The community leader – Ian Howley
Ian Howley is the Chief Executive of LGBT HERO, the Health Equality and Rights Organisation. LGBT HERO is the power behind GMFA – the gay men’s health project, FS magazine and OutLife. Ian was interviewed by Means Happy as part of their career advice for LGBTQ+ people. This article was published on August 3 2018.
When did you start to explore a career in health promotion?
It sort of happened by accident. It was never really my intention – I wanted to become a graphic designer and do creative work.
In 2005, during my first year in Letterkenny IT in Donegal, Ireland, I tried to get involved with the LGBTQ Society. When I asked the Student Union about it, they informed me that there was no LGBTQ Society. I had previous experience being part of a society in my home town of Athlone, and I knew what benefits it could bring to LGBTQ people in the college at the time. I felt that I was the right person to lead on this, and in November of that year we held our first meeting. It was attended by six people and we set out our aims for the society. It was agreed that we should use our presence to try and make people aware of LGBTQ rights in the college.
Within the first month something happened which change the course of my life. In early December of that year, a young man was attacked outside a gay bar in Derry. The local newspaper at the time, the Letterkenny Post, reported about the attack. One of the many issues that was highlighted was the lack of safe spaces for LGBTQ people in Donegal. While reading this I felt that there was something I could do. We were lucky that the college at the time allowed non-students to be involved in clubs and societies, so I contacted the newspaper to see whether they would like to run a piece about the society so that local LGBTQ people would know that we were there.
In December 2005, they ran a full-page spread about the society and had a full image of myself. This was a very brave thing to do in a small town like Letterkenny. The idea of being so open about your sexuality shocked people. However, one person who saw the article was a man called Ruairi McKiernan, the founder of SpunOut – a national youth website that was based in Donegal. Ruairi got in contact with me to see if I’d like to get involved in SpunOut. After doing some research into what SpunOut was all about, I said yes.
In January of 2006, Ruairi asked me if I knew anyone who was willing to talk on camera about their experience with suicide. What no one at the time knew was that I had tried to take my life three times as a teenager because of my battle with my sexuality. I was 16 years old at my last attempt, and five years had passed since then. I felt this was the right opportunity for me to finally talk about it. I told him I’d be interested to talk about my experiences, thinking that it was something only a handful of people would see. About two months after filming, the piece was shown at a national suicide prevention conference, which was attended by the then President of Ireland.
The reception it received opened some doors, and I was asked to speak at a mental health conference in Dublin a few months later. The conference was reported on by RTE at the time, and they interviewed me for the evening news. This was a major thing for anyone at the time to do. To stand in front of the whole nation and be open about something that is still to this day highly stigmatised was unheard of. People who talked about trying to take their lives were seen as crazy or messed up. But here was this 22-year-old man talking about it in a very calm and reasonable way. It broke new ground.
Within a few days, I had enquiries from media outlets looking to interview me, and media companies wanting to involve me in documentaries. Over the following year I probably spoke to the whole nation about what it was like to a teenager looking for a way out.
In late 2006, I got asked if I’d like to be in a TV commercial which was going to be funded by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. At this stage I was full of confidence and agreed. In June 2007, the advert was launched on Irish TV – a first of its kind. During the launch, I became the spokesperson for the campaign. It was estimated that I spoke to over two million people in one day.
Looking back now, this was when I knew that I wanted to get involved in health promotion and not be a graphic designer. I still had to go back to college the following September and finish my final year. During that final year, I took every opportunity to volunteer for SpunOut in every way I could. I attended talks, meetings, conferences, organisation development days. I wanted to gain as much experience as possible in the hope that it would lead to some sort of opportunity. My plan was that if no opportunity arose by the end of my final year in college, I’d see if it was possible to look at health promotion courses.
How did you land your first health promotion job?
SpunOut was awarded a grant to run a six-month outreach programme in the North West of Ireland called Get SpunOut. The job was due to start two weeks after I finished college. I applied for the position and, because of the experience I’d built over the previous three years, I was offered the position. In June 2008, I became a freelance project worker for SpunOut, looking to promote the website to young people in Donegal, Leitrim, and Sligo. The project lasted six months and was – to this day – the most challenging piece of work I’ve ever experienced.
My job was to go into schools and colleges to talk about mental health and suicide from a personal perspective, and about how SpunOut could help people. I wasn’t ready for the emotional roller-coaster it would be. I had one school where a student had died by suicide a few weeks before my presentation, but the school didn’t inform me until that day. As soon as I started talking about my own journey, the whole class started to cry. It was a difficult position to be in, but we got through it and, by the end of the session, I had lots of emotional young people coming up to hug and thank me for being there. At another school I went to, I felt like I was speaking to a wall – the young people showed no emotion at all and I left feeling drained. Later that evening, I received an email from one of the young people who attended to say that I had saved her life – she had been planning on taking her own life but my story inspired her to keep fighting.
