We only have what we give: how to build your helping relationship with gay and bisexual men in Ontario

By Daniel Pugh

The phone call came into my extension and sounded a touch like this:

Caller:  Yes, hello my name is ____________ and I’m a child and youth worker for _______________.  Yesterday, I received a referral for a young gay man about the age of 16 who is struggling with his sexual orientation and suffering from some anxiety and depression.  We don’t really have any resources for this ‘kind of case’ (LGBT), and I’m looking for help or support.

Me:  OK, thanks for taking the time to give me a call.  While I’m happy to help and know that anxiety and depression are important to address, I work in sexual health and HIV prevention.  Just wondering how you’re making the link to HIV?

Caller:  I’m not really – but you’re the only place in town that addresses LGBT issues…


This transcript captures several conversations I’ve had over the years while working in HIV prevention at the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection in London, Ontario.  This is not to suggest (in any way) that London is particularly known for this kind of challenge.  Instead, it is a common occurrence that I’ve heard from many of my HIV prevention colleagues at AIDS Service Organizations (ASO) across the province.

In 2013, the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance (GMSH) launched the Our Agenda campaign (supporting a strong mind, body and community – www.ouragenda.ca and www.notreagenda.ca).  Aside from agreeing that many gay and bi guys are resilient and strong in the face of ‘challenge’, the core ideas of this campaign are related to research that suggests HIV negative (or, status unknown) gay men are more susceptible to HIV risk and infection if they carry histories of depression, substance use, sexual abuse or assault and homophobia.  But for all gay and bi guys (HIV positive or HIV negative) Our Agenda reinforces the idea that there are many connections between how we feel and how we fuck.

In addition to these ideas, we (GMSH) felt it was important that our mental health colleagues be confident, empowered and ready to work with gay and bi guys knowing that there are specific, unique considerations – different than other populations of folk, including our straight friends.  As a result, I spent the better part of a year building: “Our Agenda – deepening our skill and understanding when working with gay and bisexual men in Ontario, a workshop for mental health providers”The goals look something like this:

  1. Offer evidence-informed strategies to mental health workers 
  2. Draw attention to the relationship between our (gay and bi men) minds, our bodies and our communities
  3. Understand why homophobia and heterosexism are bad for our health and bad for our communities.  And, that other issues like racism, poverty and HIV stigma make ‘matters’ much worse
  4. Celebrate and realize all the great ways gay and bi men have overcome these challenges

These goals read well on paper, but do they leave you asking what you might anticipate from this workshop?  Good question, here are some insights:

  • Learn to process your privilege when working with gay and bi men – even if you’re queer identified yourself! 
  • Learn how to make your work spaces comfortable, welcoming and inclusive of gay and bi men
  • Learn how gay and bi guys have helped themselves and can help each other
  • Find out how to use a “wellness wheel” as a self-reflection tool for you OR your gay, bisexual clients
  • Discover how local resources can fight homophobia
  • Uncover the importance of being sex-positive and how to be respectfully inquisitive
  • Increase your level of awareness about certain psychosocial issues that are key to gay/bi men
  • Find out where and how to find professional allies – build your networks, relationships…
  • Discover and appreciate what your local AIDS Service Organization can do for you and how to find them

In fact, we’ve tested this workshop with several audiences including mental health professionals, addiction workers, counsellors, social workers and sexual health nurses. Here’s some of what they’ve had to say:

  • “Well done - very informative. Looking forward to bringing the training to my organization”
  • “Excellent description & explanations of theories and stats”
  • “It was amazing. I really appreciated the focus on Intersectionality. XX are enthusiastic and engaging presenters. Please bring them back next year! I also loved the emphasis on survival and resilience. LOVE IT!”

Considering all this, I’d like to reframe the phone conversation I started off with.  This time, I’d like us to imagine how that conversation might unfold in a community that had access to this kind of training, a community that contained skilled and inquisitive practitioners who felt good about their professional relationships with gay and bisexual clients.  I do believe that conversation (phone call) would sound something like this:

Caller:  Yes, hello my name is ____________ and I’m a child and youth worker for _______________.  Yesterday, I had my third session with a young gay man (about the age of 16) who is working on his self-esteem.  He’s been talking a lot about pornography and thinking about having sex.  I’m wondering if you could help me build my confidence discussing safer sex strategies and effective communication tips with him?  

Me:  OK, thanks for taking the time to give me a call.  I’d love to share some information with the both of you.  Perhaps we can set up a time to meet face-face and plan our next steps together?  Are there specific questions you (or he) have about sexual health and HIV prevention?

Caller:  Actually, I’d love to learn more about Grindr and how it works.  Also, I think he’s interested in helping out with the local Pride events?  Are you involved with Pride?

Me:  Funny you should ask, some members of our agency are part of the community health committee.  Let’s add this to our agenda together.  I’m sure we can get him set up with Pride stuff no problem!


Doesn’t this conversation sound better than the first one???

To close I will leave you with this: if you’ve read through this and something along the way caught your eye or intrigued you about the way you are (or are not) working with gay and bisexual men across Ontario, than this blog is a success.  Although we all struggle, highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses – gay and bisexual men have adapted to homophobia, racism, and HIV stigma in rare and magnificent ways.  These strategies command our attention as helping professionals.  Challenge yourself to learn more, deepen your practice and discover Our Agenda!  

To book a session of Our Agenda – deepening our skill and understanding when working with gay and bisexual men in Ontario, a workshop for mental health providers call your local AIDS Service Organization.  You can find them on the “About Us” page of ouragenda.ca here: www.aso411.ca or here: www.ontarioaidsnetwork.on.ca 

Catch the GMSH in Ottawa on Monday February 10, 2014 from 1-5 pm as we provide full training to a collection of service providers participating in Ottawa’s annual Snowblower event happening from February 6 to 16.  Check out: http://www.aco-cso.ca/Snowblower/ 

Finally, I’d like to give special thanks to all of the folks on my advisory committee for their support and assistance.  They include; Stephanie Carter, David Brennan, Lori Ross, Bill Gayner, Trevor Hart, James Myslik, Yvette Perreault, Marco Posadas and Rahim Thawer.

If you require further assistance or more information about the workshop contact me: Daniel Pugh via dpugh@gmsh.ca or 1-800-839-0369 x 300

Mr. Pugh works for the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance of Ontario as the Knowledge, Transfer Exchange Coordinator and lives in Toronto.  Daniel is in the process of completing his Master of Social Work at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto.  His dog Boo and little kitty Ruby really helped with the editing of this blog . 


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