Not many years ago a diagnosis of HIV-AIDS was generally regarded as a death sentence, and many gay men, or men who had occasional sex with men, began planning for the end of their days. Hoping to make the most of the time left, a good number sold up down south and moved to the NSW Northern Rivers, a place of tolerance, cultural and climatic appeal, and decent health services.
Most expected to die, but one of those rare medical ‘miracles’ occurred, slowly at first, as is the way with research, and then picked up pace: treatments for the HIV virus, and more recently, preventative medications, were developed, found successful, and became widely available. Today, the anti-viral prophylactic PREP and the ‘morning after’ pill PEP, both prescribed by GPs, are the new normal.
The downside is that while many in the early generation of sufferers have enjoyed a clinical reprieve they face financial hardship as they move into later life. Fortunately, the local community remains as supportive as ever, epitomised by the Lismore-based regional team at ACON Health, a not-for-profit dedicated to promoting the lifelong health of sexuality and gender diverse people, and people with HIV.
This distinct cohort is just one of the communities being helped by the NSW Health-backed organisation led by Michael Tizard, a social work graduate who came to the role after five years as CEO of Queensland’s Creche and Kindergarten Association, known as C & K.
For more than a year prior to his move south in January, accompanied by two teenaged twin sons, Michael had another group of charges to look out for. In 2017 he bought 200 acres at Fairy Hill, west of Casino, and set up a beef cattle breeding operation that now carries 88 Angus cows and one obviously hard-working bull (he aims to buy another soon).
No stranger to the land, he had run cattle and horses on a property in Victoria – where he volunteered with the AIDS Council - before moving to Brisbane to run an organisation overseeing 350 childcare centres. He now commutes daily between the farm and ACON’s office in Uralba Street, in Lismore’s well-established health hub.
Headquartered in Sydney and with Northern Rivers and Hunter offices, ACON (founded as the AIDS Council of NSW), is committed to improving the physical and psychological wellbeing of a client base it refers to as “people who are sexuality and gender diverse”, a catch-all term that avoids the alphabetical complexity of terms such as LGBTIQ.
Noting that it will continue to use such terms as “lesbian gay bisexual and transgender… in programs and services where relevant”, ACON Health’s new strategic plan stresses the “importance of self-determined identities to those who have fought for and earned them.”
Key to ACON’s plan, and at the heart of the Lismore team’s mission, is to focus on the “Issues that arise from experiences of marginalisation, limited access to sensitive and appropriate health services for sexuality and gender diverse people, and fear of, or experiences of, stigma and discrimination.”
The local team includes three counsellors to assist clients with mental health issues arising from past trauma or substance misuse issues, stigmatising, and a gamut of complex issues - including the one that began this story - that can affect people whose sexualities or sexual practices are outside the mainstream.
Michael estimates that each counsellor has a case load of 8-12 clients, each with specific needs. Twelve free counselling sessions are offered, with referrals to specialised practitioners/services when required.
One innovative and important project is known as ‘Silver Rainbow’, addressing the need to foster acceptance of older people of various sexualities in residential aged and other care facilities. As one resource for aged care workers notes, “The onus should be on… policy-makers and service providers to proactively make changes.”
Michael is pleased that GPs are increasingly interested in developing skills in gender pathways, stressing that ACON is keen to work with practices to further expand the support currently offered to patients, and is equipped, “and happy”, to run training sessions that qualify as professional development.
“At present, there are not enough local GPs who are trained and feel sufficiently confident enough to advise on, for example, hormone treatment, or upper and lower gender re-alignment surgery. ACON has extensive experience in these fields and a wide range of top-level clinical expertise to draw on.
“Anyone reading the news would know what an expanding and important field of medicine this is, and we are ready to help wherever we can, for the benefit of medical professionals and their patients.”
- ACON Health can be contacted on (02) 6622 1555