Community based research comes naturally for Dr. David Brennan. As an undergraduate student in Boston when the HIV epidemic was emerging, he quickly became involved through volunteer work. “I was horrified at what was happening with gay men in the community—I was just coming out and I wanted to get involved,” says Dr. Brennan. “So I called a hotline and asked them if they needed help.” After working for AIDS service organizations, a home care program and a hospice, Dr. Brennan decided to return to academia and pursue his PhD. “I wanted to learn more about what we were doing as service providers and policy makers to see how it made a difference in the lives of people living with HIV,” explains Dr. Brennan. His experience working directly with affected communities meant it was only logical his research career should continue along the same lines and he has now been involved with the HIV community for over 30 years. “As a social science researcher, engaging with community is a critical part of the work. It means we can answer the real questions that communities are facing.”
One of Dr. Brennan’s research projects, the Two-spirited HIV/AIDS Wellness and Longevity Study (2-SHAWLS) reflects his philosophy as it nears its completion. “We often hear the narrative of two-spirited guys who are HIV positive as being stories of desperation, mental illness and substance abuse,” explains Dr. Brennan. “But community groups are hearing other things from the people they were following. Many are doing well and have sorted out how to live long term with HIV.” Supported by a CIHR Catalyst grant, and in collaboration with colleagues from 2-spirited People of the First Nations in Toronto, the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy and McMaster University, the research looks at resilience strategies in Two-spirited males living with HIV. The study conducted focus groups crafted after indigenous sharing circles and heard the stories of 14 two-spirited males from across Ontario. “Simply, we asked people what helps them live well long-term with HIV,” says Dr. Brennan. “We received amazing responses.” The group has analyzed and organized findings into ‘The Seven Truths of Resilience’ and has presented these findings at several conferences, receiving positive feedback. “I think people feel that finally researchers are talking about resilience – about what people in the community are doing well,” says Dr. Brennan. “We’ve got some really good information that we can pass on to people.”
Dr. Brennan’s Cruising Counts study, supported by the OHTN, came from the needs of service organizations to reach people online. “AIDS services organizations are doing online outreach for MSM through apps like Grindr or Scruff, where guys are trying to connect up with other guys for social or sexual reasons,” explains Dr. Brennan. But there are no clear guidelines on what kind of outreach is effective or whether the information is seen, useful or relevant. Dr. Brennan and his community colleagues have conducted a preliminary study to determine the type of online services offered across Ontario and the number of people they are reaching. “People get on those apps sometimes just to hookup—the assumption is that they aren’t interested in talking about HIV or STIs,” says Dr. Brennan. “But what we found is that the large majority of men who had connected to online outreach found it useful and reliable. Most guys felt that it was good that the providers were there.” Dr. Brennan has received additional funding from CANFAR to conduct a longitudinal study with young MSM on their online contact with AIDS service organisations.
Throughout his time working in the HIV community, Dr. Brennan has seen significant changes and hopes to see more as research pursues relevant questions. “I think we are having more honest and upfront conversations about why gay men are still at risk for HIV. What does it mean and how can we make sure that we are promoting gay men’s health and wellness in the best possible way?” asks Dr. Brennan. “It’s a conversation we weren’t having 30 years ago in any way, shape, or form. I really hope that the work I do contributes to our understanding of gay men’s health and wellness in the broadest sense and improves care, services and prevention.”
The Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR), the CIHR HIV/AIDS Research Initiative, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network (CTN) and the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) Research and Development Alliance Coordinating Office (ACO) would like to thank Dr. Brennan for his significant contributions to our understanding of HIV. His work is part of a larger Canadian effort that is making a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV in Canada and around the world.