Comment: Is a community in crisis beginning to self care

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

There has been a great deal of press lately about the strife London’s gay scene and communities seem to be in; the discontent with past Pride events, funding and organisational challenges faced by third sector and statutory organisations, the rising HIV and Hep C infections, and the devastating effects of drug use by gay men.

Among the accusations thrown about is the increasing gulf developing between the healthcare sector, and the average LGB or T person on the street. In my work with some esteemed HIV veterans and activists who remember passionately the early days of HIV campaigning, I hear early examples of exhilarating communion between community and health sector; it was the HIV positive gay man and his friends who fought so hard to improve healthcare, campaigns and politics, and it seemed there was no gulf between those who worked towards healthcare/well-being, and those who experienced it.

An observation I hear often now, sometimes from these very dismayed veterans, is that the gay community is divided into two camps; those who work in healthcare/campaigning/politics, and those who go clubbing and enjoy chem-sex.

Though a harsh and simplistic observation, there may be some lessons learned from earlier times, about the healthcare sector being more inclusive, working harder to engage the very people it seeks to support; we need to be sure that poor well-being, drug use, harmful Vauxhall hedonism and increased BBV infections are not the result of community health campaigns and services simply barking poorly informed messages up uninterested trees. Are the messages being delivered by healthcare campaigns actually speaking to the people they are targeted at? Can the organisations better tailor the services to meet actual need, by listening more to the concerns of the needy? Does this gulf actually exist?

I’ve been inspired lately by the increased dialogue in the press about healthcare issues; even from the heated on-line debate I see certain articles generate that appears to bridge the alleged gulf. But I’m mostly excited about a few examples of work that unite two (some would say) very estranged sections of the community; two Vauxhall night-time economy venues, and the health sector.

On 9 May, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London is hosting a special panel discussion, Sauna and Club Drug Causalities organised by Michael Peacock as a way to engage the man on the street who may club and take drugs proudly, and those who may not, in a discussion about the effect drugs may or, again, may not be having on our scene and within our communities. The panel deliberately excludes scientific experts in favour of scene “personalities”, DJ’s and known, opinionated faces. In speaking with the organiser, I was delighted to hear him say he wanted to shift the debate about community health out of the sector conference room, and into the affected community itself. I’m pleased to hear that the sauna owners that experienced the trauma of GBL casualties on their premises have confirmed attendance, as well as many Vauxhall nightclub promoters.

Another example is the Orange Nation group of clubs sponsoring a GBL Awareness campaign in partnership with Antidote, the LGBT drug and alcohol service at London Friend. Orange Nation is producing a poster and leaflet campaign that directs people toward an Antidote website page that includes harm reduction information, emergency care advice, self-help tips, and signposting toward the most appropriate places for care or support.

In addition to this, the Hoist and Eagle London venues in Vauxhall both hosted events recently which raised money for the Antidote service, and the winner of Mr Eagle 2013, David Regan, donated half of his cash prize to Antidote.

I see these examples of cross-sector co-operation and community initiatives as signs that an improved dialogue is opening up; that a community in crisis is self-caring and uniting to address its own problems. And though I agree with my valued veteran-activist colleagues that there may have been some community apathy develop since the early HIV epidemic, there appears to be some passion stirring (within the very heart of Vauxhall no less) toward its’ own well-being.

I’ll be watching this space with interest… and Pride!

David Stuart is the education, training and outreach manager at London Friend, and Antidote. He tweets @davidastuart