Snowblower is an annual winter festival that addresses the unique health and wellness needs of gay men in Ottawa. It’s a community-based festival organized out of the Aids Coalition of Ottawa (ACO), with programming designed to engage men who have sex with men in a sex-positive dialogue about their health. Over 11 days in February, the team behind snowblower will present workshops, parties and information sessions all under this theme. We caught up with Nick Valela, the coordinator of the festival, to find out what he’s got planned for the festival and what they hope to achieve.
Apartment613: What are the unique health challenges facing gay men in Ottawa?
Nick Valela: The health challenges faced by today’s gay men are striking.
In terms of sexual health, the challenges are persistent. Ottawa Public Health has noted that rates of HIV diagnosed among 20-29 year old men are the highest they have been in the last decade – the majority of which (69%) is men who have sex with men (MSM). Anywhere from 11-25% of gay men are living with HIV, now a chronic disease, and overall 30% are infected with high risk HPV causing an annual incidence of anal cancer 35-times greater than the general population.
Gay men also live in greater isolation compared to the general population. Consequently, they suffer more anxiety, depression, alcohol, and substance abuse and engage more often in high risk sexual behaviour. For example, over one-third of gay men smoke cigarettes, which is nearly double the rate of the general Canadian population, leading to higher rates of chronic lung disease and cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, gay men have difficulty accessing the healthcare services they require. On average, only 44% of gay men have disclosed their sexual orientation to their family physician. This is particularly startling given that family physicians are uniquely positioned to either reduce or eliminate barriers to accessing health services. While in many instances gay men present to their physicians with conditions unrelated to their sexual orientation, there are specific health issues associated with being a gay man that consequently cannot be addressed.
This answer surely cannot do justice to all of the health issues gay men face. However, the underlying message must be made clear: More attention and funding must be directed towards local, provincial, and national MSM communities.
Apartment613: How is Snowblower attempting to deal with these issues?
NV: We have approached the festival from a Gay Men’s Health and Wellness framework. In other words, we at ACO are attempting to frame the health of gay men in a proactive fashion that focuses on holistic health and well-being with attention to broader health as a context. HIV has previously been the overriding specific health concern for prevention work in Canada. Although HIV remains a priority in our lives today, it does not and should not define gay men. We prefer to highlight the assets of gay men as resilient actors who have frequently persisted in the face of adversity and today face a series of complex health challenges.
The festival officially opens on Thursday, February 7th with the annual Snowblower Community Fair to be held at Gay ZONE (420 Cooper St.). Here community groups, clubs, businesses, and services will be present to offer information for potential new members and to recruit support with the hope of reducing the barriers to accessing services gay men can experience.
A number of informative workshops have been scheduled on a series of health topics ranging from smoking cessation to flogging 101 to nude yoga!
Two main social events have also been planned to demonstrate that health and wellness needs to be seen broadly, including components such as the arts and social interaction. On February 8th, we invite everyone to “No Pants? No Problem!” – a sex-positive, bias-free underwear dance party at the Royal Canadian Legion. And on February 15th, Snowblower 2013, in partnership with La Petite Mort Gallery present “Snowblown” – an evening of eye-opening performance art with the award-winning Nina Arsenault and local artist Matt Miwa!
Apartment613: You refer to Snowblower as a “proudly sex positive, inclusive festival.” What does this mean and why is this important to your goals?
NV: For ACO, sexuality, in its myriad of expressions, is an integral and natural part of our being and gives meaning and pleasure to our lives. We acknowledge, embrace, and celebrate our diverse queer communities as a source of strength and insight. We cannot underestimate the importance of these standpoints as all gay men have the right to satisfying sex lives free from guilt, stigma, coercion, violence, and shame. It’s as simple as that.
Apartment613: How have you curated the events for the festival? What were you hoping to achieve with the program?
NV: This festival, among other things, is a community development tool. So curating Snowblower 2013 was done with careful consideration and tact. We wanted to ensure we did our best to reach out to the broadest possible spectrum of Ottawa’s gay community as we could. This includes seniors, trans people, smokers, the leather community, people with HIV or AIDS, ACO participants, Native people, youth, sero-discordant couples, queer families, etc. In doing so, I hope to have shed light on the complexity of gay men’s health, as described above. Subsequently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with the ambitious local organizations who work daily to represent these groups to produce what will hopefully be a dynamic, informative and fun festival!
Apartment613: If you could leave gay men with one message about their health after the 11 days of event, what would it be?
This is a tough one, definitely. But here it goes: There are more ways than you think to make the connections you want with the local gay community. I encourage you all to visit our website to see our fantastic festival partners and sponsors who are proud to serve Ottawa’s gay community!
Snowblower runs for 11 days starting this Thursday, February 7th. For a full listing of partners and events, visit http://www.aco-cso.ca/Snowblower.