THOMAS, ORIGINALLY FROM BALLYBUNION IN KERRY, HAS BEEN LIVING IN THE LIBERTIES FOR NEARLY FIVE YEARS NOW. THOMAS LEFT THE KINGDOM FOR THE “BIG GAY WORLD” WHEN HE WAS 17. HE MOVED TO DUBLIN AFTER STUDYING FINANCE IN CORK. THERE, HE MET ADAM SHANLEY, KNOWNOW’S CO-ORDINATOR.
As soon as he saw on Adam’s Facebook that KnowNow were recruiting volunteers, Thomas knew he had to get involved. Volunteering with the programme proved incredibly enriching from his very first training session:
“I learned so much, found it interesting and decided to continue. I also wanted to give something back to my own community as well.”
A year and a half later, Thomas’ involvement with KnowNow remains an important part of his life, and he now enjoys training the programme’s most recent recruits.
Thomas often finds that many people come to the service generally quite well informed on HIV, which he chalks up to HIV activism as well as improvements in sexual health education: “Most people have a good idea these days. Of the people coming in, they generally know about the differences between HIV and AIDS and they know about PrEP and PEP.”
Thomas does acknowledge there is still “some stigma and misinformation surrounding the spread of HIV”.
In terms of the future, Thomas, like the other KnowNow volunteers, acknowledges that education and access to PrEP will be central in terms of prevention: “There’s talk of PrEP becoming more accessible to everyone next year, but you can never really know what will happen down the road, especially with politics.”
Whatever the future holds, KnowNow will continue to provide rapid HIV testing because, as Adam says, “It can only take one time.”
HAVING BEEN HEAVILY INVOLVED IN LGBT+ ACTIVISM AND STI PREVENTION IN PORTUGAL, JOÃO WAS EAGER TO DO SOME COMMUNITY WORK AFTER MOVING TO IRELAND IN 2015: “IN PORTUGAL, I WORKED AT LGBT+ EVENTS AND CONFERENCES, BUT I ALSO WORKED IN STI PREVENTION; DISTRIBUTING CONDOMS AND LUBRICANTS AT GAY BARS AND SAUNAS. WHEN I MOVED TO DUBLIN, I MISSED THIS KIND OF WORK, SO I GOT IN TOUCH WITH ADAM SHANLEY AND SIGNED UP FOR TRAINING.
“The group is mainly composed of gay and bi men, and while the group targets men who have sex with men, we ensure that everyone who comes to us gets tested. We do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.” KnowNow uses third generation testing via finger-prick tests, and results become clear within one minute. However, for accuracy, the tests are best done 12 weeks after potential exposure to HIV.
“Since we are applying rapid tests, the test has some limitations, so we explain the window period. We always explain to the person taking the test that if they are worried about something that happened last night, the test will not be able to detect HIV at that time.”
For João, the informal and peer-led settings of KnowNow’s sessions means that the important service is more accessible:
“The object of the session is to make the tests available outside of a clinical environment, as some people are reluctant to visit the clinic.
Besides testing we offer support and information to those who come to us.”
João speaks about the crucial role education plays in the community: “The younger you start getting in touch with these issues the better. The more information you have, the more power you have to protect yourself.”
MICHAEL, WHO IS CURRENTLY DOING A MASTERS IN SOCIAL CARE IN UCD, WAS PROMPTED TO GET INVOLVED WITH KNOWNOW AFTER HE VOLUNTEERED WITH GAY SWITCHBOARD: “IT SOUNDS REALLY CONTRIVED AND CHEESY, BUT TO GIVE SOMETHING BACK WAS IMPORTANT. FOR ME, THE GAY SCENE MEANT JUST GOING OUT ON FRIDAY AND SATURDAY AND I THOUGHT THERE HAS TO BE MORE TO THE COMMUNITY THAN DRINKING. I WANTED TO BE INVOLVED IN SOMETHING THAT WAS COMMUNITY-BASED.”
The interactive nature of the peer-led service was what lead Michael to KnowNow specifically: “What I really like is that it is server-user facing, so you’re interacting with a human. If you’re sitting with someone who is terrified, you get to talk them through it. People come down from that terror as you speak to them and it is really nice to see that, to know you’re responsible for that.”
It sounds really contrived and cheesy, but to give something back was important.
Michael addresses a common misconception about the service: “When you mention KnowNow to people they say ‘Oh my God, you can’t test in bars! People are drunk. How are they going to cope if they have a reactive test result?’ But we’re in Pantibar from 3:30pm to 5:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and we’re in The George from 8:00pm until 10:00pm on a Tuesday night. We’re out of there long before the place starts to fill up. I have to go home to bed!”
In fact, the informal settings is crucial to KnowNow’s operation, and in the case of a reactive result, the team refer the person to a clinic immediately.
“Any time someone gets a reactive result, I’ve been able to put them in a taxi and send them to the clinic on Baggot Street. We’re all trained to counsel to a certain extent, but for us it’s important to send them to get treatment as quickly as possible.”
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