It’s been a busy time lately for Schorer, the organization for gay and lesbian health, with the Take Care Week around World Aids Day and the publication of the Monitor Survey into the sexual behavior of gay men. Although the results of the survey show a worrying degree of unsafe sex amongst gay men, the Amsterdam city council has refused to help secure Schorer’s budget. A talk with Leo Schenk, HIV-STD prevention worker at Schorer.
If the work of Schorer is so important, why the continual threats to end your subsidy from the city council and national government?
“A good question. HIV prevention for gays and bisexuals is apparently less important for the government and city. Last year our subsidy was nearly stopped because the government thought STD-AIDS Nederland could do our work. With that, all our knowledge about gay lifestyle would have gone down the drain. Fortunately we managed to keep most of the subsidy.
The city has had a good deal till now. They’ve never paid for our overhead costs, which we now need due to budget cuts from the government. I’ve worked for fourteen years as AIDS prevention worker, with only one colleague. If you look at the size of the gay community and the problems we face, an extra worker wouldn’t be too bad.”
One of the most important themes from Schorer is to encourage people to have an HIV test. Why then is it possible to get the “quick response” test only one day a week?
“The quick tests are relatively new here. The experiment with these tests seems to be a success, so the health departments throughout Holland are now introducing them. Hopefully they’ll be more available soon.”
A lot of men are still bitter that Schorer closed its gay clinic, leaving Amsterdam with no gay men’s health clinic at all. If you want people to get more check-ups, why don’t you make it easier?
“These are choices we made in the past. We wanted to be more of a knowledge center, and research showed that gay men were getting more gay-friendly treatment at the regular STD clinics, which is very important, and where Schorer can play an important role. Maybe the choice to close the clinic wasn’t a good one. I hear that many men miss it. But with more money from the city we can be more visible in the scene, like carrying out syphilis check-ups and hep B vaccines on the spot.”
A few years ago the free condom distribution in bars with darkrooms was stopped, whilst your research shows that darkrooms are one of the most unsafe places. How does Schorer plan to make the darkrooms safer?
“A small correction. Research shows that it is people who frequent darkrooms who are more likely to have unsafe sex - not necessarily in the darkrooms themselves, they may pick people up here but have unsafe sex at home. It doesn’t say that the darkrooms themselves are the most unsafe places.
But ok, the safety in these places can be improved a lot. And not only the availability of condoms and lube, but also general hygiene and fire safety. You should be able to wash your hands and the toilets should have paper.
We are working with the health department, local city council and darkroom owners to improve the safety. Safe sex remains an individual responsibility but it should be made easier for those who want to have safe sex. In exchange for the investment from bars the darkrooms will be legalized in the future.
You ask Schorer to make darkrooms safer, but as a visitor you have a role yourself. We can help facilitate it but visitors have to also show more respect for the places where they have sex and the men they have sex with. It’s all got much harder. Let’s make it more pleasant in these places; talk with each other, about condoms and what you want from sex. If the other knows what risk he takes, it becomes a shared responsibility.”