amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

GRASSROOTS: The GMT Initiative Blog

Grassroots reports on the work of amfAR-supported research teams and advocates responding to the devastating impact of HIV among gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT).

Community Viral Load in Dominica

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Posted by Kent Klindera on September 27, 2013

I just spent a few days in the Eastern Caribbean conducting a site visit with our colleagues at the Dominica Chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership (DomCHAP).  My visit coincided with two events:  A meeting to form a coalition promoting LGBT rights as a public health strategy and a training to launch the GMT Initiative-supported Dominica Healthy Men Project. amfAR receives generous support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) for this program and for all of its grants in the Caribbean. 

Dominica GMT Blog 1

Peer educators in DomCHAP’s Dominica Healthy Men Project take part in a training session. 

Currently, throughout the Caribbean, progress in the fight for LGBT rights is being challenged by reactive conservative forces—especially in places like Belize and Jamaica where violence and protests have erupted in recent months.  However, in Dominica, there is a new movement to proactively promote human rights for LGBT and prevent this kind of violent conservative backlash by framing the issue as a public health strategy that can reduce HIV rates nationwide. I’m happy amfAR is a part of that effort.

In Dominica, same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but many organizations and the government seem receptive to change. At the coalition meeting, representatives from the Ministry of Health and individuals from various NGOs—including Dominica Planned Parenthood Association, Child Fund, and Caribbean HIV/AIDS Alliance, among others—discussed LGBT rights in Dominica.  All were in agreement that the issue was a vital one, but that it would be a lengthy process, and must be framed in a public health context.  They also all agreed that any movement must be led by Dominicans themselves, a strategy that aligns well with amfAR’s model of supporting GMT community-led efforts. 

The Dominica Healthy Men Project will train peer educators to use the newest science of HIV prevention and promote healthy living among GMT. The rest of my visit was spent assisting with training 12 gay and bisexual young men for the program. They were each very earnest about helping their community, and most arrived on time at 9 a.m. for all three days of the training—even on Sunday morning! We spent a lot of time discussing issues about being healthy vital to their own lives and circumstances.  For example, we had lengthy discussions about healthy romantic relationships, during which most of the guys described their dreams of the day they will be in a long-term romantic relationship, complete with a house, white picket fence, nice car, children, and a dog. 

They were also very excited about biomedical approaches to reducing HIV.  During the training, I introduced the concept of “community viral load.” This concept is based on new science indicating that if people living with HIV are enrolled in HIV care and adhere to antiretroviral (ARV) medication, they will be virally suppressed and less likely to transmit HIV to others.  Thus, reducing “community viral load” is a strategy to encourage HIV testing and treatment within the entire GMT community. The guys really liked the concept, as it fit well with their earnestness about helping their community. Unfortunately, HIV-related stigma is rife among GMT in Dominica, deterring many people from getting tested.  We therefore spent a lot of time discussing the causes and effects of HIV-related stigma among GMT—such as inadequate knowledge about how HIV is spread and the isolation associated with an HIV positive diagnosis—and strategies to overcome that stigma. In the end, work plans were developed for program implementation, but more importantly, these guys are now more empowered to make a difference in their community. I look forward to receiving their reports of impact on the epidemic among GMT in beautiful, tropical Dominica.

A New Law Silences HIV Outreach in Russia

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Posted by Lucile Scott on September 19, 2013

On June 30, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” that had passed the Duma unanimously. Under the new law, Russian individuals and organizations deemed to have engaged in this “propaganda” can be fined from $5,000 to $30,000. Foreigners can be fined, held up to 15 days in prison, and/or deported. Despite the stiff penalties, the definition of “propaganda” is not clearly defined in the law, and many people and organizations remain unclear about when and how they may be prosecuted for doing HIV outreach targeting LGBT in Russia. Evgeny Pisemsky, chairman of the board of NGO Phoenix Plus in Orlovskay, Oblast, Russia—a former GMT Initiative grantee partner—spoke to amfAR about some of the possible effects on his work among GMT.

A Russian gay rights advocate is removed from a protest by a police officer.jpg 
A Russian gay rights advocate is removed from a protest by a police officer. Photo: PolicyMic

Places for gay people, like clubs, may be closed in the near future. Already these days, police checks of these places are happening more often. The proclaimed reason is to check for drugs. In the current environment of high stigmatization, working with MSM on the internet can be one of the most effective tools, but these web resources—including both websites and groups in social networks—are being blocked. In mid-July, the online community Parni Plus (Positive Guys), based in My World social network on the Mail.Ru site, was blocked and deleted by the administration of the site without any prior notice. The main objective of that online community was to provide information on sexual health and relationships to LGBT. The site itself is marked “18+,” as required by the federal legislation, making it clear that the materials were aimed strictly at the adults. But even this did not prevent the Mail.Ru management from shutting the site down.

Russian-President-Vladimir-Putin-signed-the-new-bill-into-law-on-June-30-2013.jpgRussian President Vladimir Putin signed the new bill into law on June 30, 2013. Photo: PolicyMic Our printed informational materials can also be refused for printing. Currently, the government does not allocate resources for targeted HIV prevention programs among MSM, and officials and businesses, like Mail.Ru, are starting to view HIV prevention programs for MSM as “propaganda of homosexuality” and either ban them or hamper their realization “just to be on the safe side.” NGO staff will not want to implement prevention programs among MSM to stop their NGO from being prosecuted or even closed.

