Warm Reception in the North

Written by Keith Reynolds

With Sex Now 2014 to be launched later this summer, the CBRC team has been eager to meet with those working or volunteering in gay men’s health around BC. In April we organized a community forum in Prince George in the hopes of attracting a group of gay men and their allies interested in suggesting survey topics and questions to better capture the experiences of gay and bisexual men from northern BC.

The forum took place at the University of Northern BC in April and attracted an enthusiastic group intent on getting the largest sample ever of men from the North into the Sex Now survey this year.

Expanding the Reach

Community members  recommended a number of strategies for increasing participation in the region. They were quick to suggest the Internet and mobile apps as a means to get more guys to complete the survey. However they also acknowledged some of the limitations of using apps suggesting instead that there ought to be paper surveys available especially in some areas, which may not have regular or reliable Internet access. In addition to simply making it more accessible, the participants suggested that local expertise might be the best method to tap into people’s personal networks. Indeed, the short time that we were there, Prince George seemed at times more like a big small town rather than a city. The people we encountered, both in the forum and in the cafes and restaurants were very engaging and outgoing. They talked a lot about the importance of, and took pride in their community. Creating strong relationships with a few key people in this community – organizers, drag queens, bar owners, doctors – would be very helpful in getting a strong word of mouth presence in the North.

During the forum, we talked about how the respondents could invest in the survey. While some guys may be willing to participate in a survey just on the basis that they are contributing to gay men’s health, everyone felt that making the follow up reports easily available was important. Moreover, and possibly most importantly the information that was gathered and being shared, needed to be relevant to the audience.

Topics of Interest

With this in mind, the participants at the forum identified a few key areas of interest for northern populations of gay and bisexual men. They said that access to healthcare is of particular concern, and there was a variety of experience reported. Some participants said that their doctors didn’t want to speak about gay men or their needs and that this is driving health disparities. Some explained that many doctors were unprepared with a competent answer when asked a question related to gay health – but that they were open to learning opportunities.

One participant mentioned that he often took it upon himself to instruct younger gay guys on risk reduction strategies or encourage condom usage in lieu of proper information from healthcare professionals. This participant wanted to foster a culture of openness when talking about sex within the community. Another said that he was out to his doctor and hasn’t had a problem. However, this might be because of his age and a strong sense of self. Younger gay men may not be so self-assured and may feel uncomfortable talking to their doctor, who in many cases may know his family outside of a medical context. This familiarity, rather than anonymity available in cities, may create embarrassment when talking about sex for both parties.

Underlying the discussion was the idea that gay men in northern communities live in an environment of homophobia or hetero-normativity with less visibility to challenge that environment. Many people wondered how safe gay people felt in their jobs, communities, or lives. Another expressed that he would like to see in the survey a question about what guys need or needed in order to feel safer coming out. Sex Now 2011 showed that bullying and harassment are on the rise and are prevalent even if a person isn’t out. This could be an important line of questioning which needs to be explored further.

Recommendations

These are the chief concerns that emerged from the discussions and these might inform the kinds of questions that the survey should include. First, assess how safe gay guys felt and what can be done to improve that level of safety. The second was how to strengthen the relationship between gay men and health care service providers. This includes whether or not gay guys perceive that their doctors are culturally competent, accepting to gay guys, or hostile.

The discussions, in and outside of the forum, were rich and offered valuable insight, which hopefully will help bridge the distance between urban and rural communities. It seemed this in and of itself is a huge barrier needing to be addressed. The distance fosters condescending attitudes for the gay guys who chose to live in smaller communities and erases the richness of their community.

Opportunities for ongoing discussions with community members would be a boon to, not only better understanding the health needs of gay men in the North, but also improve uptake of the survey. Their expertise and personal social networks would create the necessary awareness to foster a successful online survey. Since spaces that are entirely for gay men are rare, it may be prudent to speak to allies of the gay community to further foster an atmosphere amenable to disseminating the survey.

Hopefully, acknowledging the diversity in the gay communities across Canada will not only create a more robust sample for the Sex Now Survey, but also help these communities find value and draw inspiration from each other.

April 2014 in Prince George with Keith Reynolds from the Investigaytors and Olivier Ferlatte, CBRC's Research Education Director.

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