Combatting the stigma of AIDS, again
Casey House hosts a pop-up restaurant in Toronto staffed by HIV-positive cooks
In 1988, the first patient at Casey House, Canada's first and only stand-alone hospital for people living with HIV/AIDS, arrived at the door with an escort of medics in haz-mat suits.
It was the end of a very bad era: One that began with then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan famously refusing to say the word out loud and ended when mainstream society finally started talking about AIDS – badly. I was 13 that year, and had a health teacher who told my class that while in his day he only had to worry about "crabs," unprotected sex would lead our generation to certain death.
Times and attitudes have changed over 30 years, but the stigma of HIV/AIDS has not entirely disappeared. According to a survey conducted by Léger Research Intelligence Group on behalf of Casey House, half of Canadians would not eat food prepared by someone who is HIV-positive. Millennials and seniors were particularly averse.
To combat this attitude, Casey House will be hosting June's HIV+ Eatery, a pop-up restaurant staffed by HIV-positive cooks. Happening Nov. 7 and 8 in Toronto, the event is also a launch party for a new building, one that will increase annual patient capacity from 300 to 650.
Leading the kitchen will be Toronto chef Matt Basile of places such as Fidel Gastro and Lisa Marie. "When I learned about the isolation people are faced with due to the stigma that exists around HIV/AIDS, I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of this," says Basile, who worked with the cooks to develop a menu of northern Thai potato leek soup, Arctic char and pea pappardelle and gingerbread tiramisu with burnt meringue.
One of the 15 cooks will be Dr. Greg Robinson, who was a family doctor in Hamilton and a public-health researcher at the University of Toronto before retiring. He spoke with The Globe and Mail about what it was like to be an HIV-positive doctor in the 1980s, and his hopes for the June's project.
When did you test positive?
I eventually went for testing in 1990. I was probably infected in '80, '81.
It's hard for young people to grasp the attitudes of that era, toward HIV/AIDS. Can you describe what that period was like?
Personally, it was an extremely scary time because we did not have any therapy. And not only was I living with the disease, but in the Hamilton area I was one of the only physicians who would see people living with HIV. And while that was couched in an "I don't know what to do" fashion, "I'm not professionally trained to do this type of work," it was really the stigma.
There was a lot of concern that touching people or being with people, or for example someone with HIV serving food to you, might actually infect you. That was pervasive. And it was across the board. No one wanted to get close because of the fear.
How did your diagnosis impact your life and career?
Because I was in family practice and it was the eighties, it had a terminal impact on my ability to practise. I knew that if others knew I had HIV, that no mother was going to bring their child to give them an immunization for fear that that needle would have been in me and then in them.
There were all sorts of irrational fears that surrounded the delivery of health care. And that's what I wanted to do my whole life. So I had to make some choices. I had to think about retraining in an area that would provide a little less of this interactive stigma that I knew was going to happen between patients and doctors.
My partner at that point was quite sick and was going to require services, in which Casey House was involved, at the end of his life.
What's your cooking background?
I've got a British/Irish background. We don't have a good history around how we prepare things: We boil it or we burn it to death. When I became positive, it became evident that I was going to have to make some changes for nutrition reasons. The illness was affecting my appetite and my ability to be able to consume foods. So I had to take a stronger look at how I got my nutrition.
What do you hope might come out of June's HIV+ Eatery?
First, I always love when we bring awareness to HIV. It was way too easy for us to pack it up and say we've got the treatment, it's over. It really isn't. So this will give us an opportunity to reinforce some of the common known pieces of information that we did get in the eighties, such as that you cannot pass HIV through food being prepared by someone who has HIV. That's just not a possibility. It's never happened and it's not going to happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For information on buying tickets for June's HIV+ Eatery, see juneseatery.ca.