ACAS is currently the only operating HIV/AIDS service organization in Canada dedicated specifically to the sexual health of East and Southeast Asians…
By Ryan Tran
In a multicultural and vibrant city like Toronto, it’s common for folks to search for a community where they feel at home. The Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS) is that second home for so many – a place where being Asian meets being queer. ACAS is currently the only operating HIV/AIDS service organization in Canada dedicated specifically to the sexual health of East and Southeast Asians. While our background begins with HIV and sexual health, our work also includes creating safer spaces and providing support for the LGBTQ+ Asian community.
It’s rare to find spaces that celebrate all parts of your identity. Asian communities can be heteronormative, while LGBTQ+ spaces don’t always make space for queer Asians to speak up. It is difficult to articulate just how powerful it is to be with others who share the same experiences and can understand your story. The experience is both refreshing and healing.
One of the programs at ACAS is the Men’s Program, or SLAM (Sex, Love, Asian Men). SLAM provides workshops and social events for East and Southeast Asian gay, bi, queer cis and trans men. At a time when we rely heavily on online dating apps, gay bars and clubs to socialize, ACAS is a friendly refuge and a refreshing space to connect more meaningfully with other queer Asian men. It’s easy to find meaningful conversations to fulfill that social intimacy we all yearn for.
We are also progressing towards an HIV status-neutral approach that destigmatizes HIV. This approach helps create a safer and inclusive environment for PHAs (people living with HIV/AIDS) to be more involved in the community. As a gay Asian man, I might not always feel like I fit in with other gay men. For people living with HIV, the stigma can drive these folks even further away from community. Having a place like ACAS – that is welcoming and inclusive of our intersecting identities of being Asian, queer, immigrants and/or HIV-positive – is something I’m grateful for.
Although HIV treatment and prevention has come a long way in the past decade, HIV stigma and the lack of education remains a big issue. While the gay community is inundated with messages about using condoms, testing and PrEP, we still see new cases of HIV affecting gay Asian men. U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable), and the research that proves people with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV through sex, is still a new concept to many. Change takes time, and there are many who are skeptical and unable to believe in this new fact because they can’t overcome what they previously knew about HIV.
We have also seen an increasing number of international students who test positive for HIV during their stay in Toronto. Compounding factors like minimal or no sexual health education, language barriers, inability to negotiate condoms, sexual racism and fear of rejection all play a part. As newcomers to Canada, this may be an opportunity for them to explore their sexuality, but without the proper sexual health education these individuals may be taking big risks, unknowingly.
By creating inclusive spaces for all LGBTQ+ East and Southeast Asian folks, ACAS hopes to continue improving the overall well-being of our community. We understand how our cultural experiences as LGBTQ+ Asians in dealing with coming out, immigration, relationships and language can affect our sexual health in different ways. By addressing these aspects, we hope to continue to improve the sexual health of our community.
For more details on events at ACAS, you can visit their Facebook page or visit www.acas.org. The Men’s Program has a closed Facebook group that can be accessed by contacting Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RYAN TRAN is the MSM sexual health coordinator with the Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS).