Tag Archives: MSM

Faces of HIV – Thirty

By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton

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In 1982, Ross Armstrong, a man described by his friend Charles Bidwell, as “full of playful spirit, comfortable in his own skin and so open in expressing himself,” earned his spot to swim for Canada in the first ever Gay Olympic Games. Ross won a silver medal in the 200 metre butterfly and was quoted saying, “There were no losers. The first and the last were cheered equally.” He also learned that organization combined with a political commitment is what produces mass awareness and supported action. This was the spirit of Ross, a man committed to honesty, integrity, and change.

In 1984, Ross Armstrong was diagnosed with AIDS, the first AIDS diagnosis in Edmonton. Shortly after his diagnosis, he became a part of the AIDS Network of Edmonton team (now known as HIV Edmonton), and emerged as the public face of AIDS in Edmonton. Ross died on July 1, 1986, two short years after his diagnosis.

The challenges and suffering Ross endured and the courage he displayed during those first years of the local epidemic led HIV Edmonton to name the hub of their agency, the drop-in centre, the Ross Armstrong Centre. A safe, caring place for HIV positive individuals to meet, have a cup of coffee, or share a nutritious community meal. Breakfast is served every Monday and Friday morning and lunch is served on Wednesdays. Ross Armstrong Week, held Monday and Friday in the middle of each month, provides access to grocery cards, health supplies (multi-vitamins and liquid meal replacement) and hygiene products (razors, shampoo, etc.).

Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith
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Faces of HIV – Twenty Nine

By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton

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“I was involved in organizing the first prayer vigil for people with AIDS. We held that in the chapel of the Edmonton General Hospital and we did prayers all night long. We scheduled people to be there and invited people to come pray for those who had AIDS and those who were affected by AIDS. This was in the initial years in the mid-eighties. I went away from this city in the year of 80/81 on a sabbatical from the university, and I had heard something about this rare condition that was being detected in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So when I came back to Edmonton from Texas, people were talking about people coming down with this condition called AIDS, where you don’t die of AIDS, you die from some condition that is acquired because of an immune system deficiency.”

“I used to play volleyball with the first person in Edmonton diagnosed with AIDS—Ross Armstrong. When he came down with it, he was put in the U of A hospital, where I worked. So I would go up to visit him everyday. And everyone was gloved and gowned and masked, and they really didn’t want to go into his room because they were afraid. They had no idea how this was transmitted so they would sort of put his tray of food into the room and then I would go in and visit him and bring his food tray to him. I would say, ‘Ross, I’m sorry I have to look like an alien, but it’s really to protect you from me giving you anything.’ So I would sit on the bed and hug him. Nobody was doing that. And, of course, he died. He was the first person in Edmonton to be publicly known to have AIDS.”

“Even my husband at the time, he came down with AIDS, and when he died in 1989, at his funeral, nobody would say that he had AIDS. We were just enraged. We fought to make it public so it would start being addressed. We had been together for seven years, and he was playing around, and for some reason I didn’t get it.”

“I was the minister of the Metropolitan Community Church and when the folks like Michael Phair got together and applied for a grant to do something about AIDS, they couldn’t receive the grant because they weren’t established as a not-for-profit organization, and they didn’t have charitable status and all the rest of this. I was a friend of Michael’s, so he asked if the church could take our cheque, and I said, ‘Yes.’ And then we paid whatever bills he submitted to us. So we enabled them to work for a year until they got their own not-for-profit. So yes, I was sort of in on the ground floor.”

“The one good thing that came from AIDS is that the community solidified and worked together to face this threat … There are some of us old farts still kicking around from back them, but we probably lost about a generation. As a minister, I did funerals, memorial services, and certainly talked to the people who had HIV. I didn’t get to talk to many parents because so many parents, when they found out their kid had AIDS, they were also finding out that their kid was gay, so they were so in shock that most of them didn’t want to talk to a minister.”

Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith
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Faces of HIV – Nine

By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton

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“I’ve worked for HIV Edmonton for fourteen months now. It’s good. It fits with who I am and what I’m about. I’m HIV positive myself and I’m also a part of the queer community. We are a community that continues to be disproportionately impacted by HIV amongst a whole slough of other health outcomes. This position gives me an opportunity to really make a difference in that area.”

“Is there anything you’d very much like to accomplish?”

“The goal is health equity. I really want to see my community thrive and there’s a million different things involved with that but I think we could come to a day when queer men have equitable opportunity to experience positive health and wellbeing. That’s the dream and we’re far from it. The work we do with HIV and sexual health is a big part of it. Men who have sex with men continue to make up about half of new HIV infections every year across Canada. The numbers can fluctuate—here in Alberta it was a little less last year, but still, across the board. I think it says something about how we are valued as a community—as sexual and gender minorities and I think it’s really important. There was some really amazing stuff that happened back in the early days of the AIDS movement. I don’t think our community as a queer community has ever really demonstrated the type of organization and passion that we did back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and I think we’ve become a little complacent and haven’t really done too much. People aren’t dying like they did in the ‘80s when it was very apparent and horrific, but now people are still dying but it’s much more silent and because of that I don’t think we really engage in matters of our health’s much but it’s still extremely important—both in terms of HIV and mental health across the board so it’s really about organizing the community and consolidating power so that we’re able to take our health into our own hands and say, ‘This is not enough.’”

“HIV didn’t go anywhere, but the conversation fell silent. It’s a hard line to walk because HIV is much more manageable now—I’ve been living with HIV for about four and a half years, and it really doesn’t factor into my life as far as my physical health. It would be harder to manage something like diabetes … We now have the tools necessary to stop HIV legitimately. I mean there’s not a vaccine and there’s not a cure, but we know about prevention in terms of treating people living with HIV and the impact that has on rates. We know now that we have interventions like image result for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It was just approved by Health Canada. Essentially, people who are HIV negative who might be at a higher risk of infection, they can actually take HIV medication and it’s extraordinarily affective at preventing infection. So we do have the types of tools necessary to end this epidemic amongst the populations that it most impacts, which are sexual, gender, and racial minorities. So it’s just about the political will. We really need that to make a dent in it.”

Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith
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