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A "Family Reunion" for Some Fierce Activists: The Global Forum on MSM and HIV

in WORLD, 18/07/2010

A reflection on the pre-conference by the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF) on the day before the International AIDS Conference officially opened.

To better understand what many participants in MSMGF do, imagine this scenario: You're gay and HIV positive -- already not a walk in the park in most societies. Now imagine you live in a country where there's no effective HIV treatment available, your condoms regularly tear from lack of lubricant, and what HIV prevention messages there are shut you out completely because sex between men is a legally punishable offense. Now go out, raise your voice and fight for your rights -- without a salary, because the notion of being paid for working as an activist for men who have sex with men does not exist in your area.

Hence the importance of a worldwide association of people in similar situations and their allies -- and of a gathering every two years to learn from, network with -- and occasionally hug -- those likeminded people.

The MSMGF -- as its executive officer, George Ayala, reminded the crowd during his introductory remarks -- was convened in 2006 as a response to the invisibility of men who have sex with men (MSM) at the International AIDS Conference. Now, four years later, AIDS 2010 still does not have nearly the prevalence of MSM-focused sessions to match the global impact of HIV on MSM communities, but at least we all get to gather, talk MSM talk from dawn till dusk and whet our palates for the conference week ahead.

Ayala noted that the MSMGF's collection of advocates, researchers, care providers, artist, media folks and others comprises a "family reunion" of people united in our various connections to LGBT communities across the globe. It did seem that everywhere one looked between sessions, there were nearly as many people embracing and grinning -- no doubt relieved to see the faces of people whom they've perhaps only known over e-mail since the last conference -- as there were folks talking about the latest MSM-related research findings or policy changes.

It's a family that's fomented progress in recent years, to be sure: Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS (whom Mark S. King tackled to interview as Sidibé was being hustled off the podium by handlers), reviewed global advances in LGBT rights and commended the gathered for their tireless work, saying he was "proud to be associated with this movement" like he truly meant it.

Of course, there is still a staggering amount of work to be done. Joel Nana, the executive chair of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) and a longtime MSM advocate in several African nations (whom I had the chance to speak with at greater length later in the day, and promise to get some highlights from our chat up ASAP!), reminded the gatherd in his speech that nowadays, men who have sex with men may be included in a country's national HIV/AIDS strategy while still vulnerable to arrest for their sexual orientation, as was the case in Senegal in late 2008.

The day's gathering was definitely a reunion of sorts for me, this being my second time in attendance at the MSMGF pre-conference. I spoke with Joseph Akoro two years ago at what was his and my first-ever pre-conference. He's now the executive director of The Independent Project for Equal Rights in Nigeria, and his organization is one of UNAIDS' 2010 Red Ribbon Award winners. He's also seen the growth of a project that was a mere nameless seed in 2008 -- the Integrated MSM HIV Prevention Program (IMHPP -- say it fast! It's like "I'm hip"!) -- in part because of the knowledge and networking he was able to gather at the conference in Mexico City. True to the family vibe, I felt a little like a proud cousin witnessing how Akoro has matured as a leader and an advocate for young MSM since 2008.

In my eyes the MSMGF is, in its absolute essence, a worldwide network of people working like hell to care for and protect themselves and those closest to them. This fact was particularly clear to me at the end of Chris Beyrer's presentation. Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights, delivered the most data-heavy presentation of the morning. It was fascinating -- his well-designed slides outlined HIV epidemics among MSM and other vulnerable communities compared to the general populations of a wide range of low- and middle-income countries. The primary takeaway message from the findings was that access to HIV care, treatment and prevention for MSM is a fundamental human right, and that striving for this access should not be an insular endeavor, but rather a key part of countries' overall approach to HIV.

But that wasn't Beyrer's last slide. At his final click, a black-and-white photo of a high-cheekboned, handsome young man filled the overhead projection screen. The photo was of Beyrer's late partner, who passed away from AIDS-related complications nearly 20 years ago -- and we're still striving to get basic services to MSM in many parts of the world. "Enough with young men needlessly dying," Beyrer said simply, closing his presentation to this global family gathering.

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