03 December 2014

Bad Employers

Here in Montréal, we have been watching the ongoing pressure tactics of the municipal workers, including police and firefighters, with some degree of amusement, detachment and even derision. This last reaction when they seem to be getting away with tactics they were pepper-spraying and arresting students for just two short years ago. It's too bad that their actions from then are paying off in a lack of solidarity with them today. But they are right.

The government of Québec decided to go and change an element of legitimately negotiated contracts pertaining to the share of pension contributions paid by the employees and the employers. Not having been a party to those negotiations, I would have trouble explaining what might have been traded for the advantages they got – likely salary concession or other items. But the point is that one side of a legitimate contract is going in to change the terms it doesn't like about that contract and doing it in a way that undermines the original process. We should all be disturbed by that.

As for their tactics, well, they have been creative and sometimes destructive. I don't really care for the camo on the police, but it isn't hurting anyone. The Chateauguay police adopting the sheriff uniforms they bought in St-Tite (home of the Festival Western) is kind of cute, leaving aside their proximity to the Mohawk community of Kahnawake and some troubled history between the two (bad imagery for that). Super Firefighters? Why not?! And a seemlingly endless supply of stickers on their vehicles…I'm of two minds on that one.

On the federal front, those in charge are no better. They are on a path to roll back the gains of years of collective bargaining because they don't like the results today. In typical style for the current government, they have begun this process by trying to demonize their workers as being spoiled by excessive benefits. They are starting with sick leave, as many federal employees have accumulated large banks of sick time by not using over the years. It matters little to the government in its disinformation efforts that those days are not exchangeable for pay, nor are they convertible into vacation time or anything other than the sick days they are.

Oh, they will pick and choose some examples of employees who have taken large amounts of time due to serious illnesses that they will not mention in their public relations offensive. No, these people are examples of the excesses of the spoiled government employees, not individuals who have, along the way, traded other advantages for these things they thought were important to them. The government will also not be telling us about how many of their employees retire or leave their service with many, many unused sick days. That isn't a part of the narrative. On the whole, it seems like the government would like its employees to go to work sick and infect us all.

I am one of those people in our society who has no pension plan through my job. My sick days (and I'm luckier than some in having these) are not transferable from one year to another. But I don't think that my governments should try to ensure that they treat their employees worse than other employers. I expect my governments to set a positive example for employers, to show how a workplace can be healthy and supportive, not heartless and stingy.

I am sadly very aware of what a deluded Pollyanna I am in this.

I express my solidarity here and at the ballot box. Most of the union movement has always been supportive of legislation to improve the conditions of work of everyone in society. I hope the rest of those workers find their own solidarity with others in our society who ought to be their natural allies.

01 December 2014

Gains and Challenges

COCQ-SIDA's new campaign takes on HIV stigma by matching the gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS against the challenges that remain.

First of all, let's get the declaration of conflict of interest out of the way. I am the Executive Director of COCQ-SIDA and an HIV-positive participant in this campaign. The second role was more important in contributing to the content of the message, which was developed in collaboration with a number of COCQ-SIDA's member organizations and the participants themselves.

The challenge that many of us in the HIV movement face constantly is to present a real picture of what HIV is today, balancing the desire to encourage the HIV-negative to avoid transmission while ensuring that there is a place for people living with HIV in society. Fear messages have a short-term effect of scaring people into 'protecting' themselves against transmission, but these messages serve to stigmatize people living with HIV and the protective aspect is neither durable nor particularly credible in a context where the target audience might have acquaintances and friends living relatively well with HIV. People living with HIV, particularly those who might have been diagnosed recently, could see fear messages as discouraging, which is not helpful for them.

This campaign tries to find the balance of sharing the good news about HIV today – generally all about medical advances – and contrasting those things with the human rights challenges that do not seem to have moved in all this time, at least not in the right direction.

The messages of the campaign (with my added comments):

People don't understand my desire to have a child because I am HIV positive, but in 2014 a woman living with HIV can give birth without transmitting HIV to her child.
Most people announcing their pregnancy or their desire to get pregnant are greeted with congratulations and wishes of joy and happiness by those around them. Why should it be any different for a person living with HIV? Having to face the unfounded fears of those around you can rob you of the positive aspects of planning your life.

