(left to right) Trevor Stratton, Rodney Rousseau and Christian Hui
The Global Network of People Living with HIV is the only international network of people living with HIV. I recently sat down with Trevor Stratton, Christian Hui and Rodney Rousseau, three current and/or past board members of the organization’s North American region, to learn more about this network and its work.
John McCullagh: My first question for you guys is, What is GNP+ North America?
Trevor Stratton: GNP+ North America is one of seven regional networks of people living with HIV (PLHIV) around the world, connected to a global board in Amsterdam. GNP+ North America consists of Canada and the United States. Our mission is to improve the quality of life of PLHIV. The vision is a powerful and united worldwide social movement of PLHIV, with our leadership and voices at the centre of the HIV response.
John: So this is the Canadian and American region of a global network. Why is it do you think that, apart from our membership in this bi-national branch of an international organization, we really haven’t had a national organization of people living with HIV?
Rodney Rousseau: Part of the reason, I think, has to do with geography and culture. Two of our largest cities, Toronto and Vancouver, are over 3,000 km apart and, while Toronto and Montréal are closer, the language barrier makes it hard to do meaningful work together in a cost effective way.
Christian Hui: It also has to do with how HIV organizing has changed. In the early grass-roots days, a lot of different groups and activists came together with very little funding. But when governments became involved and HIV work became increasingly professionalized, many of us actually living with HIV lost our voice. This isn’t to say AIDS service organizations (ASOs) are not doing a good job but they do experience considerable constraint in advocacy work, due to the limitations placed on doing that by government funders. We really need an organization like GNP+ that can speak to the needs of PLHIV without feeling pressured to say what the funders might want us to say or or by various organizational constraints.
Trevor: That’s right. But the response to the epidemic has changed in other ways too, since those early years. There was a time when those of us living with HIV had to be fighting our corner because nobody else was. But since the arrival of ARVs and with people no longer dying prematurely, in Canada at least, the urgency around HIV we used to feel is perhaps not felt so urgently any more.
John: So, Rodney, as a younger guy living with HIV, what do you see, what do you think? What is the value for someone of your generation of having a national organization of PLHIV?
Rodney: Well, I’ve been around a little bit on a national level, mainly in research. Meeting people on a national level, being part of a community of people who are trying to make change, is great. I think there is the same kind of potential to get young, poz people together to figure out what our priorities should be. I also think it’s important to think on a global scale. I was at the World Pride Human Rights Conference here in Toronto this past summer and I met some people from Uganda. One gay guy there talked about homophobia in his country, where most of the epidemic was perceived to be among heterosexual populations. So gay poz guys there, when they access services, have to pretend to be straight. So it’s really different in some international contexts and it brings to light the parallel issues of HIV human rights and gay rights.
John: What are the issues you see that face you and other people of your generation living with HIV here in Canada?
Rodney: I would say the main one is stigma and a main mechanism of that is rejection. Rejection whether that’s someone wanting to hook up sexually or go on a date with someone or rejection related to employment or housing or any of those things. Which you are sometimes able to avoid, for example you don’t have to disclose in employment or housing or any of those things, but if you choose to be out about your status, particularly in the mainstream and social media, these are things that you need to consider. I grew up in Northwestern Ontario, absolutely in the middle of nowhere. And because I’m very public about my status here in Toronto, I’m waiting for the day when I experience stigma related to HIV when I go home. I go home very infrequently but I’m sure it will happen. Then there is the whole issue of criminalization.
John: Yes, indeed. Criminalization of non-disclosure — unjust laws not based on scientific evidence about who transmits HIV and how. Perhaps only we, as PLHIV can address that, would you say?
Rodney: I think it’s tricky because the courts aren’t even listening to scientists so it’s hard for PLHIV, let alone ASOs and other groups, to make a change to ensure policy is evidence-based. But light is being shed on this, so I’d like to hope that things will change.
John: So, as we said earlier, GNP+ is a global organization of PLHIV with a North American region that covers both Canada and the States. What are the benefits and challenges, would you say, of being part of a North American-wide region as opposed to a purely Canadian region?
Christian: Yes, GNP+ North America is a unique because it’s transnational. But we do try to balance the participation equally. So, for example, while the population of the United States is a lot larger than Canada’s, we have a board of eight Canadians and eight Americans so that the representation between the two countries in the region is balanced. Although our two countries are different in a number of ways — our publicly-funded healthcare system, for example — we also share a number of commonalities, like our neo-liberal economic and social policies and our retributive legal systems. So we share a lot of the same challenges and are therefore able to address them together.