MSM themselves will be less motivated to turn to the governmental medical institutions for help, especially since another bad law was recently adopted in Russia that allows the prosecutor’s offices to request and obtain a person’s medical information without getting permission from the court. This means that information about a patient’s homosexuality that is available in the AIDS centers can be disclosed. And this is aq direct violation of the Russian Federation Constitution. I am sure that the law against propaganda of non-traditional relationships will have an extremely negative impact on the spread of HIV among gay and bisexual men.

It will also have other negative impacts on services for MSM. Here is a recent online comment posted by a 17-year-old gay man about counseling he received last year through a clinic for MSM. As a minor, he would not be able to receive the counseling today, because it can be considered propaganda:

“My mother found out that her son was a gay on her birthday. She told me two things I will never be able to forget: ‘You fags are worse than junkies!’ and "I should have got rid of you! Then I wouldn't have to go through such trouble with you!" To cut it short, it was a real nightmare.  But I was seeing a wonderful counselor for those two months, who really helped my mother. I am really grateful to him for this. He helped me explain to my mom that life was not over, especially her life.”

Taking Gay Rights to Court in Belize

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Posted by Lucile Scott on September 6, 2013

Caleb Orozco, executive director of United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), a GMT Initiative grantee, is the sole plaintiff in a case to overturn the law in Belize that criminalizes same-sex sexual activity, known as Section 53. In May, as oral arguments began in Caleb Orozco v. The Attorney General of Belize, anti-gay rights protesters swarmed streets in cities across Belize. They were organized by the religious group Belize Action, which is led by a Texan evangelical missionary named Scott Stirm. After the arguments ended, the thousands of protesters began targeting a recent amendment to Belize’s Gender Policy that, for the first time, urged all levels of government and civil society to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation. There have been multiple threats against Caleb’s life, and he has been assaulted in the streets. The judge has yet to rule, but regardless of his decision, one side will likely appeal to the Caribbean Court of Justice, a regional court, and that decision could affect laws criminalizing homosexuality in multiple countries in the region. amfAR talked to Caleb about the events and the following is excerpted from that interview.

Caleb Orozco is the sole plaintiff in a case to strike down Belize’s law criminalizing homosexuality.

amfAR: What motivated you to file the lawsuit?

Caleb: Years and years of insults and threats. I realized that by staying silent, I actually perpetuated all those insults and threats. I met with the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) and they told me they were doing an analysis of the Caribbean region to find the best place to file litigation to challenge the national laws against homosexuality, and they found that Belize was the most ideal. amfAR supported that research. And I basically said to them, “So why don’t I become the claimant—I was ready yesterday.” We filed the case in September of 2010.

amfAR: The Gender Policy change happened in March, just before your oral arguments. Was it related to your suit at all?

Orozco-in-front-of-the-Belize-Supreme-Court.jpgOrozco in front of the Belize Supreme Court.Caleb: The change to the Gender Policy came as a result of our research about men who have sex with men that we did for the litigation process. We submitted the research to a consultant who was developing the analysis of the Gender Policy, who’s an ally. And that translated into the specific reference to sexual orientation in the updated policy.

amfAR: What will the lawsuit and actually striking  Section 53 off the books accomplish that this doesn’t?

Caleb: One, it would stop the intimidation tactics that police use against MSM. Two, it removes the thinking that we don’t deserve any social protection. Three, it removes the state justification for not including us in new legislation and for not acting on LGBT citizens’ needs. It also removes barriers to targeting MSM in HIV interventions and the National HIV Plan. Also, Section 53 promotes a feeling in MSM that they should be silent about any discrimination they experience.

amfAR: Why was Belize found to be the best place in the Caribbean to file this suit?

Protesters against the new Gender Policy take over an entire street.Protesters against the new Gender Policy take over a street in San Ignacio, BelizeCaleb: It’s a ‘live and let live’ culture. People had prejudice, but it wasn’t violent. But actually, since we filed in 2010, the Evangelical group Belize Action has been fanning the flames of prejudice, and they have whipped up permission to hate in such a way that you never know whether going shopping to buy soap and rice is going to be a difficult situation. They say the idea of LGBT rights and the suit to overturn Section 53 come from the U.S. and are “a new kind of imperialism,” but we just did a report with the Southern Poverty Law Center showing that fundamentalist groups from the U.S. are working here to push their agenda and that actually the evangelization of the law is a form of colonialism.

And now the evangelicals—with the help of U.S. right wing persons like Scott Stirm—have organized people to march with signs against us and to hang dummies labeled UNIBAM off trees in effigy. People are now calling gay men UNIBAM instead of faggot. Two people jumped over my gate and damaged my car. And some other people seem to think I belong in the intensive care unit.

But if we win it will show the rest of the region that it is possible. Places like Dominica are considering the litigation approach, but they’re waiting for the decision in Belize. And so we owe it to them. It will give a message that churches have to deal with us. And that fundamental rights and freedom matter.

Young anti-gay rights protesters hold a sign again UNIBAM.  
Young anti-gay rights protesters hold a sign again UNIBAM.