Saturday evening, ahead of today’s opening of the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) here in D.C., the Human Rights Campaign hosted an event focusing on stigma’s role in the fight against HIV/AIDS, looking not only at the U.S., but to the Caribbean and Latin America.
Chad Griffin, HRC’s new executive director, welcomed about a hundred researchers, advocates and activists to the Equality Center in HRC’s D.C. headquarters, saying, “As the HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to ravage our communities, there needs to be continued emphasis on issues and concerns related to men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender individuals, which we’ll explore in depth in our panel discussion this evening. At a time when gay and bisexual men account for three out of five new HIV infections in this country, there is no time for us to waste. The disease is also taking its toll on our young people, especially in communities of color. … We must do the work of educating the public about what HIV is and what it isn’t, in order to tear down the stigma that serves as a barrier of people living their healthiest lives.”
Robert Clay, deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau of Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as past director of the bureau’s Office of HIV/AIDS, continued opening remarks with firsthand experience of stigma and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, telling the story of his secretary in Zambia dying from AIDS-related illness in 1998.
“When I went to the funeral, as the director I was asked to speak,” Clay explained. “I thought, ‘What an appropriate opportunity to talk about HIV/AIDS and the consequences of AIDS.’ Of course the family came up and they said, ‘Please don’t mention that she died of AIDS, because of the effect it would have on the family, on the child, the whole situation.’”
“I’ve been working in the field of HIV/AIDS for a little over 20 years and my experience – I’m sure [the experience of] many of you in the room – really demonstrates that stigma is one of our real challenges as we move forward,” Clay shared. “It’s something that continues to raise its head over and over again. … Humans discriminate; the virus does not.”
The experts on the panel, “Addressing Stigma in Transgender and Other HIV-Vulnerable Communities” were Dr. Rafael Mazin, of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO); Dr. Anita Radix, of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center; JoAnne Keatley, of the University of California, San Francisco’s Center of Excellence for Transgender Health; Carlo Oliveras, of the International Treatment and Preparedness Coalition (ITPC); Shane Snowdon, who conducts HRC’s training in LGBT patient-centered care for health professionals, and is the founding director of the Center for LGBT Health & Equity at UCSF; Moisés Agosto-Rosario, of the National Minority AIDS Council; and Chloe Schwenke, of USAID.
Longtime activist and Army veteran José M. Zuniga, president of panel co-sponsor the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC) and the scheduled moderator, was unable to fill that duty due to a scheduling conflict on a Saturday night of countless AIDS 2012-related events. Before departing, however, he reminded the audience, “Complacency kills, as does stigma.”
Along with HRC and IAPAC, the PAHO and ITPC also co-sponsored the event.
Of all the data shared during the panel, some was jarring.
“Over 750 trans women were assassinated between 2008 and 2011,” Mazin told the audience. “This is what we know. This is the tip of the iceberg. … In the last three weeks … at least two homicides per week in Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Jamaica, Venezuela and Argentina, just to mention a few countries where these facts are reported. Can you imagine two homicides per week in each one of these countries?”
Radix, who has worked as a health care provider in the Caribbean for many years, showed a photo of two gay men and a transgender woman being stoned by a crowd of about 200 women and children in Kingston, Jamaica, on Valentine’s Day 2007.
“I could show you many pictures like this,” she said. “This is just one of many.”
Perhaps the most hopeful comments of the evening came from USAID’s Schwenke, the final panelist, who followed a general sense of an urgent need for more research on these vulnerable populations in order to better serve them, and better education to combat stigma.
“Stigma and discrimination, they’re formidable barriers,” she granted. “One of our biggest challenges is just simply to break the pervasive silence in developing countries in many places where stigma is allowed to happen.
“… Our challenges are huge. We work across many different sectors. We bring many different skills. We’re the largest bilateral donor. We feel the weight of that responsibility, because with that coverage, with the resources we have, we’re challenged. We know we can make an impact. We need to make sure we use those resources well. It’s a moral burden that we take on and we accept. And we do it by a whole number of ways.
“Our approach right now to LGBT health and human rights is that, it’s both. It’s not just a health challenge. It’s a human rights challenge. We’re there. We’re there in both of those areas. We’re there with strong and unequivocal messages about the importance of human dignity and human rights. That’s a language we’re not afraid of. … Most of all, we’re going to use what we’ve learned in 50 years of this kind of work – maybe not specifically with LGBT, but we do know how to be effective. We do know how to build capacity. We do know how to facilitate advocacy. We do it and we do it well. That’s what we’re doing for you, and that’s what I wanted to share tonight, because I am as proud as punch to be a part of it.”