AIDS 2012: Let the circus begin

July 22, 2012

Posted by Alvaro Bermejo

Executive Director, International HIV/AIDS Alliance

I set off with a curiosity, a thirst, I haven’t experienced for an International AIDS Conference circus in a long time.  Even before the main event, we have a number of pre-conference events to navigate before the main conference even starts.

Yesterday I attended the MSM Global Forum pre-conference.  What would this event have to offer?  Never been to one. Did not know what to expect. The title, From Stigma to Strength wasn’t as imaginative as the one Stephen Lewis has given to one of his sessions at the conference (Getting to Zero Bullshit: Calling HIV-related Stigma what it is) but it gave an equally good idea of what was to come.

The meeting had been massively oversubscribed – they had two full overflow rooms and had still had to turn down 250 registrations. The energy was really positive. Friends happy to find each other again. Colleagues catching up on progress made. Lovers-to-be deciding who to spend the Conference with. We were honouring the late Robert Carr, and remembering the murder of David Kato and other human right defenders; emotions were high.

So what did I learn? I was reminded that MSM represent approximately 2% of the US population, yet are the population most severely affected by HIV. In 2009, MSM accounted for 61% of all new HIV infections in the US. And I learned that the epidemic is increasingly spreading following lines of inequality and marginalisation. Among all MSM, black/African American MSM accounted for a huge chunk (37%) of all new HIV infections, largely due to a 48% increase among young black/African American MSM aged 13–29. This is an important reminder for us: we must not forget that declining global figures are hiding an upward trajectory of MSM new infections in all regions of the world.

We discussed homophobia and its many manifestations. The amazing Justice Kirby gave us a global account. Kevin Fenton, from CDC, highlighted the prevention challenges in the US. Maurice Tomlinson, a gay Jamaican lawyer now working for AIDS-Free World in Toronto told us – in a simple no-powerpoint way – how he has become the most visible face in the fight against homophobia in Jamaica, and the strategies he is using.  Future success, I concluded, will depend on our ability to implement and bring to scale what we know works, for those at risk. Communities will have to play a big role. Testing and adherence are key, for both treatment and prevention.

And I remembered the advice I got from an experienced circus goer when I was just a baby clown-follower: ‘go to the sessions of greatest value to your daily work but, once every other day, treat yourself to something different, attend a session that will give you a totally new perspective’. Human Rights violations faced by Transgender Communities Worldwide was my choice. It was being discussed in a tiny breakout room packed with trans men and women. Small numbers; big energy. They might be late comers but they are organising and going to be taking the AIDS response by storm! Give them a bit of time and let’s make sure we support rather than get in the way.

Simran, from Alliance India was a speaker and did a great job (read Simran’s personal story here). And I found myself there concerned. Concerned that after so many years ‘thinking AIDS’ every minute of the day, every day of the week, I have never stopped, for one second, to consider the life of trans in prisons. To reflect on the horrific levels of sexual violence they experience in detention. Transgender women are routinely placed in men’s prisons. Statistics in the US confirm the anecdotal evidence from many parts in the world: they are 13 times more likely to be sexually abused in prison as their fellow inmates. Spine chilling stories of gang rapes are far too common. And for all I’ve seen in my many years living this work, nobody notices. That’s one I won’t forget!

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