by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
POZSeattle, one of the local LGBT community's oldest but least-publicized institutions, will celebrate its 14th anniversary on May 8, with a social hosted by The Cuff Complex.
A social organization run for and by Seattle-area HIV-positive men, the group plans and promotes fun activities - such as monthly socials for HIV-positive men and their friends, barbeques during the summer, a special Thanksgiving dinner, and a Christmas gift exchange - all for free. From its inception, POZSeattle has been volunteer-driven and funded entirely by donations from the community.
ACTUAL HISTORY LONGER
The organization's roots date to the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic.
'This is the 14th anniversary of this incarnation [of POZSeattle],' the group's president T.J. Elston told SGN, 'but it goes back more than 14 years. After almost 15 years of some form of an active HIV-positive men's social group, there was a change in leadership, a brief hiatus, and then we regrouped and restarted, and have been fully active ever since.'
Elston has been active with the group just shy of 14 years - merely attending at first, then volunteering, and then, three years ago, stepping into the leadership role as POZSeattle became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
'We're always needing to recreate ourselves,' another long-time member of the organization, Mike McMahon, chuckled. McMahon started coming to POZSeattle events in 1998.
'I'd just lost my partner of 21 years,' he explained. 'I was just lost. I was getting plenty of support from service organizations, but something was missing. Then I began going to [POZSeattle] events. As soon as I met with that group of guys I knew what I needed. I needed a social outlet!
'In those days, everything came with a message - organizations wanted to talk to you about safe sex, or about what meds to take. We really needed a place just to come together and meet each other.'
NO BUREAUCRATS, PLEASE
For Elston, too, the group was a 'safe space, a social group where you didn't have to talk about meds, you didn't have to talk about insurance or doctors, and I personally needed a place like that. I had enough doctors and professionals talking at me back then. I had just sero-converted in July of 1999, two months after the regrouping of POZSeattle. It's like it was meant to be. It's a place to go to be with other HIV-positive people just to be supportive of each other.'
McMahon told SGN he was initially surprised by other members' vocal opposition to inviting representatives of service agencies to POZSeattle events.
'When I first started with the group, I was all about funding,' McMahon smiled. 'If you gave us money and you wanted to come and talk about your program, that was fine with me.
'But other members were just adamant. They didn't want government or service agencies involved. They wanted it to be strictly social. That changed the way I looked at things. I realized so many people stopped coming when we had officials in to talk.'
POZSeattle runs entirely on individual donations, aside from a small grant from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence every other year. Both men credit the group's volunteers for keeping the organization going for 14 years with minimal funding.
'It's a lot of work!' McMahon said. 'We're lucky to be able to exist and put on our activities at low cost. It's because people are willing to do the work. Someone may turn up at one of our events and they end up being an incredible resource!'
Elston also acknowledged The Cuff, 'which has been gracious enough to host us for 13 years for free; MCC, which has always been very supportive; the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; Lifelong AIDS Alliance; Dunshee House; [and] Gay City,' all of which have assisted the group in one way or another.
'We are always happy to accept donations,' Elston added. 'Your support helps keep the organization financially healthy.'
STILL FILLING A NEED
In the years since the group first came together, radical improvements in treatment options have made HIV/AIDS a manageable condition rather than a near-certain death sentence.
'It's become a chronic disease - it's become manageable,' McMahon told SGN. 'But there's still shame associated with it. It's almost become the norm not to be out about it. But we always wanted to encourage people to be comfortable with their [HIV] status.'
'HIV isn't what it used to be,' Elston agreed. 'So this group isn't your last chance to have fun anymore. It's just a safe place to be with other people like yourself.
'And it can be anything people want it to be,' Elston added. 'We have our regular monthly events, but we've had a kayaking group - we can have anything people want to volunteer for.'
For more information, or to be added to the group's contact list, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.pozseattle.org.
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