August 10, 2010
Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic first hit the U.S., it has deeply and disproportionately impacted the gay community. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), men who have sex with men (MSM) account for nearly half of the more than one million people living with HIV in the U.S.; they account for more than half of all newly infected people in the U.S. each year; and they're diagnosed with HIV at a rate more than 44 times that of heterosexual men.
This year, at the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010) in Vienna, the MSM community -- both U.S.-based and globally -- was a topic of serious conversation. However, there were complaints from leaders that it was not enough. According to George Ayala, executive officer for the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF), MSM-related presentations took up a measly 2 percent of all presentations given at AIDS 2010. That's better than four years ago when MSM were almost invisible, he said, but clearly not nearly enough presence given how disproportionately the epidemic affects this group of men.
That said, a number of important stories related to MSM did come out of this conference, including:
In 2012, the XIX International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington, D.C., the epicenter of HIV in this country, especially among black MSM. Hopefully, conference organizers will listen to this criticism and do the necessary community outreach to ensure that there will be more MSM-focused presentations and events at AIDS 2012. These sessions should also include presenters from different ethnicities from all over the world discussing a diverse array of topics, strategies and research. There really is no excuse for this not to happen -- the gaps in research have been clearly stated. Now is the time to start following through.
The day before AIDS 2010 began, around 650 people attended Be Heard, a pre-conference event hosted by MSMGF -- an organization that works to promote sexual health among MSM. The day featured presentations, workshops and panels about government neglect; AIDS denialism; funding woes; barriers to prevention, treatment and care; human rights abuses; and AIDS-related deaths.
Leaders (such as Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS; Joel Nana, the executive chair of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights; and Joseph Akoro, the executive director of the Independent Project for Equal Rights in Nigeria) spoke about a range of issues, including what the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has done to fight homophobia; the lack of a MSM presence at AIDS 2010; and the work that still needs to be done.
George Ayala described the event as a means for LGBT advocates, researchers, care providers, artists, media folks and allies from around the world to come together.
TheBody.com's community manager Olivia Ford was on the ground in Vienna and reported on the event. Ford noted that this networking reunion was especially important for those who lived in areas where stigma and homophobia were profoundly oppressive:
To better undestand 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 MSM 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 like-minded people.
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