The Global Forum on Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) hosts its MSM Pre-Conference for the International AIDS Conference 2012. It is – surprisingly – one of the most packed events of the conference and the one I am most looking forward to. Too often in the US, I have become used to discussions about HIV to remain silent on gay men. I know that most people have the perception that gay men dominate HIV organizations – and to be honest, there are certainly a number of gay men in management positions in AIDS – but too often, the realities of gay men are not part of the discussions, prioritization processes or community engagement in any meaningful way. Gay men (and other MSM) are uncomfortable: to discuss us, one must envision two (or more) same-sex people intimately. We do not all follow the same rules of politeness, class, race, gender and age barriers: our venues are often full of uncomfortable differences.
The morning speakers share some common beats: the importance of fighting for human rights, the advances in technology that give new hope, and the impact of criminalization and discrimination on HIV. These themes were explored from the domestic point of view, from someone who has seen the epidemic intimately as a long-term survivor, from the ways that laws and policies make MSM invisible, and from the Calcutta satellite meeting (via Skype) – where the exclusion and discrimination was made evident by the fact that the sex workers attending the Calcutta meeting were unable to attend the conference in the US. The overall conference theme, “Turning the Tide Together,” rings hollow in that light.
Robert Suttle threw me. As a Black gay men who spent six months in a Louisiana prison because his ex-lover filed criminal prosecution charges due to (alleged) non-disclosure of his HIV status, Robert has firsthand experience of how criminalization destroys lives. He speaks plainly about his felony conviction and sex offender registration, about his career ending and his social support shifting, and how he was shaped in that crucible. I’m not sure how many could stand that shame and destruction and turn that moment into a new life of advocacy.
It’s incredibly exciting to meet so many gay activists – men who introduce themselves in elevators and on the streets without bar cruising or diva-ness. We greet each other with our names and countries, asking about enjoying DC or the overwhelming conference, about any experiences travelling in each other’s regions, and laying the groundwork for future dialogue. I do think that what makes the gay community unique is diversity, whether one likes it or not, of our interests, our politics, our education, our bitchiness, our sex, our HIV-status, our socio-economic class, our professions, our ethnicity, our gender performance and our relationships to our families. In this meeting, at this pre-conference, we are encouraged to embrace each other in the best ways possible. And I’m glad of that.
Written by: Dr. Andrew Spieldenner @aspield