Winnipeggers band together to keep GLBTQ* community healthy
The number of Winnipeggers getting syphilis has increased and, by a substantial majority, the affected population is men having sex with men. Between 2003 and 2007, there was an outbreak of syphilis among men having sex with men and another among women and men having sex with each other. Currently, healthcare workers, organizers, activists and the media are working together to stop the spread of syphilis and avoid another outbreak.
Previous syphilis outbreaks were contained “by going anonymously to people to cut off transmission,” explained Dr. Pierre Plourde of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA). This year, the number of cases tallied by the end of August is high enough that the WRHA “may call it an outbreak sometime soon,” he said.
What makes this a local issue is that 70 per cent of these cases were acquired locally. In 35-40 per cent of cases, the meetings with the person syphilis was contracted from were arranged using social media. An interviewee wishing to remain anonymous said it is important to understand, however, that not “everyone on social media is hooking up left, right and centre.” Once people do hook up, “consensual risky behaviours,” like agreeing not to use condoms, are a concern, said Plourde. He said our culture may bring us up in an environment that rewards risk-taking. If you engage in unprotected sex, Plourde advises getting tested regularly.
Dr. Dick Smith of the Gay Men’s Health Clinic said health care in the province can be improved. Dr. Smith wants to be kept in the loop regarding developments related to gay men’s health and this doesn’t always happen. Smith offered tips for healthcare providers: “You need to be seeing a lot of men and you need a relationship sometimes for men to be candid.” Being knowledgeable about and respectful of men’s activities also helps. Patients who share details about sexual practices assist healthcare workers in advising how often they need to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Smith acknowledges that sexual excitement can be enhanced by risk but said that people need to “choose to take risks for themselves only.” “Everyone should be able to choose the level of risk they take,” he explained.
Rainbow Resource Centre (RRC) youth coordinator Jared Star expressed concern about a “lack of sexual health messaging specific to homosexual men.” A set of RRC workshops called Totally Outright is addressing this problem. A committee of gay and bisexual men got together to create a Winnipeg-specific curriculum for the workshops.
Star maintains that positive messaging is best. “The more stigma is attached to certain behaviours, the less likely it is that people are going to get help.” Star said the workshops will be fun. “Come meet guys,
come learn about sex, come learn about your community!”
Performance artist Ian Mozdzen is a risk-taker on stage and off. “I’ve taken some risks in my sexual life,” he admitted. “There’s danger in being a homo already,” he said. “You’re dangerous because society has taught you to be dangerous.” There’s also “the problem of shame that we turn into pleasure,” he muses.
Going on “crusades” to stop the spread of STIs doesn’t help, Mozdzen points out. Confronting the issue of STIs head on is preferable. If we “excise [STIs] out of our fantasy life, then we don’t know how to deal with them in our real life,” said Mozdzen, who advocates addressing “condom fatigue” with a positive, creative approach to safe sex: using your imagination. “You can sexualize a condom.”
– Charlie Peters is a researcher, editor, independent scholar, and freelance writer who would love for people to give French Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari a go!
Facts about syphilis
- A blood test will detect syphilis.
- Syphilis is easy to cure.
- If left untreated, syphilis can kill you.
- Syphilis is easily transmitted through oral sex.
- Forty per cent of men with syphilis present no symptoms.
- After you are cured of syphilis, you can get it again since antibodies don’t seem to protect against it.
- Syphilis can’t live without a human host.
Totally Outright took place in Winnipeg over two weekends, Oct. 19-20 and Nov. 2-3, and featured free workshops for 18 to 26-year-old gay, bi, trans, queer and two-spirit men. The workshops focused on holistic health, which includes coming out, oppression, relationships, drug-related harm reduction and the different kinds of sex in men’s cultures. Especially popular were the interactive presentations from health experts and community leaders, which were based on a similar program that first happened in Vancouver in 2007.
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