A conversation with Randy Davis, the gay men’s sexual health coordinator for the Gilbert Centre…
The Gilbert Centre is a not-for-profit charitable organization that has been operating for more than 25 years in Barrie, Ont. It provides social and support services to empower, promote health, and celebrate the lives of people living with and affected by HIV, hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted infections, as well as individuals and families from the LGBTQ2S communities of Simcoe County and Muskoka Region. We recently sat down and chatted with Randy Davis, the centre’s gay men’s sexual health coordinator, to find out more about the organization and how they educate and help individuals and communities.
Tell us about you and your work. What motivates you?
Prior to joining the team at the Gilbert Centre three years ago, I had a totally unrelated career in finance for more than a decade. I became an advocate and activist for people living with HIV (PLHIV) when I first publicly disclosed my HIV+ status in 2017, two years after my diagnosis.
Back in early 2015 when I heard the words “you’ve tested positive for HIV,” I thought my life was over, that I’d be alone forever and no one would ever love me. It was the support and unconditional love of [my husband] Aaron and my family that helped me find the courage to share my story and experiences openly and unapologetically in an effort to dismantle the stigma of living with HIV. My husband is HIV negative and therefore the message and movement of U=U [Undetectable equals Untransmittable] is near and dear to my heart, and a subject I speak on as often as possible. Stigma is the equation of ignorance and fear, so the best way to counteract its effects is with education.
I have been fortunate to have partnered with a number of amazing individuals and organizations within the HIV sector to help spread awareness, and even hosted the month-long, cross-Canada Slay Stigma Tour, featuring Trinity K Bone’t, from RuPaul’s Drag Race, in October of 2019. I also host a local 2SLGBTQ+ focused interview show on Roger’s TV Barrie/YouTube called Let’s Be Perfectly Queer. Most recently, I helped launch, and now manage, a new sexual health clinic at the Gilbert Centre – during the COVID-19 pandemic – called the InclusHIV Care Clinic.
For those who don’t know, what is U=U and why is it such a game changer?
U=U, or Undetectable equals Untransmittable, means that someone living with HIV, who has access to effective antiretroviral treatment (ART) and care, can suppress the levels of the virus to such low amounts that it becomes Undetectable through traditional lab work. When a person living with HIV attains a suppressed or Undetectable viral load, not only is their health improved but it also makes it impossible to pass on the HIV virus to sexual partners. The virus becomes Untransmittable. This information opens up sexual and reproductive freedoms for PLHIV and helps to eradicate the stigma around sex and living with HIV.
The recent Positive Perspectives Study (Wave 2) has highlighted some important facts about people living with HIV and their care. Can you tell us about that and why it’s so significant?
This study, which was led by ViiV Healthcare, has been effective in helping to understand the unmet needs of people living with HIV and to shift conversations towards quality of life focused approaches to treatment and care for all PLHIV. The HIV sector is very much driven by data, and this study provides that data which links nuanced approaches to the health care of PLHIV, to an increased quality of life that we all deserve.
In your opinion, what are some of the barriers that exist for PLHIV in accessing new and better treatment options?
Access to accurate and factual information to new and emerging treatment options for PLHIV is often difficult to navigate, as many healthcare providers [HCPs] seem determined to play the role of ‘gatekeeper’ instead of entertaining the idea that treatment change for some can be a good thing. When I was first diagnosed, I was put on a one-pill/three-drug treatment that had me reach an undetectable viral load in less than six months with minimum side effects. I was and still am incredibly grateful to have had access to such wonderful treatment and care, but when I decided I wanted to switch to a one-pill/two-drug treatment a few years later, it was through my own research and advocacy that it came to pass and not from my healthcare provider.
To have the onus on the patient to discover alternate and better treatment options for themselves without an HCP bringing these options forward just doesn’t seem right. HCPs should be up to date on all treatment options available for patients and not hesitate to provide those alternatives where appropriate.
What message would you give to healthcare providers working with people living with HIV?
In my opinion, listening is the key. It’s unfortunate that this has to be pointed out in the first place, but it is often necessary. We, as PLHIV, are the experts on how each of us is affected by this virus. Do not dismiss our concerns and questions – engage with us in thoughtful and respectful exchanges of information and strategies to improve our health outcomes and quality of life. As the Positive Perspectives Study, Wave 2, found, “Talking can make a real difference and PLHIV-HCP engagement was significantly associated with better health outcomes.”
With Pride season upon us, what is the link between HIV advocacy and activism? Why is it important for us to continue to “ACT UP”?
Pride started as a riot, and that activism and advocacy was the fuel that lit the fuse for change. These fires must be reignited in the fight to eradicate the HIV virus and stop new transmissions. I truly believe that the quiet, passive and polite approaches need to make way for a return to loud, proud, boisterous, unapologetic, political and peaceful marches, rallies, sit-ins and, when necessary, public shaming to ensure that substantive and lasting change is finally achieved – because history has shown us that SILENCE = DEATH.
The Gilbert Centre is located at #555-80 Bradford Street in Barrie, Ont. For more information, visit gilbertcentre.ca.
* The opinions expressed are those of Randy Davis and not necessarily those of the Gilbert Centre.
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