I have been refused medical services because I am HIV positive, but in 2014 the observance of universal precautions prevents the transmission of HIV.
Universal precautions are the simple procedures that health care professionals should be observing in all cases and not just when they are certain that the person before them might have a transmissible infection – that's why they are called precautions. Properly observed, these simple measures will prevent the transmission of HIV and many other infections…in both directions!

I couldn't get life insurance coverage because I am HIV positive, but in 2014 the life expectancy of a person living with HIV is more than 70 years.
Someone needs to redo the actuarial calculations that exclude people living with HIV from accessing life insurance. The combination of effective treatment for HIV and the fact that most of us have a regular medical follow-up that our HIV negative friends and family members do not have has brought us to a nearly level playing field with respect to longevity. It is telling that the only life insurance product we could find available to people living with HIV came with a price tag many times the cost of life insurance for someone without HIV. And how important is life insurance? Try getting a mortgage or a car loan without it.

I have been turned away as a volunteer because I am HIV positive, but in 2014 we know that HIV is not transmitted through casual contact.
Only fear and ignorance of how HIV is transmitted can explain a refusal to accept help from someone living with HIV. The impact on the individual – not "good" enough to offer help to others in the community – is one of isolation and rejection. No one should have to experience that, especially not when there is no justification for the refusal. There is no job that cannot be done by a person living with HIV, with the exception of blood or organ donor…but I don't think any of us wants to do either of those things.

I have faced a lot of obstacles in taking back my life because I am HIV positive, but in 2014 after a stay in a hospice a person living with HIV has regained the health necessary to return to active life.
It is telling that the person lined up to pose for this poster backed out before it was produced, being replaced with a drawn silhouette. Yes, people living with HIV can have crises in their health that require some additional assistance, and the role of housing resources for people living with HIV has evolved to the point that they are rarely now a place to go to die with dignity and much more a place to go to regain control of one's health to be able to return to life in the community. Our society's apparent inability to appreciate people for where they are, as opposed to judging them for where they have been, is completely unhelpful in the long run and quite devastating to someone trying to rebuild his or her autonomy.

People have been afraid of me because I am HIV positive, but in 2014 a person living with HIV and adequately treated does not transmit HIV.
Here we get to the question of fear in a more intimate setting. Apart from all of the ways we know to reduce the risk of HIV transmission – condoms, choice of activities, choice of position, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – we also know and have increasing evidence to support the position that people with a well-controlled viral load don't transmit HIV. Yes, a cautious public health authority will always insist on the multiple conditions that make that true – and those conditions are all about things that can influence variations in the viral load between tests or present uncertainty about those things – but those advocating earlier treatment as a means to control HIV transmission who are not also willing to recognize the near elimination of infectiousness to the benefit of the person living with HIV (reduced threat of criminalization, perhaps?) have some serious contradictions in their argument.

The T-shirt Challenge

Another aspect of the campaign was to challenge people to wear a t-shirt with the bold statement "Je suis seropo" (I am HIV positive) for a day and to share their experience of doing that. Many found support among their friends and family, some got some sideways looks from strangers and one of the Montréal participants, asking her boss in a food products setting if she could wear it to work was refused that permission, her boss insisting they would sell no product if she did wear it.

I had to ask, beyond the reactions of others, how the people wearing the t-shirts felt when they put it on and when they revealed it in a public place. Every one of them had the anticipation of poor treatment, or stigmatization, and every one of them expressed some relief about taking it off at the end of the day. That, perhaps more than all the rest, measures the stigma which all of us living with HIV experience every day.

You can follow the campaign (in French only) at jesuisseropo.org. Click on Campagne acquis/defis for this campaign and on Actualité for the blog.

On a personal note…

The last poster (afraid of me) is my poster. If you want a back story on a situation that I lived through because of someone else's fear, I would suggest a piece I wrote on criminalization in 2012. I accept my responsibility to not transmit HIV and to take all measures to ensure that is doesn't happen. I resent, however, bearing all of the responsibility to be a teacher of knowledge that people should be seeking on their own and a protector of the health of those who will not step up to take responsibility to make their own efforts. Sometimes you just don't want to be a teacher and a social worker in every moment of your life.

I'm probably not the best example of living with HIV stigma. I have all the advantages that our society has to offer – I'm white, educated and middle class, I have a supportive family and friends and I have a job I will not lose by being public about my HIV status. If with all of these advantages my first instinct is to lower my voice when talking about my personal experience with HIV on the bus or in a public place, or to approach unknown situations with a degree of trepidation, I can only imagine the impact of stigma on someone who does not enjoy all of the advantages I do.

If you've met me, you won't think I'm particularly scary. I was going to say I don't bite, but I know that some among you would cheekily ask if I would bite if they wanted me to. So let me revise that: I only bite reluctantly and only when asked to.

Still scared of me?

15 November 2014

Impersonating a Soldier

Big news this week, as someone was discovered to have impersonated a soldier at the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa. The ensuing uproar and demands that he be prosecuted have missed the point about the purpose of that article of the Criminal Code forbidding the impersonation of a police officer or a soldier (or a priest, for that matter, but I think that’s in a different article).

The true intent of those measures, even if the text of the law is not clear on this point, is to prevent people from assuming and presumably exploiting official positions of authority, using the legal status of those positions for some personal gain or other antisocial purpose. This is not about “disrespecting the uniform” or any other such nonsense. I don’t see any allegations of this guy doing anything other than pretending to be a soldier, not compelling people to do things because of his supposed role, nothing. Should everyone dressing up as a “police officer” on Halloween be arrested and charged with this? Of course not.

Is the act disrespectful? Yes. Is it extra disrespectful at an official ceremony on Remembrance Day. Certainly. Does that make it criminal. Uh….no.

Untwist your knickers, people.

09 November 2014

The Comedian of Montréal

Second time around (for me) for a production of The Barber of Seville by the Opéra de Montréal. Yesterday afternoon, as I waited for the clock to advance to departure time, I tweeted my anticipatory musings: how would it be different from the last time I saw it? The Opéra de Montréal answered that tweet with the star, Étienne Dupuis, who would presumably make all the difference. They weren’t wrong, but that wasn’t the whole story, either.

Let me take pains to point out that I am not an expert in opera or any kind of music, so what you’re getting is the uninformed ramblings of someone who just goes to enjoy the show and the music without necessarily understanding what would make it brilliant or not for said experts. “I don’t know music, I just know what I like.”

If I got a smile from the afternoon tweet, it broadened as I drew the connection between the visual representation of the production and the Movember men’s health fundraising efforts. Intentional, it seems, which is a lovely development. The little video clips projected in the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier also showed those involved in the production with their moustaches or holding little moustaches in fron of themselves. The smile morphed into a beam when I got close to the doors and saw the effort to decorate the entry in barbershop colours with the Movember moustache on the doors. Nice play.

Something this particular opera does for me is evoke some childhood memories. I am familiar with the whole of the overture thanks to The Rabbit of Seville, starring Bugs Bunny. As the music plays for such a long time before the curtain rises, my mind wanders through all of the images and lyric adaptations. “Come into my shop. Let me cut your mop. Who’s next? You’re next.” The application and massaging of various tonics into Elmer Fudd’s head, producing wild growth to be mowed and shaved off, racing upward on the side-by-side barber chairs. It all has little to do with the plot of the opera, but everything to do with making the music a part of my childhood and probably yours, too.

Back to the real thing from last night. The set looked highly familiar, like I saw it six years ago when I saw this opera here for the first time. In fact, looking for images online, I found a current production image of the exterior of the house and a previous production image of the interior — I think the only thing that changed in the interior was the recovering of some pieces of furniture. This is not a criticism, however, as the set worked very well as a backdrop to the performances (that’s what it’s for, no?) and shouldn’t we all be in favour of reusing what works well?

Things started changing with the entrance of Etienne Dupuis as Figaro, just as the afternoon response to my tweet would have it. He came in through the audience and leapt up on the stage, taking a moment to invite applause, which he got. If his voice is a beautiful baritone, his acting was comic genius. Everything well-timed and played for laughs, with no small amount of cheekiness and plenty of fun. I think one of my favourite moments, bringing me right back to the Bugs Bunny experiences, was when he inserted himself into a little twirl of dance between Bartolo and Rosina, liberating Rosina to go to her beloved and setting himself up to be the recipient of Bartolo’s series of kisses up his arm. Classic Looney Tunes!

