Steven Oates chaired a panel discussion in which two gay men, a social worker and a straight woman discussed their fascinating and at times heart-wrenching personal experiences of HIV and the history of the epidemic. The stories were moving and enlightening.
GALS sang songs and the almost three-hour long event ended in a spirit of companionship and shared passion for HIV.
But there was a major problem, exemplified by this particular well-crafted event but by no means limited to it. Setting aside those who were part of the organising group or formally involved in the evening such as Ahakoa Te Aha, GALS members and the panelists there was hardly a gay or bisexual man in the room.
Lots of women, a central core of people who have shown long-term and on-going commitment to HIV prevention and support... but of the group which constitute some 80% of historical and new HIV infections, at a time when the number of new HIV infections amongst them is at its highest ever, hardly a gay or bisexual man of any age, race or culture turned up.
Why was this?
It has become increasingly clear that in recent years, in fact for a decade or more, those most at risk of contracting HIV in New Zealand are not engaging enough in the discourse about, and realities of, an infection which could sabotage the rest of their lives.
World AIDS Day is about acknowledging HIV, about resolving to more effectively address it and to show support for those already infected. Year after year the street collection, the latest of which will be held in a small handful of centres tomorrow, has generated less and less money. Year after year the NZAF calls for volunteers but if it wasn't for the stalwart women of MAC cosmetics the numbers of buckets on, for example, Auckland's busiest and most lucrative thoroughfare, Queen Street, would be negligible.
Perhaps it's early days yet but yesterday's 'bake a cake' fundraising event at an Auckland shop, part of a new concept fronted by Auckland's Miss Ribena and Suzanne Paul, likewise seems not to have had much reach out into actual gay and bi men.
Complacency, fatigue, invisibility, disaffection, 'unconnectedness,' irrelevance, lack of passion, whatever the cause it's time we as a community, and our gay an bi men in particular, looked deep and hard at our attitudes and how we approach the HIV epidemic in our midst. We seem to be missing the primary target.
If those who are most at risk of contracting HIV, and who are doing so year by year in increasing numbers, are not involved or interested then all the hard work for World AIDS Day is at best creating an opportunity for those already committed to HIV prevention and support to reaffirm their commitment.
As the infection rate soars year on year, as political leaders and health funders look the other way, as more and more of our gay and bi brothers for reasons increasingly unknown become infected by HIV, it's scary how many of our gay and bi brothers are almost invisible, untouched and unmoved, even at the one time of the year when visibility is what it's all about.
It's time World AIDS Day more effectively engaged the very people it is most aimed at, those most at risk of contracting HIV... ordinary, everyday, sexually active gay and bisexual men. Let's hope the events over the next few days do that, in more than just token numbers. Otherwise it's time for some very intense personal and professional soul-searching.
- Jay Bennie