In the 1980s, young men with AIDS, abandoned by friends and families, were dying lonely deaths. In response to the AIDS pandemic, the Western Australian AIDS Council (WAAC) began its operation, creating a syringe exchange programme and running care teams so people with HIV did not have to die alone in hospital.
It has come a long way in the last 35 years, and the new WAAC Chair Conrad Liveris told Neos Kosmos that COVID-19, which is once again forcing people to die alone, has also changed circumstances surrounding the nature of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). He said the WAAC has achieved a lot but still more needs to be done – and not just for the gay community.
“I really want to see more work being done with the straight community,” he said, along with a number of groups where English is a second language.
He adds that the gay community understand sexually transmitted diseases better than most bearing in mind that “not long ago HIV was called a gay disease”. For this reason, the gay community, and in particular gay men, have taken advantage of some great medical developments from the last 10 to 15 years to prevent transmission, Mr Liveris said.
“People are still having sex and things have changed a bit,” he said, pointing to how lifestyles (eg travel to SE Asia) influence sexually transmitted diseases. “We are spending more time on syphilis and gonorrhoea these days. There’s always a problem.”
A lot of the WAAC’s efforts have been on the African community which is large, and efforts are also concentrating on regional areas and indigenous communities.
Mr Liveris remembers being at school when a WAAC community educator visited his Year 10 health class. “It was one of the most powerful classes I had at school and, in an otherwise rowdy class, this person had us listening to every word he spoke outlining his own experiences with HIV and delivering a well-needed message about sexual health. That class was a while ago now but has played on my mind many times since. As a 14-year-old struggling with my sexuality at that time, it was also one of my first interactions with an openly gay man. It was important for me to see that then, and reflect upon it now,” he said, adding that the class stayed with him and his peers for a while,” he said.
“When it comes to Greek Australians, there have been times when I have questioned who I should open to in the community,” he said in regards to being openly gay. “Some of it is in my own mind, prejudging what people will say. In reality, people have been supportive and have embraced me for who I am.”
Not having visited Greece, he cannot assume what the situation is like there. His own family first came to Australia from Kastellorizo a century ago.
Remembering his ancestors, he said, “Their time wasn’t easy and it was hard. For a long time, they stuck to themselves but now there is a greater acceptance outside the community who want to engage, and that’s cool.”
As far as sex is concerned, Mr Liveris is excited by the work that the WAAC is doing in promoting sexual health via 4,000 people visiting the sexual health clinic, 2,500 sexual health tests per annum, more than 1,000 hours of counselling largely around issues of sex, “and a whole bunch of other stuff”, he said.
After sitting on the board of WAAC for just over two years, he feels ready to take on the helm . “The most interesting part for me has been balancing the financial needs of the organisation, its $5-million budget, its multiple government contracts and the responsibility of 50 staff members,” he said, adding that best of all is “seeing what all this means for the everyday lives of our clients, some of them in great need of our services.”