain sense of relief, if disturbing reports of interactions between him and senior staff are to be believed. He was increasingly a talented, passionate and knowledgeable square peg in a round, corporatised, cookie-cutter health promotion hole.
The NZAF, in deciding that it no longer has a place for Jenkin, has lost one of New Zealand's foremost experts in our rich tapestry of male sexual cultures, at a time when his unflinching insights and community relationships are sorely needed.
This deterioration was not helped when the NZAF's Executive Director recently chose to report, to a one day catch-up forum run for HIV-interested health professionals from around the country, on the dangers of HIV transmission for women engaging in anal sex. What relevance this has to our actual New Zealand epidemic, when the vast majority of locally contracted infections are amongst gay and bisexual pakeha men, eluded everyone.
Earlier this year, the Foundation's head office prevention team gathered most of the nation's sex on site venue operators together to sign off on a proposed venue accreditation programme. It transpired that a number of the accreditation provisions being proposed were in fact needed to compensate for the NZAF's own internal management weaknesses. And the Foundation admitted the venues were already generally doing a fine job of supporting health, safety and safe-sex imperatives. It was unanimously told to go away and put its own house in order before trying to lord it over the venues.
And how our primary HIV prevention organisation managed to run out of condoms in Auckland on the eve of the busy Christmas/New Year holiday period (yes, condoms, the base of all HIV prevention initiatives for 25 years and which the NZAF is contracted by the Ministry of Health to distribute to at risk groups) had those who became aware of the snafu shaking their heads in wonder.
Sadly, in recent years many sexually active gay and bi men have come to see the threat of contracting HIV as less of an imperative in their lives, less relevant to them. At the same time the NZAF has not managed to keep itself sufficiently relevant to either its target market or the community organisations and individuals with which for years it had close and generally supportive relationships.
From the whole of Auckland only a reporter, from GayNZ.com, actually turned up to its important Strategic Planning public forum. The Wellington forum was just as bad. Sure, a few people appear to have emailed in some observations on the draft plan - which will set the Foundation's course for the next five years - but no one could actually be bothered getting off their arses to connect in person with the NZAF.
First advised, and shown the evidence, almost eighteen months ago that an enterprising sex on site venues patron had managed to clearly identify a hitherto unidentifiable group of barebacking devotees frequenting venues and aggressively using the internet to hookup and lure in vulnerable men for unsafe sex (the HIV predator Glenn Mills was amongst their number), the NZAF has yet to respond. Despite all of its national and Auckland prevention management and workers - and a few other senior staffers as well - being asked for advice and assistance on how to address the situation appropriately, and several reminders and pleas for advice, there has been not one bit of feedback... other than a brief acknowledgment that "it's a difficult issue."
Well, yes. If it had been simple the venue could have probably addressed the problem (or opportunity) itself. That venue is now consulting with and employing its own independent advisers to formulate a response to this problem which is surely also an opportunity.
New Zealand's complex, passionate and connected core glbt community seems to be increasingly given short shrift (actual quote from a senior NZAF staffer: "What community!") and to be increasingly and simplistically seen as obstructive. Yet the vibrant and sometimes unruly tangle of interrelationships we call our communities still encompasses many of the impressive resources brought to bear during the first two decades of the epidemic. The NZAF increasingly treats these people and resources as unhelpful to its objectives, as something to be countered, managed, manipulated... or ignored.
The Foundation's relationships with the independent and not easily manipulated or cowed gay media range from perfunctory to toxic. Its use of the gay, or any other, media to place its campaigns in recent times has been fleeting and almost invisible. And although every one of its press releases and activities is covered in the gay media its Executive Director recently complained in her blog - initially and imperiously titled 'From The Top' - that "no matter how many press releases we send out to the gay media it can still look like we have nothing to say or appear at best inane or bland." Memo to Exec. Dir.: Try objectively reviewing your press releases for content, style and originality.
Large sums poured into a much-trumpeted re-vamped NZAF web presence have produced a range of sites with pleasing layouts, stultifying content and seeming little relevance to the actual lives of gay and bi men. At last check its Sexpert Q&As are running at 14 specifically relating to gay and bi men and 27 to straight people. Once again, who is still primarily contracting and passing on HIV in this country? Where is the problem? And how often do any of the ever expanding team of NZAF communications and digital media 'experts' visit their Bro Online site to update its content? Anyone want to go to the May 22 Phoenix Party?
These are only a few examples, there is much more in this vein, generally whispered around our communities by an increasing number of professional and committed people who feel reticent about going public with their concerns. The NZAF, in particular its management and prevention team, have become the elephant in the room of HIV awareness and education. This cannot go on.
There is also, thankfully, a brighter side. The Foundation continues to have centres of remarkable excellence. Its counseling and testing arms are highly respected. Its research and library services are remarkable. It plays a useful role in promoting good health in people living with HIV.
But it's primarily the national prevention section, the main focus of all the upsetting staff and structural changes in recent years, which seems dysfunctional from top to bottom. Because of this the NZAF is increasingly seen as aloof, disorganised, overly-wedded to process and flow charts and increasingly staffed by people with wonderfully CV-pumping job titles but little grass roots knowledge of gay and bi sexual cultures, and with little natural flair for working within our communities.
Amongst long-time Foundation observers a suspicion is growing that while a succession of previous Foundation Trust Boards were focused on minimising fallout from a series of inflammatory and politically charged initiatives, and undertaking the massive job of reconstructing the Foundation's Trust deed, some ill-conceived and as yet unclear agenda was quietly slipped into the operations of the Foundation.
If the management of the NZ AIDS Foundation cannot address this issue then the current trustees, a largely new group of highly experienced and capable people, will surely have to act to stop the creeping rot. If the board cannot do the job the observations and recommendations of the still much-anticipated HIV Services Review might just force a complete re-think on everybody concerned.
25 years into the HIV epidemic amongst gay and bi men in New Zealand we need to be getting this kind of thing right.
- Jay Bennie
[Note: GayNZ.com is a primarily volunteer-driven not for profit community initiative. Jay Bennie is GayNZ.com's co-publisher and owns an Auckland sex on site venue.]