Dupuis also rocks a mean moustache for Movember, I must say. (There are not nearly enough photos of him on the Barihunks blog.)

There were a few other elements I would like to highlight as brilliant and/or hilarious. The brilliance of the representation of slander as creepy, balloon-headed creatures multiplying as they spread across the stage was fabulous. A little fog makes the moment more surreal as the plot to undermine Count Almaviva is described to a very receptive Bartolo. You can see an extremely brief view of the creatures at 1:26 in the photomontage video above. A comic moment that drew a laugh each time it repeated was the sound that emerged from the piano as Don Alonso (Almaviva in disguise) accompanies Rosina in her music lesson: not piano at all, but the full orchestra, with an emphasis on the strings and the flutes. You will also see in the photomontage stills of the many dance numbers, all played for their comedy and well-timed with the music.

We had a sneak preview of a part of the grand finale in Act I when a single piece of glittery confetti floated down from above. The finale itself, however, was not entirely given away, as wave after wave of the stuff came down, followed by balloons, really underscoring that this was the wrap-up number.

In all, these things I have highlighted were great additions to an opera I love to listen to. I have a certain weakness for the light and happy tunes that seem to come best from Italian operas, and for the lovely sections sung in parallel as duets or more. Beyond the familiarity of the music from my youth, it is happy and very catchy music to listen to.

Something else to note that amused me to no end. Behind me were seated a loud curmudgeon and his long-suffering friend. The curmudgeon complained before the opera and during the intermission that the Montréal audience was ignorant. I, of course, have already disclosed my own failings as a music or opera expert, but I embrace that and reject the idea that the opera is only for the well-instructed. If I find beauty in it, should I not enjoy it? I will give him one point, though: he decried the horrible propensity of the audience to give a standing ovation for anything whatsoever, demonstrating by poking his friend and complaining that even that would earn a standing “o” in Montréal. In my own defence, I have to say that I would have waited for some of the more consequential performers to arrive for their bows before standing up were it not for the fact that the people in front of me standing were already obstructing my view and would have obscured the arrival of my choices. So up I got with almost everyone else (didn’t turn around to see if the curmudgeon or his friend had risen), when the first of the chorus came forward to bow.

A bit more well-deserved praise for the Opéra de Montréal, too, for its use of social media. Responded to on Twitter, sometimes retweeted, was one element. Another was seeing on Facebook in the afternoon that they have a mobile app that you can use to register yourself for a possible seating upgrade or other bonus for the performance. Brilliant! This is the kind of use of social media that rewards the exchanges with the audience and capitalizes on the interaction.

Opera 2.0 indeed.

31 October 2014

Scary, or just ridiculous?

Well, we’ve done it. Our delightful right wing government, which has at least persuaded itself that we are on the ever-rising crest of a crime wave, has gone the way of prolonging sentences to their extreme. It doesn’t matter that statistics show a steady downward trend in crime rates — let’s just put an end to that particular information gathering activity if it doesn’t show what we want it to.

I always thought it laughable to hear those law and order sentences coming from the United States: 300 years in prison! And now we are there in Canada. The federal government changed the Criminal Code to allow for consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences. So if the penalty for homicide is life and you commit three of them, you will spend three lifetimes in prison! That’ll teach you!

In fact, the penalty for first-degree murder in Canada is life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.  First-degree murder means it was pre-meditated or the person killed was a police officer on duty. Today, a person convicted of the murder of three police officers was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 75 years. The 24-year-old will be 99 when he becomes eligible for parole. If he is still alive at age 99 and not deemed a risk for society and sufficiently penitent, he will presumably be released into poverty to suffer on his own dime. But the question that begs to be answered: if he dares to die earlier than that, will they keep his corpse around for the reminder of the sentence?

