Michael Yoder was diagnosed HIV positive when he was 33 years old. It was 1995, but as a gay man “willing to take risks” in his youth, Yoder believed he had been positive since his mid-20s. Still, the news came as a shock.
“I think I’d known for a long time, but I just wasn’t ready to hear it for sure,” he recounts. “I had positive partners, so I lived and protected myself and my partners as though I was positive, but that moment you hear it, there’s still that shock. I cried.”
Seventeen years later, and just after celebrating his 50th birthday, Yoder has become a positive force for men in the gay community who are surviving a similar story. With the help of the Victoria AIDS Resource and Community Service Society (VARCS) Yoder was contracted to create a support group for HIV-positive men who want a place to find community without having to dole out the explanations — and so, Positively Connected was born. Now, a year into its creation, the group holds 20 or more members at any given time and is offering Victoria residents a place to find refuge.
“There is so much to deal with when you first find out you’re positive, and it’s something people, even allies, can’t quite get unless you’ve been there,” says Yoder. “This is really a space where guys can get together and not have to explain — we get it; and then real conversation can start from there.”
The group currently hosts a monthly coffee or pub night at various establishments around town, as well as regular get-togethers — hiking, fishing trips and the like. Because the group is focused towards positive gay men, Yoder says discussions are open and frank, and topics can range from conversations with your specialist, to issues around disclosure, to challenges with sexual expression, to lively debates around theatre and sports. While Yoder points out that HIV and AIDS used to be seen as the “Gay Man’s Disease,” society has pulled far enough away from that now that gay men are actually struggling to find their place in the community.
“Gay men are essentially falling through the cracks now, as far as the AIDS movement is concerned, and what we’re seeing is a surprising lack of resources aimed to target this group,” Yoder says. “Now the goal is to recreate that community where these men are allowed and accepted and an important part of the movement again.”
Members range in age from 20s to 40s, but Yoder is quick to note that Positively Connected is not a dating group, nor a place to find a quick hook-up — it is, however, a place to find friends and community, and if people find connection from there, all the better, he adds.
“It’s really important for younger guys who are recently diagnosed to be able to come here and see some of our members who have been living with HIV for a long time,” Yoder says. “It gives them a good grounding and can help them realize this doesn’t have to be the end of the world. When I was diagnosed I can remember thinking ‘Am I going to be an old man?’”
While meetings have seen as few as two and as many as 11 members join at any given time, Yoder says he takes solace in the fact that the group is continually growing, especially given Victoria’s “closeted community.” Stigma and misinformation remains rampant, however, even within the gay arena.
To remedy this, two specific campaigns are launching during Pride Week to address some of the stigmas. VARCS “We Belong to Each Other” initiative is geared to remind residents that being interconnected in the community includes people living with HIV, and features a city-wide poster campaign that invites people to pull off the tabs they need with the words “love,” “compassion,” “fun,” “respect” and others. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Island Persons Living with HIV/AIDS Society is starting the “Positively Beautiful!” poster campaign, designed to showcase facts and misinformation associated with persons living with HIV.
“HIV is actually one of the harder STIs to catch — you actually have to work at it,” says Yoder. “Sadly, though, it’s also the one that still has the most misinformation because we don’t want to face it — it contains everything (people) hate talking about: sex, drugs and death. So, that’s exactly why we need to talk about it.” M
To learn more, check out Positively Connected’s booth at the Pride Festival Sunday, July 8, 1 p.m. at MacDonald Park (James Bay), or visit the Positively Connected Victoria BC Facebook page.