A longstanding HIV researcher and clinician, Dr. Bertrand Lebouché isn’t expecting anyone to throw him a parade. His noble raison d’être is to improve the health of people living with HIV, and to help others prevent infection.
And, yet this Sunday, he’ll find himself a guest of honor at, yes, a parade.
Not just any parade, either. As one of four grand marshals of this year’s Fierté Montréal, the good doctor will be right in the middle of the sometimes outrageous, sometimes poignant, always colourful annual LGBTQ2+ Pride parade as it once again winds its way through the streets of Montreal’s downtown and Village.
Fierté Montréal bestowed the honour on Lebouché in recognition for his tireless work as an HIV researcher and clinician, and his advocacy for free access to HIV treatment and preventative medication.
An Associate Professor in the Dept. of Family Medicine in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Lebouché specializes in primary care for people with HIV and/or hepatitis C. He works in patient-oriented clinical research with people living with or vulnerable to HIV, particularly with GBMSM [gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men]. His research team has developed several tools for improving the care pathway and to help individuals better manage their HIV, including the Opal smartphone app and the Marvin chatbot, which uses AI to inform Facebook users about HIV treatments and treatment as prevention.
The Pride festival is also recognizing Lebouché’s involvement in the 24th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2022), arguably the largest international HIV/AIDS conference, which was held in Montreal from July 29 to August 2. Lebouché oversaw the AIDS 2022 local committee, which engaged Montreal organizations and the municipal government. He was tapped for the position by another McGill researcher, Dr. Jean-Pierre Routy, who serves as the local co-chair of the AIDS 2022 organizing committee.
“I was surprised and honored” to be named a Pride grand marshal, recalls Lebouché. “I’m honored because of my participation in AIDS 2022, and my research team’s work, and also my work as an HIV doctor. For a long time, I’ve received a lot of GBMSM who are vulnerable or living with HIV. Some of them are refugees or international students. They face huge challenges to access good HIV care, to access antiretroviral therapy, to access good immigration status. We write letters for immigration lawyers and immigration judges, so it’s really more than just giving them treatment. For me, I think the most important part of my job to be useful.”
Spokesperson for health issues
The 15th edition of Fierté Montréal runs from Aug. 1 to 7. After one year as a virtual event, and another as a hybrid celebration, this year’s Pride marks a return to in-person events in a big way, with nine free large shows, the traditional parade, and some 100 community activities.
In his capacity as grand marshal, Lebouché will meet with Premier François Legault, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mayor Valérie Plante to discuss increased access to HIV medication and other pressing issues. And, of course, he’ll participate in the iconic parade and other celebrations.
Joining Lebouché as grand marshals are Atikamekw singer-songwriter Laura Niquay and Midnight Poonkasetwattana, executive director of a Thailand HIV-focused not-for-profit. A fourth marshal, Cameroonian LGBT activist Joseph Messinga Ngonka, is unable to participate in-person due to travel issues.
Coming together in Montreal
The International AIDS Society organizes the International AIDS Conference every two years. The IAS bills the gathering as “the world’s most important gathering for people living with and affected by HIV and all those working to address the HIV epidemic.” The conference brings together activists, researchers and policy-makers with a goal to “define future research agendas, shift latest evidence to action, and chart a new consensus on overcoming the HIV epidemic as a threat to public health and individual well-being.”
Although the 2022 edition of the conference was a hybrid event, Lebouché estimates that 90 per cent of the approximately 10,000 participants were actually in Montreal. Not only did AIDS 2022 mark the first large in-person edition of the conference since the pandemic, but it was also the first time Montreal hosted the event since 1989.
Lebouché recalls that ’89 conference as especially pivotal because community groups drove home the message that HIV research must be “done with us, not without us.”
“It was really important to give the voice to this community because they are vulnerable, they are living with this infection.”
Fierté Montréal is also no small affair, with the last pre-pandemic edition generating an estimated total attendance of 3.4 million in 2019. This year, the organizers of AIDS 2022 worked with Fierté Montréal to schedule their respective events so the two juggernauts would deliberately overlap.
“HIV is an important aspect in LGBTQ2+ life, so it was a good opportunity,” says Lebouché. “And a lot of attendees for AIDS 2022 are also a member of the LGBTQ2+ community. So it gives a very interesting international dimension.”