I don’t want to make light of a serious criminal offence. Someone who commits murder must be punished. But it used to be that the criminal law had more purposes than just punishment, like rehabilitation. I’m not sure how much is left of the programs that would serve to help people rehabilitate themselves while in prison, but I’m willing to bet that they are less available than they ought to be, and even less so when we have to plan to feed and house a prisoner for the next 75 years. How soon do you think this guy might have access to a program?

We also have a parole board that, with the advice of a number of experts, assesses whether the person will be able to return to society and lead a productive and peaceable life, but this government doesn’t seem to trust that body at all. They will point to the spectre of recidivism when in fact the cases of people committing crimes after their release are actually much rarer than we are led to believe.

As usual, the facts matter little. The fear of crime we have trumped up wins and we look good by meting out a mockery of a sentence. Way to go. If only this philosophy of sentencing applied to electoral fraud we might be rid of some of these politicians for a good long time.

18 October 2014

Rings a little untrue…

Something funny happened during my sleep-deprived morning wandering in Paris waiting for my hotel room to be ready. An attempted scam that I almost fell for…until it happened all over again just minutes later.

We're walking down the street and suddenly a man stoops and "picks up" a gold (coloured) ring to ask if I have dropped it. I know it's not mine – I don't wear jewellery. But he continues and almost talks me into keeping it, although I am sure there is some kind of catch that he didn't quite get to that would have removed some of the weight from my wallet. We walked away.

Literally moments later, a woman made the same move. By now I was completely jaded and onto her and we just kept walking. But it made me think of what should have been inscribed on the inside of the ring:

One ring to scam them all,
One ring to fool them,
One ring to reel them in
and in the confusion rob them.

17 October 2014

Apps and Disclosure (There's HIV on my Phone!)

I don't claim to be a pioneer of the online dating world, despite my great age. I do, however, remember a time when BB meant bulletin board and the advent of the gay chat rooms was the great leap forward. Now I don't even know how much people still use those chats, but that isn't necessarily because I have sped ahead and moved on to other things, either. I've just moved from looking to, well, just looking, and those apps on your (okay my) smart phone are lovely for that. But let's take a moment to look back at the olden days before plunging headlong into the present.

When I first ventured into those chat rooms, disclosing one's HIV status was not the norm. Very few included their status in their profiles, other than those usual intolerant "D&D Free, UB2" statements, and the chat room reserved for Poz guys, at least on the Priape Chat that was my go-to, was most often empty (and you could see by nicknames who was in it, so that probably explains the emptiness). The disclosure, if there was one, took place in a private conversation with someone. I actually used that forum to test out my disclosure skills, as being rejected by someone with a fake name whose photo I couldn't see and who couldn't see mine was not nearly as hard to take as the face-to-face rejection you could go find in a club.

Fast forward to now and there are some interesting things going on via those apps. A lot more people are disclosing their HIV+ status in profiles that include head shots and often with some very clever text to accompany the news. I am also seeing more and more discussion (or notation, at least) of PrEP and declarations of openness from HIV negative guys. A couple of my recent favourites:

“HIV neutral, ub2. Life’s too short to be a douche.”

“Status I am STD free…and I want to keep it negative for life…But I’m not serophobic!”

I have three of these apps on my phone, each with its own advantages.

Grindr, probably the most used historically at least, now allows you to choose "poz" as one (or more) of your "tribes", but offers kind of a limited space to express yourself. The casual reader (notice how I have turned myself into a "reader" of profiles – sounds so much less offensive than "creeper", no?) has to click through to see the "tribes" and any other details you choose to share, including your brief texts, divided into "Headline" and "About me". The boys (oops, did I say that out loud?) tend to be younger on Grindr, with the usual exceptions. Downsides: you can't see who has looked at your profile (not with the free version, anyway), but (upside) you can creep away with impunity, even mark your favourites to keep track of their distance from you at all times, not that I would ever do such a thing.

Also of note: Grindr has won awards for the accuracy of its geolocation aspect. As an aside, I happened to be having a drink (or was it dinner?) on a patio in Toronto many years ago with my dedicated PositiveLite editor and I was showing him how Grindr worked. Much to our surprise and delight, and no small amount of embarrassment on the part of this WASP, the guy who showed up as being "a few steps away" was actually seated at the next table!

