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

By Olivia Ford

July 18, 2010

Olivia is TheBody.com's community manager.

In what's becoming a tradition around International AIDS Conference time, the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF) held its pre-conference gathering on the day before the conference officially opened. MSMGF, to paraphrase its Web site, works worldwide to fight HIV and promote the health and human rights of men who have sex with men (MSM).

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 MSM does not exist in your area.

Michel Sidibé

Michel Sidibé

Joel Nana

Joel Nana

Joseph Akoro

Joseph Akoro

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.

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 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, artists, media folks and others comprises a "family reunion" of people united in our various connections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities across the globe. It did seem that everywhere one looked between sessions, there were nearly as many people embracing and grinning and 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 for an interview as Sidibé was being hustled off the podium by handlers), reviewed global advances in LGBT rights and commended those gathered for their tireless work, saying he was "proud to be associated with this movement" as if 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!), in his speech reminded those gathered that nowadays, MSM 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.

Photo of a slide from 'The Global Epidemics of HIV Among MSM in 2010: Epidemiology, Responses, and Human Rights,' presented by Chris Beyrer at the MSMGF pre-conference program, AIDS 2010

Photo of a slide from "The Global Epidemics of HIV Among MSM in 2010: Epidemiology, Responses, and Human Rights," presented by Chris Beyrer at the MSMGF pre-conference program, AIDS 2010.

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 a country's 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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