At the end of the six months, I’d been emotionally wiped out but it made me realise that my calling in life was to make a difference. SpunOut saw the value in me and decided to keep me on. I made sure that I worked my butt off and made myself indispensable. I took on every role, responsibility, and task I could think of. Even when my manager didn’t ask for projects to be done, I did them. I knew that at any time SpunOut could no longer be in a position to continue on supporting me, and I wanted to gain as much experience as I could. I ended up turning a six-month contract into two years, and helped the organisation go from a regional set-up to a national organisation. We even won a digital media award for a project I ran that was aimed at supporting young LGBTQ people in rural communities. However, in June 2010, after the recession took its toll on the Irish non-profit sector, my time with SpunOut had to come to an end.
I began to look around at other organisations in Ireland, but couldn’t find one that I knew I’d be happy to work for. There was nothing like SpunOut, and I felt that if I was to find something like that I’d have to look elsewhere. At the time, my father was living in London, so I looked at jobs here. The first job I looked at was a position of Associate Editor and Communication Officer for GMFA, a gay men’s health organisation. After looking into what GMFA was trying to do, I felt it was a good step forward for me, and I got to work with LGBTQ people which was a major bonus. In August 2010, I began work with GMFA helping to produce FS magazine and build up GMFA’s social media. My plan was to stay at this for a year and then to try and move back to Ireland. That didn’t happen.
In October of 2011, the then Editor for FS moved on and I was appointed Editor. My main aim with FS was to move forward with the times and I wanted FS to create the news, not just tell it. It took about eight months to get my vision in place, but once I had a plan I was able to create a change in FS that was welcomed in the community. During my time as Editor for FS magazine, I’ve seen it go from being a magazine that people thought was nice, to an internationally recognised publication that’s not afraid to tackle the harder issues on the gay scene.
We broke new ground in 2013 with the sexual racism issue. Our Drug Fucked issue looked at chemsex for the first time. In our Bareback Britain issue we asked gay men why they prefer not to use condoms. These were all pre-PrEP times. We focused on harder issues way before others.
My proudest moment as Editor for FS came with the racism on the gay scene issue in 2015. We surveyed over 850 BME gay and bisexual men and found that that about 70 percent experienced some form of racism from within the gay scene. This may not be shocking to hear this now, but in 2015 we lived in a pre 'wokeness' society. Black Lives Matter was still fresh, and topics around BME health and social inequalities weren’t focused on. That issue exploded and gained coverage from around the world. It opened up conversations I’d never seen people talk about before. That’s when I knew that FS had reached its full potential.
Then in 2016, after sixteen years with GMFA, the then-CEO Matthew Hodson decided to move on, and the board of the LGBT HERO the parent of GMFA and FS – asked me to take over. I won’t lie to you, it came a little early in my career plan. Being a CEO at age 32 wasn’t something that I’d envisioned. But just like with SpunOut, I took the opportunity and went for it. I’ve been CEO of LGBT HERO since then, and in my time I’ve overseen some challenging times. I’ve been working to move us forward into a modern world where we work towards tackling health and social inequalities for LGBTQ people.
Throughout its history, GMFA has focused on HIV prevention and tackling HIV stigma. In 1992, people were dying from the virus – today, people can live a near-to-normal life. That’s extraordinary, and we’re really proud of GMFA’s involvement in making that happen. GMFA has saved lives. But we must move forward. It’s not good enough to be at a point where HIV is manageable. It’s time to end it.
It’s also time for us as a community to focus on other inequalities that may have been lost over the decades while we were fighting HIV and AIDS. LGBTQ+ people are up to seven times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, with one in four or those people trying to take their own lives. We’re also more likely to drink more, do more drugs and for longer, and have mental illness issues such as anxiety and depression. The list goes on and on. That’s what I want to do with my time here at LGBT HERO. I want us to fight all the health and social inequalities that we as a community face - we are not equal until we have equal health.
Was the reality of working in health promotion what you were expecting?
I knew that it would be difficult at times. No one should get into this sector if you’re trying to make money. It’s not for people who have that aim. It’s for people who want to make a difference and to give back. You can make a nice living in this sector, but it’s not where you’d be in the commercial world – that’s something you have to be okay with.
What are some of the challenges of working in the community health sector?
Money. If you ask any health organisation, they’ll say money. There’s never enough, and you’re always fighting for it. It’s wonderful that LGBT HERO has a great connection with our community, and the fundraising we do through GMFA – such as World AIDS Day and RVT Sports Day - allows us to continue to support our community. Without that community support we would be dead and buried.
One thing I wasn’t expecting was the competition between organisations for money. You have a lot of organisations bidding for the same pots of money. It brings in a competition level that shouldn’t be there. But it’s the system we all have to deal with. At HERO, we’re part of the LGB&T Partnership, the LGBT Consortium, and we’re part of the Rise Partnership, which is funded from Lambeth, Southwick and Lewisham Councils, and we do great work together. But I often think – What if those barriers of competition for funds didn’t exist? What could we achieve together? Hopefully, some day, we’ll find out.
With the combined forces of U=U and PrEP, has the battle against HIV been won?
