Radio — Community-based research and advocacy supporting gay and bi men’s health

Michael Kwag is the director of knowledge exchange and policy development at the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC). Scott Neigh talks with him about the CBRC’s use of research, community-level interventions, and advocacy to promote the health of gay, bi, trans, Two-Spirit, and queer men.

Grassroots organizing in the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis produced a number of important legacies. Some, of course, were victories of immediate relevance to the wellbeing of people living with HIV and AIDS. As well, subsequent social movements have drawn on both the direct action tactics and the distinct political sensibility of the more radical wing of the AIDS movement. And the movement won practical victories that continue to benefit people to this day – for example, the Trillium Drug Benefit in Ontario that supports low-income people in accessing prescription drugs.

Another important legacy encompassed a range of interventions in the politics of health-related research. The movement in the 1980s and 1990s was highly critical of how AIDS-related research and the interventions informed by that research were being conducted, arguing that they seldom reflected the needs of people living with HIV and AIDS. They demanded an active and participatory role in shaping and guiding the research.

The Community-Based Research Centre was incorporated in 1999 by a small group of gay men in Vancouver who were concerned about how HIV prevention work was happening, about the supports being made available to gay and bisexual men, and about how research around HIV was happening. They argued that the lack of involvement by people impacted by HIV in HIV-related research meant that the data being produced was not suitable to inform the kinds of community-based, grassroots, and patient-centred responses that were most urgently needed. Too often, things like research into risk factors that was decontextualized from the broader realities of gay and bi men’s lives ended up reinforcing stigma and informing policy and programming decisions that left some people vulnerable. One of the CBRC’s major early initatives was called Sex Now, a research project that involved getting gay, bi, and queer men involved in conducting surveys in community contexts that could then be used to shape and strengthen HIV-prevention work.

Though the CBRC originally focused on British Columbia and is still headquartered in Vancouver, it went national in 2017 and now has satellite offices in a number of different cities across the country. At this point, the CBRC’s work encompasses a broad range of kinds of programming related to promoting the health of gay, bi, trans, Two-Spirit, and queer men. Some of this is oriented towards developing and delivering community-based interventions geared towards health promotion. They have programs that focus on developing grassroots community leadership and on building networks related to queer and trans health. They engage in various sorts of public education work. But they still are quite involved in community-based research, and also in some campaigning and policy advocacy.

The Sex Now survey remains a central part of their community-based research agenda. They continue to refine and expand it, and it has become a data set that is widely used by govenments, health providers, and other researchers. As well, their Investigaytors project is focused on building research-related skills and capacities among queer and trans men in the course of participation in designing, conducting, and analyzing real community-based research. Though a lot has changed over the last two decades, the CBRC continues to believe that direct involvement by the people most directly affected is crucial to shaping a research agenda that meets people’s needs.

In terms of their campaign and advocacy work, a few years ago they ran a major project that mobilized queer and trans youth to resist stigma in a variety of ways. More recently, they have been involed in policy advocacy around things like the effort to ban conversion therapy in Canada and removing barriers that keep men who have sex with men from donating blood.

The CBRC’s annual conference, called The Summit, is coming up on November 4 to 6. It will be all online this year, and registration is free. And in light of both the COVID-19 crisis and the uprising against racism and police brutality, the theme of this year’s conference is “Resistance and Responsibility.” The agenda will include LGBTQ-specific COVID research, various racial justice topics, the overdose crisis, sexual health, mental health, and lots of other things.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of the Community-Based Research Centre.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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