Rrumor was circulating in certain Vancouver circles a year ago that Edward Chavarie had developed acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Chavarie, 35, is a slight, well-groomed clerk at Vancouver’s Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium, which specializes in homosexual subjects. The unnerving rumor “had gone around because I was so thin and in the winter I lose my color,” he said. But then, he added, “somebody told me that he had heard I was dead.” Chavarie, who is homosexual, was so startled by the conversation that he immediately went to his doctor for AIDS testing. He does not have AIDS, but the experience continues to haunt him. Like many homosexual men, Chavarie is now preoccupied with avoiding AIDS, which attacks the immune system and leaves the body vulnerable to other deadly disorders. Said Chavarie: “These are the 1980s. You don’t want to kilbyourself.”
Lost: As medical researchers around the world search for ways to prevent or cure AIDS, members of Canada’s homosexual community are mourning lost friends, consoling the afflicted and finding ways to minimize their chances of contracting the disease. Canada’s first case of AIDS was reported in 1981. Since then the lethal virus has contributed to 435 deaths, most of them homosexuals. Currently there are 394 reported sufferers in Canada, including some intravenous drug users, 17 children and more than a dozen women. Most researchers agree that the possibility that AIDS could spread rapidly to heterosexuals in North America is real. Still, AIDS continues to wreak iits most devastating effects on homosexuals. And across Canada, members of that community have made remarkable efforts to cope with a disease that they had not even heard of less than a decade ago.
Most major Canadian cities now have well-organized support groups for AIDS sufferers, which are run mostly by volunteers. Homosexual organizations are often in the forefront of efforts to educate the public about the disease. With the rapid spread of AIDS, Canadian health and government authorities have allocated more money to AIDS research. But confronting disappointing research results, concerned health experts agree on the urgent need for an all-out campaign to promote safe sexual practices—for every-
one. Said Kenneth Morrison, education director of the Comité-SIDA/Aide Montréal (C-SAM), the city’s AIDS committee: “The only thing that people will agree on is that prevention is all we have.”
After a fitful start, safe-sex programs are beginning to have a measur-
able impact, particularly among homosexuals. The programs stress the potential dangers of any sexual act that involves the transfer of bodily fluids into the blood stream and the need for condoms in sexual encounters outside a monogamous relationship. As a result, some studies are now finding that a new sense of caution has altered homosexual lifestyles.
Since 1982 Dr. Martin Schechter, a physician at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has studied
600 men in an effort to trace the spread of AIDS in the city’s homosexual community. Every six months the men see their family doctors and are tested for antibodies to the human immunodeficiency virus (Hiv), which can develop into AIDS. They are also asked about their sexual behavior.
Schechter told Maclean's that respondents report their average number of sexual partners has declined. As well, nearly 40 per cent of the men now use condoms, up from 10 per cent at the start of the study.
Warmth: But homosexuals who have decided to sharply curtail their sexual activity face a new problem—the loss of intimacy. Said Chavarie: “I have gone months and months without sex, and what you miss is the warmth. I am not looking for a one-night stand, I’m
looking for a relationship.” And the emphasis on a stable sex life that can reduce the likelihood of contracting AIDS is not confined to homosexual men. Said Leslie Kennedy, an attractive 23-year-old from Vancouver: “I ended a relationship with a man because I was quite certain that he was bisexual, and I was really afraid that he might have AIDS.”
Depression: But for
AIDS sufferers, the near certainty that the disease will lead to death often leads to severe depression. But many people with AIDS told Maclean's that the support they have received from friends and family members has made their ordeal easier. Kevin Brown, 37, a founder of the Persons with AIDS Coalition of Vancouver and a former elementary school teacher, learned in June, 1985, that he has AIDS. “The big fear is that people will run in terror,”
Brown said. “But what
really happens is that people open up
their arms and take you in.”
Still, Brown said that he found the sudden loss of sexual intimacy unbearable. Then last August, after more than a year of celibacy, he met a young man in San Francisco who was prepared to engage in sexual activity. Said Brown: “We both realized that safe sex was necessary and that if you did not engage in an activity that would transmit the virus, you were not in jeopardy.” Brown invited his friend to Vancouver last month. “I took him to all sorts of functions and showed him the town. A lot of other people with AIDS who met him were flabbergasted that I could have a boyfriend or a date. It set them thinking that they were not the lepers that people would like them to believe they are.”
Grim: For the most part, homosexuals across Canada have embarked on major efforts to promote safe sex— and not necessarily in a grim and humorless fashion. During the holiday season in Montreal, volunteers in Santa Claus suits handed out more than 5,000 condoms in the city’s homosexual bars as part of a program—run by C-SAM— called Play Safe. Two sex
shops in Montreal now sell black-andwhite checked handkerchiefs which, when worn in the back pocket, indicate that the wearer practises safe sex.
The programs are at least partially effective. Last April, after Montreal Play Safe volunteers distributed 10,000
condoms and pamphlets in 27 homosexual bars and five saunas in downtown Montreal, a follow-up survey found that 57 per cent of those who responded said that the campaign had changed their sexual habits. Said a homosexual store manager in Montreal, who asked not to be named: “Sexual practices have definitely changed. Everyone is much more careful about where they meet people, who they sleep with and what they do.”
AIDS Vancouver, an organization sim-
ilar to Montreal’s C-SAM, offers a similar program and distributes an illustrated pamphlet warning, “Responsible sex play is a must for your health, the health of others and the health of the community.” But, it adds, safe sex “does not, repeat not, have to be boring.” The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), offers workshops designed to eroticize safe sex practices. Said a homosexual Toronto writer, who does volunteer work for ACT: “The crisis has brought people closer together. The last five years have been a tremendous time of maturing for the gay community.”
Warnings: And the
educational efforts by homosexuals are aimed at a wider audience. Robert Tivey, director of AIDS Vancouver, said that his organization is trying to educate not just homosexuals but everyone who has not been celibate or in a monogamous relationship for at least five years. But Tivey is concerned that many younger people are reluctant to listen to warnings about sex. Declared Tivey: “Having to associate sex with death, to recognize that sex can kill you, is very difficult for young people. There is a lot of denial.” Added Vancouver’s Schechter: “We discovered that men under 30 were not changing their behavior as much as the older people.” Volunteers also cited another group— bisexual men—as being difficult to educate about AIDS. Declared Toronto writer Caroline Soles, a volunteer with ACT in Toronto: “It’s the married guy from the suburbs, who cruises into the city from time to time, that we have trouble reaching.”
Reality: Now, partly as a result of the hard work of the people most threatened by AIDS, the evidence is slowly mounting that Canadians are beginning to understand that practising safe sex is a necessity. Still, for many homosexuals the terror of catching AIDS is an ever-present reality. Said Vancouver’s Edward Chavarie: “There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about AIDS.”
-ANN FINLAYSON with MARK LEIREN-YOUNG in Vancouver and correspondents’ reports
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