Absolutely not. We have come a long way since the early 1980s – a time when HIV was a death sentence. To think that someone who is living with HIV and on effective medication can’t pass on the virus would have been some unicorn fantasy back in the 80s. Now we have a game-changer in PrEP, which is proving to be extremely effective in stopping new HIV infections. But we can’t get complacent. There’s still a long way to go - until we have zero new infections we won’t stop.
One of the areas we need to focus on is the U=U movement. Undetectable = Untransmittable is a term we in the sector have got behind – it means that someone who has an undetectable viral load can’t pass on the virus. There are two issues with this. The first is that there are still a huge amount of people out there who don’t believe this to be true. Even though we have all the evidence to prove it, lots of gay men don’t believe it. How do you overcome that?
The second issue is the term U=U. It’s a medical term that means nothing to the average Joe on the street. You can say what it means and people may nod, but they still don’t get it. In the UK, we have people from all different backgrounds of education levels, demographics, and countries. Try explaining U=U to a Brazilian man, new to London, with poor English. We need to figure a way to simplify it, make it less medical, so gay men from all backgrounds can understand it. As I tell my colleagues, if a 12-year-old can’t understand your health promotion message then you have failed.
When it comes to PrEP, we know it works and there are thousands of gay men on PrEP – whether it’s through the Impact trial or that they’re self-funding it. But in England it’s not free for all - this will mean it will take longer for us to get to zero new infections. Until we have PrEP free for all those who need it, then we still need to fight on.
For decades, gay and bisexual men have lived in a world where there has always been consequences attached to the sex that we have. There’s always a risk. Having that hang over your head brings guilt, shame, and leads to sexual and emotional issues. If someone want to use PrEP to have guilt-free sex, then let them. Don’t guilt them into ‘remembering where they came from.’ We, as a community, must never forget but we must live for a happier future. If PrEP allows gay and bisexual men to experience sex like many heterosexual men do, then that’s something to celebrate.
As for the battle against HIV, we health organisations need to continue to work towards zero new infections, to tackle HIV stigma and its impact on our health, and work towards a happier and healthier LGBTQ community.
What are some of the other health issues that the LGBTQ community should also be focusing on?
Mental health and suicide. There’s a silent epidemic happening in our community and we’re barely touching on it. There are large numbers of LGBTQ+ people dying by suicide, but it’s rarely in our top three conversations. Why? Because when it comes to mental health issues and suicide, this is something most of us have experienced. It’s common in our community – that’s shocking in itself. It’s come to the point where being a suicide survivor - whether thinking about it or acting on it - is a rite of passage into adult LGBTQ+ life. When we do have conversations around suicide, it’s likely that someone will say – Me too.
Right now, we live in a system that doesn’t put focus on mental health and suicide in our community. There’s no anger at the fact our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are killing themselves – we need to get angry. If LGBTQ activism has taught us anything, it’s that change for LGBTQ people doesn’t come unless we get angry. As someone who’s gone through that battle and is lucky to be alive today, I’m angry that our community is being left behind when it comes to suicide prevention.
This is why at LGBT HERO we’re focusing on mental health and suicide prevention. Our health and life advice site for LGBTQ people is called OutLife. OutLife focuses on creating conversations around mental illness, which de-stigmatises the issues, while developing national suicide prevention campaigns that are by LGBTQ+ people, for LGBTQ+ people. We also offer peer-support forums where LGBTQ+ people from all around the UK can talk to each other about their issues, and seek support when needed. It’s time to end unnecessary deaths in our community – I’m adamant that we can do this through OutLife.
What are some of the skills and attributes that you need to build a successful career in health promotion?
The most important is to care. Don’t come into this sector if you want to make money. Yes you can have a nice comfortable life but if your primary concern is how much you make, then this is not the sector for you. Making a difference, caring about others, and doing thankless work is all part of health promotion.
As for hard skills, the sector needs people who are digital focused, creative, and think outside the box. We’re heading into a difficult era with Brexit. We might see organisations shrink, or even close if the money that we rely on disappears. Being creative and digital-savvy will help any organisation who needs to save money. It may keep you in a job.
If someone was considering a career in health promotion, what advice or guidance would you give them?
This sector is difficult to get into. So, volunteer, volunteer, volunteer - in any way you can. It will help you build up skills and knowledge of the sector so when an opportunity arises, then you have some experience that might help you get you through the door.
If you’re lucky to get into this sector, then make yourself indispensable. When I joined SpunOut, I took on roles and tasks that I wasn’t supposed to. But because I took control, I managed to turn a six-month contract into two years. If you see an opportunity, take it – even if you’re not being paid to do it. Work for the position that you want, not the position you have. It will mean you will build skills, and your organisation will rely on you. If it doesn’t work out then you know that it’s nothing to do with your performance, and you’ve built natural skills that will see you into your next job.
Finally, show that you care. The non-profit sector is tough at times, but the last thing any manager wants to see is someone who’s only there for a pay cheque. Thousands would love to do your job. If you’re lucky enough to get into the sector, make it a success.