Bob Leahy: Thanks for talking to PositiveLite.com, Scott. I’ve wanted to meet you for ages but we’ve always just missed each other. Anyway, I want to start by asking the obvious question: what is the need that OutNPoz is filling?
Scott Nickerson: Well, one of the concerns we have is that people living with HIV have become “clientized” – there are all kinds of services available through AIDS Service Organizations and such – but there is no one who focuses on the social aspect. We have been around twenty years. Did you know that? In the early days, meetings were rather private and clandestine but over time, the group started venturing out into the community. A group has been meeting in a restaurant for Sunday brunch for some time, for instance. But when I started to get involved – this was six years ago when I was diagnosed - I went to my first event – Sparkle – and it was a closed party with the windows blacked out. It was not a cheerful space; it was a hiding place.
The next year we decided we should have a table at (Toronto) Pride – there had never been one – and the idea wasn’t popular, the thought being that we wouldn’t find anyone to participate. Anyway, I took a break and returned five years later, and discovered the same problem, with few positive gay men being out in the community - so they don’t know each other, plus 60% of the poz community was not working and had limited financial resources. There hadn’t been a lot of progress, so I decided to get re-involved.
By the way, is OutNPoz still free to join?
It is still free and always has been but unfortunately the time has come that we may not be able to continue operate this way. We are looking at moving to a fee-based membership model to cover costs this year. We are very grateful to the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) who have been wonderful supporters over the years when we were just a small group of under 100 people. Now approaching 450 our communication costs alone consume most of the grant we receive from ACT. Our SPARKLE party is the highlight of the season for many of our members. Woody’s/SAILOR is our very generous host venue and we were able to fund SPARKLE only with reserves from the previous year.
Ok. But is sounds like for a while that despite your group’s name, OutNPoz people weren’t very “out.” So is the club in fact for people who are already “out?” And is there a disclosure issue for people who may not be wanting to be identified as poz while out with members in a restaurant or something?
Well, most people after a period of time come to realize that the only ones concerned about their status are themselves.
It’s a bit like going in to gay bar for the first time, right? You think you are going to be spotted so you wait outside for a bit. We have all been there. But I imagine people also may have the disclosure issue down pat but they are just plan shy, don’t feel they are good at meeting people. How does that pan out in the context of OutNPoz?
What we have discovered is that it’s only their first time that it’s an issue. It’s that “crossing the threshold” thing that we have to get people past. I can give you half a dozen examples, though, of people that were very shy, very withdrawn and very secretive about their status. But after just a few meetings they are naked at Hanlan’s Point (Toronto’s nude beach).
So is OutNPoz a good place to meet a boyfriend?
Well, it’s certainly going to be this year. For so many years the gay community has gone online for meeting people, for casual partners, and occasionally you run into that special person you have a sexual connection with and a romantic one forms.
This is an opportunity to meet other people outside the traditional cruising settings.
Yes. The difference with us is these two new groups we have started – PozNDating and PozNSexy. With the first we are creating a group which is composed of men who wish to date other men. All we ask is that you provide your first name, your face picture and to disclose that you are HIV-positive.
So will that be an online way of hooking up?
It actually isn’t. What we are going to be doing is creating events, things like dinner parties for 12 men. They can learn how to be social without being in a binary situation. They can re-hone their seduction skills, maybe and on becoming appealing to others; many people have isolated themselves for many years and aren’t very comfortable in social situations but we want to change that for them.
What about PozNSexy?
I don’t want people to jump to the conclusion that we are trying to arrange sex parties. What it is about is helping men heal and re-embrace their sexuality that many men have pushed deep in the closet, become isolated or they are stuck in a clandestine kind of sexuality. So these type of sex-positive events are about engaging groups of men. Together they can explore places and opportunities that maybe they hadn’t been before. They could lead to sex. There is no shame in being in that kind of space.
Sounds interesting and as for regular events that OutNPoz itself offers, you mentioned a monthly brunch?
We also have roaming brunches around the city where we try to go to inexpensive places, less than $10. We have monthly dances which will be relaunching on April 3 with (PositiveLite.com contributor) DJ Relentless at Club 120 in Toronto.
Do you attract people who are out of town?
We have a great number of people who travel in for the monthly dance. We are going to be starting marketing these events as a big deal, really encouraging the entire community to come out. This is not just a dance for the poz community, it’s a dance put on by the poz community.
Sounds like you have been very busy. Let me ask about you. You’ve been diagnosed how long?
Since 2009. I was formerly Director of the Computer Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax. I’m currently not employed. My partner is James Forbes; we have been together for three years. I’m 54 and a father of three adult children.
When did you come out as gay?
At age 37. But I’ve been out about being poz since day one. When I came out at 37 my children were very much part of it. My wife and I separated purely for this reason – because I realized I was a different person, but we parted friends and my children grew up to gay being a normal part of their life. And when I was diagnosed I wasn’t going to hide something that was so manageable and so important.
Did you go on treatment immediately then?
Yes. I didn’t have an easy seroconversion. I was gravely ill and 130 lbs. My CD4 count was 120. But I chose not to be a victim. I was undetectable within several months and once I was well again, I realized I can’t grieve the illness, I need to get on with my life. I traded the business world for where I work twice the hours on this project. It is exhausting but I know it has benefitted a lot of people.
I’m hearing good things about the club all the time. Good luck with your new activities, Scott, and thank you for talking to PositiveLite.com.
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