Trevor: Let me add that we don’t have a lot of funding, so one of the ways we benefit from being a transnational region is that we are lucky to have a regional coordinator, if only part time. Our coordinator actually serves on the UN AIDS program coordination board (PCB) as a civil society representative and that’s huge because it represents the unspoken voices of the many, many different kinds of key populations and the many issues that we still need to address such as treatment access.
Christian: This past year, our involvement in the UNAIDS PCB has allowed us to participate in a community consultation process through which we were able to advocate to have the immigrant and refugee and non-status PHA population to be acknowledged as as a key population in the HIV response.
Trevor: We also benefit from being part of an international organization, because we can share ideas and organizing across a global network. I think that, as poz people in a resource-rich country such as ours, we should not only be addressing our own key populations and our own issues but also be advocating for other regions in the world, where the issues are, in many ways, more challenging than ours.
John: Most of us lead busy lives, with work or school, so we have to prioritize how we spend our volunteer time. So what would GNP+ give me that maybe volunteering for an ASO wouldn’t? How would I feel as a PLHIV my issues and my voice are heard and I can make a contribution?
Christian: I guess for me, it really would give me an opportunity to work with people from across the country. Being based in Toronto I don’t often get a chance to work with my brothers and sisters down east, in the Prairies or on the west coast. GNP+ gives me a clearer picture of how HIV is impacting different regions and as a network we do have the potential to create some momentum. We can’t replace the local HIV voice but I believe that we can work together with groups from each region to address issues we all have in common.
John: What’s involved in being a member?
Christian: Right now we are really trying to rethink how we engage our membership. We’ve piloted a membership survey, the final version of which we’ll be sending out soon, because we need our members to guide us in terms of what do they want GNP+ to stand for, what are some of the key issues they want us to address. Meantime, GNP+ has tools developed by positive individuals such as the Positive Health Dignity Prevention Framework which was developed at the Living Pre-conference in 2012 prior to the AIDS International conference. GNP+ also has initiatives such as the Criminalization Scan, the GIPA Report Card and the Stigma Index which we can draw upon to implement locally.
Trevor: Most of what we do is done through board and committee work, and these are held by teleconference. There are four committees currently. We have a fundraising committee, the mandate of which is obvious. The outreach/communications committee is working hard to create an e-newsletter as a way to engage our membership. Then there’s the advocacy committee which provides opportunities to work on HIV-related causes you are passionate about. And finally, there’s the international committee for people who are interested in linking the local community to the global scene.
John: Rodney, although you have now moved on to other commitments, you were one of GNP+ North America’s youngest board members. What motivated you to get involved?
Rodney: Well, it got me out of my Toronto bubble. Like most of us who live here, it’s kind of problematic sometimes because we can forget not everyone lives in an urban centre with all the resources and programming it offers. It provided me with the opportunity to give something back to the national and international community beyond what I do with my local community.
John: So if I’m interested in getting involved with GNP+ North America, how do I go about that?
Christian: Simple. Just go to our website www.gnpna.org and click on Get Involved, input your information and join us as a member! We’d love to have you!
Trevor Stratton is a 49-year old citizen of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation near Toronto, Ontario with mixed English and Ojibwe heritage. Diagnosed with HIV in 1990, Trevor turned to his community and the Aboriginal HIV & AIDS movement for support and became an activist, volunteer and consultant. He is now the Coordinator for the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV & AIDS for its host organization, the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN). Trevor is also one of two Liaisons for Aboriginal People living with HIV & AIDS (APHA Liaison) at CAAN. Trevor is the Co-chair for Canada on the board of GNP+NA and also a board member of the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE).
Christian Hui has lived with HIV since 2003. He is a steering committee member of the Toronto HIV/AIDS Network, and a board member of the Canadian Treatment Action Council and the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development. As the secretary for the Global Network of People Living with HIV North America (GNP+NA), he strongly advocates for human rights and the greater and meaningful involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS. His work at Asian Community AIDS Services in Toronto and the Committee for Accessible AIDS Treatment has allowed him to raise awareness on issues facing ethno-racial and Immigrant, Refugee and Non-status (IRN) PLHIVs.
Rodney Rousseau is a gay man with HIV living in Toronto. He is a graduate student at the University of Toronto studying mucosal HIV immunology. Having been involved in HIV and LGBT work for over five years, Rodney has been engaged in research, governance, priority-setting, event planning, outreach and advocacy.