Published: 21 June 2023

Reaching West – ACON’s HIV health promotion with and for culturally diverse queer and trans communities in Western Sydney

By Loc Nguyen, Multicultural Engagement & Community Development, ACON.

Historically, the HIV sector has often labelled culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse LGBTQ+ communities in Greater Western Sydney (GWS) as a “hard-to-reach” population – as though this mysterious and unknowable cohort of people purposefully shy away or avoid LGBTQ+ and HIV health services. However, in representing the LGBTQ+ communities of GWS as “hard-to-reach”, the communities themselves are positioned as the problem, as opposed to the HIV sector’s history of failing to meaningfully include culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse voices in our HIV response.

This blog outlines some of the community development, health promotion and partnerships that ACON has been working on in GWS with The West Ball and FLAGCOM (Filipino Lesbian and Gay Community and Friends). Through these partnerships, ACON is working to champion the voices of community leaders from GWS within our HIV response to meaningfully reach the communities who have been left behind.


Snapshot: HIV and LGBTQ+ Communities in Western Sydney

In New South Wales (NSW), overseas-born gay, bi+, queer men and other men who have sex with men (GBQMSM) are disproportionately impacted by new HIV diagnoses compared to Australian-born GBQMSM. Geographically, populations in GWS have not experienced the same declines in HIV transmissions compared to Sydney’s metro/inner-city areas and regional/rural NSW, with GWS now making up 25% of all new HIV diagnoses in NSW. This demonstrates that our HIV health promotion initiatives and services have not centred the needs of overseas-born, culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse people and GWS communities in NSW.

GWS is a highly culturally, linguistically and ethnically diverse region. The area is home to over 2.5 million people with 50% of its inhabitants being migrants or descended from migrants from more than 170 countries. This means that the HIV sector requires a strong focus on culturally-specific HIV health promotion interventions that target GWS communities and their needs.

HIV organisations, like ACON, have decades of history in understanding the power of community-led responses and peer education in addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis for GBQMSM in NSW. This effective approach must be applied to and upheld for culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse communities in GWS, by ensuring that those leading HIV initiatives are from these affected communities.


Partnering with Community Leaders and Groups from Western Sydney

ACON has formed crucial partnerships with community leaders and groups who support queer and trans people of colour in GWS to develop culturally-inclusive and innovative HIV responses with and for their communities. These groups included The West Ball and FLAGCOM (Filipino Lesbian and Gay Community and Friends).


The West Ball

The West Ball is an annual ballroom event held in GWS that celebrates queer and trans people of colour through dance and performance. The event attracts up to 500 community members each year and has become the largest event for queer and trans people of colour in GWS.

In 2022, ACON partnered with The West Ball to co-design a HIV campaign that targeted the ballroom event goers and wider LGBTQ+ communities in GWS. The campaign was shot in GWS and its visual design and HIV health messaging for testing, prevention, treatment and ending stigma were all led by queer people of colour connected to GWS, including ACON health promotion officers, The West Ball creative directors, the community talent and the photographer. Our co-design approach ensured the campaign was developed by and for queer and trans people of colour in GWS.

The campaign also showcased queer and trans people of colour of all genders who have social media influence within their communities. This gave power to the campaign’s success where it was directly circulated within the social media networks among other queer and trans people of colour in GWS. This partnership with The West Ball supported ACON to develop a high-impact HIV campaign where queer and trans people of colour from GWS read themselves into its messaging.

Along with the campaign, we have experimented with innovative ways to conduct sexual health outreach for communities in GWS, which has included working with South Western Sydney Local Health District to set up pop-up HIV and STI testing at The West Ball, as well as disseminating HIV self-test kits.

Photographer: Shivneel Kumar


FLAGCOM (Filipino Lesbian and Gay Community and Friends)

ACON partners with FLAGCOM each year for their Miss Mardi Gras International Queen event – a beauty pageant that has been hosted since 2010 in GWS that celebrates trans women from South East Asian countries.

In 2022, ACON invited all the pageant candidates to our offices to participate in a workshop on HIV testing, prevention, treatment and stigma, and sexual health information specifically for trans and gender diverse communities. Our aim was to increase their sexual health literacy and confidence to be sexual health champions within their own communities, to empower them to have discussions around HIV and sexual health with their peers.

This strategy also aimed to reach the sexual partners of trans women, a population our sector has historically categorised as “discrete men”. Although these populations are a priority within our HIV response, they may not necessarily access LGBTQ-identified and HIV health services with confidence. Our approach aims to promote HIV and sexual health literacy within these sexual networks through the trans women who have been upskilled.


Western Sydney communities want to be reached

Through our partnerships with The West Ball and FLAGCOM, we have learnt that there is a willingness and desire among queer and trans people of colour in GWS to engage with HIV and sexual health services like ACON. However, unlike LGBTQ+ communities in metro Sydney who we have spent decades building trust with, we have yet to create the same long-term relationship with queer and trans people of colour in GWS. As such, there is a lack of awareness of our services and confidence in using them.

As a sector, we must ensure that those leading the HIV initiatives are led by and for culturally, linguistically and ethnically diverse backgrounds from GWS. This means that we as a sector must involve community leaders who hold cultural expertise and social capital within their communities, and uplift those working in the HIV sector who are also from these backgrounds to lead culturally-tailored and responsive HIV health promotion initiatives for their own communities.

Published: June 2023