MICHAEL’S STORY: “MARCH ON”

These are the stories of young gay/bi men. From sexual identity to mental health, HIV and staying safe, each story describes life events which have shaped them while addressing topics that matter to our communities of modern young gay/bi men.

ACON worked with Thinkspace at the Powerhouse Museum to run a skills-building workshop with a group of young gay/bi men to produce these 5 digital stories.

Peer education has always been a vital component of our work, with young gay/bi men learning about and discussing experiences of HIV and sexual health to prevent new transmission and fight stigma within our communities.

We interviewed each of our storytellers about their stories…

Michael’s story

YGMP: Mardi Gras 2013 was a significant moment for you, Michael. What was going on?

Michael: Some pretty big changes. From a personal point of view, that year marked a time in my development when I was more strongly involved with the LGBTI community than I’ve ever been: – I felt supportive and supported, finally comfortable with my sexual orientation and self.

Historically, it was the year in which ACON released the first phase of its Ending HIV campaign. We were just beginning to realise our ambition of ending HIV in NSW, with everyone’s help—our health goal was set for the foreseeable future, and a whole sociocultural movement followed that I am proud to be a part of.

I had a lot of reasons to celebrate that Mardi Gras, but there were many challenges to overcome too. HIV was still complicating the lives of my dear lovers and friends, one in particular whose health was beginning to decline after a while of him halting going on treatment. He had his reasons for holding off, but I couldn’t help wishing that he’d start a course of ARVs earlier. It was difficult for me to know how I could best support him, especially since he had made an informed choice. As an HIV negative man, I felt that I could be present for him, but not relate to what he was going through. His story gave me renewed perspective on the trials that people living with HIV face, and although I hadn’t experienced seroconversion like he had, I felt the force of this possibility.

The parade always puts me in a great mood—it’s a cheerful occasion when everybody is out celebrating love, lust and individuality (with SO much confetti and glitter), but I admit I got a bit ‘introspective’ when I thought about my friend’s difficulties, and some of the other issues affecting my social circles. Still, I marched on…

YGMP: The striking thing about your video is its optimism. While some might argue that gay men have become complacent about HIV, your video speaks of a strong community that is empowered to virtually eliminate the virus. In your opinion, how will optimism help us end HIV?

Michael: Hoping for a better circumstance is a natural human trait. Optimism has motivated us to seek solutions for the epidemic since the beginning, and optimism will allow us to eliminate the virus in the end. We all agree that ending HIV is a universally desirable goal. Results can’t be achieved without goals. Goals can’t be set without belief, ambition and knowledge. Scientific evidence and mathematical modelling informs us that Ending HIV in NSW is eventually possible. But science alone is useless unless community is involved to execute the grand plan. We are not passive beings waiting for public health initiatives to be carried out for us; we are responsible for ourselves. The power rests with us, and bonding rituals such as Mardi Gras allow us to unite for common causes that progress our society. Every banner waved, every forum held encourages us to act together. If our willpower is strong, the rest will follow.

YGMP: In your video you speak about new medical discoveries that had happened by 2013. You mention that researchers are now finding out about whether or not antiretroviral medications can be used as a HIV prevention tool for gay men. Since the time you created the video, what has changed?

Michael: Major developments. Promising discoveries by HIV researchers have allowed our concept of ‘safe sex’ to evolve. ‘Safe sex’ is no longer just having sex with condoms. ‘Safe sex’ also means pos. guys using antiretroviral treatment (ART) to protect their neg. partners from contracting HIV, (provided that they don’t have other STIs). ART is effective if people adhere to taking it. Gay men with HIV who have undetectable viral load (UDVL) that has been maintained for 6 months and do not have any other STIs have a low risk of passing on the virus to a sexual partner—the interim results of the PARTNER study have shown this, where nearly 40% of PARTNER study participants are gay.

It may be old news for some that Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is legally approved for use in the US, and that demonstration trials in Australia are underway. I sense that people’s attitudes towards PrEP are beginning to relax as more of us learn the facts.
Some of us have condemned other people’s choices to enjoy sex with the permission of these new, effective drugs, expressing their moral concerns, but I believe that for a lot of guys taking PrEP could be less of a luxury and more of a necessity. PrEP gives us an option to take pills (Truvada) when we anticipate that condomless sex will occur; this might not be for everyone, but for many guys it’ll offer additional protection, freedom, and peace of mind. Whether used to treat or prevent, the widening availability of medication will affect our decision-making when it’s time to fuck…so—dare I say it? —be PrEPared.

YGMP: How do these changes affect our collective role in eliminating HIV?

Michael: Our response to the epidemic is evolving because the science is evolving. Evolution always means that we must adapt – adapt our knowledge, adapt our behaviours, adapt our thinking. We now have a larger selection of choices when it comes to having safe sex. One could argue that the ‘sero-divide’ between pos and neg guys is narrowing due to these new treatment and prevention technologies, and with this, I hope there is a social shift in our attitudes away from the HIV related stigma that has characterised our past. But we must remain vigilant. Eliminating HIV will only come about if we suppress the virus at population level, to the extent that it can no longer be passed on. This still means safe sex, even as the meaning of ‘safe sex’ becomes more complex; this still means testing; this still means treatment. We must keep the pressure on.

YGMP: Watching your digital story has made me excited about Mardi Gras 2015. You work on the Young Gay Men’s project at ACON. Anything good lined up for Mardi Gras?

Michael: Oh yes—a couple of exciting things are coming up! The first is ProGenY, an evening party for young gay men and their friends (18-29 year olds) that will have live performances, interactive activities, and plenty of opportunities to relax and dance. I won’t reveal everyone who is coming this time around, but there’s a few headliners who’ll make an appearance, including ACON’s own Tradies, who will put on a very special show for you all.

ProGenY started up as a way for us to reach guys on the scene who might not know about what we do, and of course, for us to have a good time with them (we’re pretty fun-loving). It’s become a bit of an institution over the three years that we’ve run it—as well as being a party, it’s an easy opportunity to learn a little more about the Ending HIV campaign and what we can do to look after our community’s health and wellbeing while having fun on the scene. Oh, and you can have your gay sex questions answered by a Sexpert…in bed! [winks!] Or just enjoy some great entertainment with a friendly crowd.

The second event to look forward to is the Youth History Walk, a guided tour that offers young LGBTI people the opportunity to learn about places of cultural and historical significance to Sydney’s LGBTI community. A bit more educationally focused than ProGenY, the Youth History Walk is run in collaboration with NSW Pride History Group, or should I say, with Robert French, who is a walking, one-man LGBTI encyclopaedia. Robert will provide important lessons about health issues that have affected our communities over time, while giving an overview of developments within Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Rights movement. There will be snacks and chances to talk amongst ourselves along the way.

Both of these Mardi Gras events promise to bring young people together to learn, revel, and enjoy. Connect with me and my team if you’d like to participate in these events, on youth@acon.org.au

YGMP: So you’ll be marching in the parade again, in 2015?

Michael: I think so! It’s an annual occurrence for me now. Every year, I find that it’s even more important for me to be visible and display the causes I support to the watching public—I’m really just a big exhibitionist at heart! Actually, I’ve personally never thought of young gay men as belonging to one community, but to multiple intersecting communities, and Mardi Gras is one of those times when we can overcome our divisions, praise each other for our achievements, and observe our diversity in a peaceful and non-judgmental way. There’s an electric vibe in the city around Mardi Gras, and I wouldn’t miss the parade, parties or cultural events for the world.

Biography

Michael Kembi Yates is a 26 year old heath promoter for young gay men and soon to be student again.