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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Editorial: Taking the NZAF to task

Posted in: HIV
By Jay Bennie - 24th January 2009

After three years of structural change, which has included the departure of several high profile staff members and the appointment of new blood, particularly into the reorganised gay men’s health area, the NZAF remains the subject of a fair amount of cynicism and criticism.

It's been variously accused of being a poor employer, of producing few and ineffective campaigns, of hiding the details of its finances from public view, of being directionless and falling from its position as a world leader in HIV prevention. It's even been accused of diluting, or plotting to dilute, its focus on men who have sex with men. And there’s more.

Sometimes it seems that any time, anywhere in the glbt communities, when you mention the words "AIDS Foundation" the response is a pained sigh, or worse.

All this against a background of a marked increase in the number of New Zealand men who have sex with men contracting HIV. From an annual low, in 1997, of 27 gay and bi men learning they must spend the rest of their lives fighting HIV illness, our rate surged up to 90 per year by 2005. Although there was a small drop in 2006 which was sustained in 2007, advance information revealed to this week suggests that the almost-compiled figures for 2008 will go back up.

Why? The reasons are various and backed up by a tricky mix of hard data and informed speculation. But it is generally accepted that changing socio-sexual patterns due to the rise of the internet, condom fatigue, lowered visibility of the results of HIV infection and an ever-increasing pool of otherwise healthy and sexually active HIV positive men, who may or may not know they have the virus, are amongst the most significant factors.

There’s also the possibility, according to AIDS Epidemiology Group Research Fellow Sue McAlister at Otago Medical School, that more men are now acknowledging their homosexuality or bisexuality and are therefore more aware of the relevance of HIV infection in their lives and are thus more open to HIV testing. Viewed in this light, a marked increase in the numbers of gay and bi men turning up for STD tests, including for HIV, might be encouraging. But our increasing levels of exposure to such 'old' diseases as syphilis and HIV, generally a good indication of 'unsafe' sexual practises, is a mounting worry.

Five years ago, as the upswing in diagnoses was becoming blindingly obvious, Rachael Le Mesurier was appointed, by a Trust Board of gay men, as the new Executive Director of the NZ AIDS Foundation. She became a lightning rod for mounting discontent, essentially based on two reasons: she’s not a gay man; and she embarked on a structural and attitudinal revamp of the Foundation in a stated attempt to better address the changed, and still changing, nature of our identities, communities and sexual patterns.

Le Mesurier's detractors say she has wrecked the Foundation, demoralised the staff, and that under her leadership the once apparently infallible NZAF has lost its way. Her supporters point out that her tactics were backed up by the gay board, were based on input from senior staff, and that she inherited an organisation that was due for a shake-up. In this light those who claim Le Mesurier has created a crap organisation are painted as a mix of disaffected former staffers, people with axes to grind, plus a few who don't understand the complexity of the Foundation's post-2000 task and pine for past 'glory days'.

Of course the NZAF has never been without its critics. It has always stimulated passionate observers to publicly take it to task. The highly vocal ginger group Gay Men Fighting AIDS in the mid-90s was a prime example. More recently, NZAF observer and frequent critic Bill Logan went so far as publicly putting the Foundation on notice that its appointing him an Honourary Life Member would not shut him up.

In glbt environments such as's Forum the conversations fairly crackle with accusation and innuendo, with claims and counter-claims, about the way the NZAF is operating and where it is or is not heading.

With HIV still apparently on the upswing and the NZ AIDS Foundation still our best shot at addressing the problem, and to mark five years of the new broom sweeping through the corridors of the NZAF's offices in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch, will, on Monday, start reporting on Le Mesurier’s responses to the most frequent and/or disturbing recent criticisms leveled at the NZAF.

Her responses will throw some light on the situation, but will they ever be sufficient to placate her most fervent critics?

Jay Bennie - 24th January 2009