Scruff is probably my favourite of the apps for the level of self-expression it permits (oh, and scruffy guys are a big plus for me, so that helps). No, not everyone writes a short story that gives you a glimpse into their personality and some do write a novella that you have to be really dedicated (or entertained) to make it through, but the option is there and enough guys take the time to express themselves that it makes for good reading sometimes. That's where I have found gems like these:

"You wanna know if I'm 'clean'? Just so happens I shower every morning, I brush my teeth and even put on fresh underwear every day! I also happen to be Poz."

“Your tested date means only one thing…you have no idea about HIV. Post you’re on PrEP then it will show you’re responsible.”

Scruff also allows you to identify yourself as Poz with a click and to identify that you are interested in Poz guys with a click, but I think the open-ended text areas are the most fun and interesting. Scruff also offers a couple of services like "woofs" and "would you meet"…you can see who has woofed you, but I don't know how exactly the "would you meet" function works, as I have never used it…and I guess no one has wanted to meet me…*sob*. Scruff also has several screens…international, which seems to pluck people at random from around the world (or maybe it's the most looked-at profiles?), local, by distance from oneself, and then the favourites, which allows for that stalking thing we don't ever do, right? And on that note, the other plus (or minus?) of Scruff: you can see who has looked at your profile and look back at theirs – really the closest thing to classic cruising that I have seen on an electronic device.

The third one I have on my phone is Hornet. Hornet has a few of the same limitations in terms of the space that is provided for self-expression, but it has two exceptional features and another one that I will discuss in greater depth after gushing about the first two. First, you can add multiple public and private photos to your profile. Okay, not completely unknown, but the ease of scrolling through them, I believe, is unmatched. I also can't decide whether the "Explore" feature trumps even that photo aspect: it allows you to search by the name of a place anywhere in the world and then explore the Hornet profiles in the general vicinity. Planning a vacation and don't want to be lonely? Want to anticipate the eye candy? This may be the app for you.

The feature I want to talk about more is called KYS (know your status). It is an optional feature by which you can choose to disclose the date of your last test and the result. It's interesting to be able to see the testing frequency (or recentness) of some of the guys, but, like the Scruff comment above, it might not tell you much about your status today, depending on what you've been doing since a few weeks before that last test. I tried to use this feature to disclose of my status and made it public, but it does not show up on my profile when I look for it. I wrote to the company to complain about that and was told that it shows up fine on an iPhone (I'm on Android), but none of the umpteen software updates that have eaten into my data quota since I wrote to them has fixed the problem. And come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen a KYS that says the guy is positive. Protecting us from ourselves, Hornet? I have gone on to incorporate that into the brief text which is allowed for me to write "about me", but I have apparently not let go of the bitterness!

Probably the most surprising feature of all of these apps is the possibility to have a brief chat with someone you might not otherwise have the occasion to meet. I haven't been using the apps to actually meet people (as my profile on each of them says, "Not looking, just looking"), but I have had some rewarding and heartbreaking chats. An inquiry from a poz guy in France who was thinking of moving to Montréal and wanted to get information about immigration to Canada as a poz guy. Someone local for whom this was the first time he'd had a discussion about HIV with someone who actually has it. A guy in Morocco who hadn't been tested, but who I was able to assure of the openness of the local organization, which works with gay men despite the institutionalized homophobia in the country's laws. A recent trip to Burundi yielded both an occasion to share information about what treatments are like, especially in a developed country like Canada, and the worst heartbreak in the form of a young gay man in Uganda who was just hoping to live more freely somewhere else where, in his words, "gayism is legal".

So you see, I am not just stalking when I open up those apps on my phone – I'm educating, I'm observing the dynamics of communication around HIV in this new electronic context. Oh, and if you're into that sort of thing, I understand they can also be used to meet guys and have sex. ;-)

(This article is also published on PositiveLite.com)

UPDATE! The people from Hornet have contacted me anew to express their concern that the KYS positive status affirmations seem not to be visible on Android phones. I have to admire their reactivity and I’m looking forward to seeing this fixed in a future app update. 

Second UPDATE! I can now see my status on my profile in Hornet. Excellent and efficient responsiveness. Thanks!