MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – The opening session of a two-day pre-conference on Gay Men, MSM and Transgender People in the Global AIDS Response sponsored by The Global Forum on MSM & HIV at Melbourne Town Hall began with solemn words and a moment of silence for the almost 300 people killed in on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, and special acknowledgement of the close ties of Martine de Schutter and Pim de Kuijer to this community.
Dr. Chris Beyrer, President-elect of the International AIDS Society and the first openly gay leader of the group noted that the deaths of scientists, policymakers and activists mirrored the composition of the AIDS movement. He highlighted the theme of AIDS 2014: “Stepping up the pace”, while acknowledging that “when we think of the LGBTI community, we are not stepping up the pace, we are moving backward.”
He went on to talk about decreased access to services for LGBTI people in many parts of the world. “Many people we would love to have here with us are in hiding and others have already given their lives.” Beyrer made a commitment to the group that during his two years as president of IAS, the society would be committed to the human rights issues so closely tied to the AIDS epidemic. He flagged some relevant highlights from the main conference opening here tomorrow, including the release of results from the open label IPREX trial which show continued effectiveness of PREP to prevent HIV transmission outside of a formal clinical trial. Acknowledging the ongoing debate within and outside the LGBTI community about PREP, HIV treatment as prevention and indeed, condom use, Beyrer pointed out that more options and tools exist for LGBTI individuals than ever before.
Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, also mourned the loss of those on their way to the Melbourne meeting on the doomed flight as “those who had been fighting for the voices of the voiceless to be heard” and bringing his comments back to the LGBTI community and the HIV response, he called the last few years “the best of times and the worst of times.” Implicitly referring to progress toward sexual and marriage equality in some parts of the world, and explicitly to draconian new laws related to homosexuality in countries like Uganda and Nigeria, he acknowledged that the just released UNAIDS goal of ending AIDS by 2030 was not achievable in the current situation: “if we don’t put people at the center of our approach, and if people must continue to hide their sexual orientation, and where transgender people and other sexual minorities face violence and murder because of who they are at their very core.” Sidibé told his audience that UNAIDS is working to accelerate access to HIV and other health service for LGBTI people from Nigeria to the Caribbean to Uganda, building a movement “better equipped for social transformation, and adjusting approaches to deal with the complex and different realities of LGBTI people in different parts of the world.
Kene Esom, a Nigerian lawyer and director of programs at the African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHER), an African regional MSM coalition based in South Africa and Senegal, closed the opening plenary session with an African perspective grounded in the reality of the huge and growing challenges faced by LGBTI people living in the countries most heavily impacted by HIV in the world. He reminded his audience that Africa is a large continent with 55 countries and that there are human rights abuses against LGBTI people in countries other than Nigeria and Uganda, but there are also 17 African countries with no laws criminalizing same sex sexual behavior. Esom shared some of the lessons he and his colleagues had learned working in the region, while articulating the need to work beyond the actions of country parliaments to fight human rights abuses. He singled out religious and cultural institutions as important players in this social justice effort. In many countries with a variety of kinds of governments, the very concept of human rights is an alien one, while embracing religion becomes “an act of survival” because it governs so many aspects of daily life. “We must listen to people who live in these contexts,” said Esom.
He flagged the value of “quiet” as opposed to “megaphone” diplomacy as a tool to change the conditions of people’s lives, with an example of a meeting with a country health minister who heard and responded to the call for educational materials about anal sex. He also called for mainstreaming the call for LGBTI rights and protection in a broad human rights context to diminish the LGBTI “exceptionalism” that frequently fuels hostility toward the community. He characterized calls to withhold HIV resources from countries with antii-LGBTI policies as wrong-headed since it would serve to undermine of the human rights of persons dependent on HIV services. He also highlighted the urgent need to provide direct resources to local groups, including funds to adequately pay their staff, instead of funneling the lion’s share of funds to large organizations who have been funded as expert capacity builders. Finally, he worried aloud that MSM and other sexual minorities living with HIV are “falling through the cracks” because so many of the programs targeting sexual minorities are completely prevention-focused.