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When Matthew Smith began working for AIDS New Brunswick after graduating from St. Thomas University two years ago, they were giving out 80,000 needles a year. Injection drug users took the needles and often shared them with their friends. AIDS NB was only getting back a little more than half of those needles.
This wasn’t good enough for Smith.
Since the STU graduate took on the role of needle exchange coordinator, the return rate has reached 100 per cent. If clients returned their used needles, they would be put in a monthly draw for a Tim Hortons gift card valued at $20.
“Of course it looks good on me, but more importantly it looks good on the clients. They are taking the responsibility and ownership of the program to bring the needles back.”
Smith’s blue eyes shift. He can’t easily name his strengths. He touches his dishevelled hair and sighs.
“I don’t like talking about my strengths, but I’m learning to be more confident in myself.”
Born and raised in Amherst, Nova Scotia, he describes high school as enjoyable.
When Smith turned 16, his mom bought him a jeep. He says his parents really trusted him. He had no curfew and rarely got into trouble.
“In high school I was the guy who had his license and a car, I was very popular…very popular,” he says.
But Smith says he hid who he truly was, building a facade of the popular, straight, white male and concealing his true sexuality.
“I questioned everything before I did it. I questioned whether or not you want to comment on that girl’s shoes because you think they’re cute – would a straight guy do that? Or whether or not I should comment on a buddy’s hoodie, because would a straight guy do that?
“It was exhausting.”
He knew he wanted to come out before going to university. Weeks before the move, he wrote his parents a letter and escaped to his best friend’s house three hours away.
Unsure of how his parents would react, he came home to mixed emotions.
Smith’s mom, who has since passed away, was concerned her son would be “gay bashed” or that he would contract HIV.
His father told him he didn’t think he would enjoy having sex with men. Little did he know, Smith had been sexually engaged with men for more than three years.
To this day, Smith still feels his father hasn’t accepted his sexual orientation.
“I know he’d prefer if I was straight with a wife and a child on the way.”
Throughout university, Smith wrote papers on gay rights, the movement, the gay community, but he refused to write a paper on HIV/AIDS.
“There’s still that stigma that HIV is a gay man’s disease; if you’re gay, you have HIV. I was terrified to perpetuate that.”
When he walked into AIDS New Brunswick after graduating in 2010, Smith says he didn’t know anything about the virus.
Two years later, he’s committed to HIV prevention and helping people with addictions.
Every day Smith interacts with injection drug users, many of whom are sex trade workers or have no fixed address – a marginalized population.
“I’ve always been really intrigued of how society ‘others’ people, how we take something about someone and make that a sole distinguishing feature only defining them by that. Being gay is not the only thing that defines me, although I’m sure a lot of people look at it that way.”
Back in his office, a bouquet of condom roses sit in a glass vase above his shoulder, a fundraising initiative around Valentine’s Day. Three framed postcards from the One Love campaign depict naked homosexual couples hugging. There are more arms around the couples than there ought to be. The slogan at the bottom reads: “Each Time You Sleep With Someone, You Also Sleep With His Past.”
Smith says clients feel comfortable coming here to talk about subjects like sex and the importance of using protection to prevent contracting HIV.
“A 19-year-old client of mine just started doing injection drugs six months ago. However, within a week of developing his addiction, he came to the clinic seeking clean needles. It’s rewarding to know people are being educated to understand the risks of HIV and Hepatitis C and taking advantage of our clinic.”
He sees himself coordinating needle exchange for years to come – it has become an part of who he is.
This is clear as he interacts with his clients; fully engaged in every word, soft spoken, and thoughtful, he makes it easy for the vulnerable and insecure feel at ease in his presence.
Aside from the distribution of clean injection equipment, the clinic has also been a stepping stone for individuals seeking addictions services, detox, or information on the food bank and homeless shelters in Fredericton.
“Most importantly, we provide a safe place for people to come and feel human. Not judged, not looked down upon. Human.”