amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

GRASSROOTS: The MSM Initiative Blog

amfAR's MSM Initiative supports grassroots MSM and transgender organizations responding to HIV, and advocates for effective HIV policies and increased funding for MSM/TG globally.

Infighting in Sri Lanka

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Posted by Kent Klindera, September 25, 2012 

I recently left Colombo, Sri Lanka, after spending three lovely days with colleagues at Diversity and Solidarity Trust (DAST). amfAR is supporting DAST to work with the owners and staff at several male massage centers in Colombo, which at times can act as fronts for male sex work. DAST has proposed to assist the men in receiving formal massage therapy certificates, in order to increase their likelihood of receiving more money for their massage services. During my visit, they also discussed opening an English language class to assist the masseurs in providing services to higher paying clients. 

DAST is already promoting safer sex, HIV testing and counseling, and social support for the men on a regular basis. They are focusing on “test and treat” so that if someone is infected, they can make sure they are on treatment, lowering the probably of spreading HIV to others. I also met with a few masseurs who let me know they were from rural areas, and that their income from massage work assists with their studies, and supports family back home. They told me they “never” practice penetrative sex in their work, but I was not convinced. 

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An advertisement for a male massage parlor working with DAST.  

Unfortunately, several massage centers have recently been raided due to various issues, including illegal drug use. In an extreme case, some masseurs and clients were arrested. As a result, some male masseurs have shifted to off-site “house calls” for their effort, making it very challenging for DAST to implement their program.

However, a larger challenge for DAST is the infighting, back stabbing, and sabotage occurring between various Sri Lankan LGBT-identified organizations. There are a several other local organizations, which all seem to serve different populations amongst the LGBT community—LGBT of higher means, LGBT youth, lesbian women, openly identified gay men, transgender individuals, etc. However, to international donors and networks, it seems that at times these groups and individuals sabotage each other. Clearly, there is a history of corruption among some individuals, as well as years of built-up mistrust. It seems very self-defeating to me.

I also had a long and fruitful conversation with colleagues representing various UN agencies and The Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka—all of whom were very supportive of DAST’s and others’ work related to LGBT issues. However, they confirmed the infighting and were not sure what to do about it.

As many of us know, infighting like this is not unique to Sri Lanka. Such infighting exists nearly everywhere and can be destructive.  But as a seasoned activist, I recognize that such infighting is natural, especially when marginalized people are forced to fight over limited resources. However, as a movement, we need to unite our efforts to challenge a homophobic and trans-phobic world, and not allow internal conflicts slow our progress. 

I am honored to work with activists throughout the world and I have noticed that activists in places under extreme threat seem to be more likely to work together. In a way, having a crisis encourages more unity to defeat a common opposition. For example, the LGBT activist movement in Jamaica has had to deal with extreme violence against their community for years—both physical and verbal (especially in the form of popular music). I’m not sure exactly what the secret is, but, from my perspective, the Jamaican LGBT organizations seem to be united. 

Similarly, I look to Uganda, where groups who once struggled through severe infighting have come together to stand united against a religiously based, state-sponsored assault on their livelihoods (even more notable after the death of David Kato—one of their key leaders). 

Back to Sri Lanka—I also spent a lot of time chatting with a charming and peaceful gay activist who is working on “peace-building.” Sri Lanka is emerging from more than 25 years of civil strife. The government of Sri Lanka and global human rights donors have responded to this situation by investing in peace and reconciliation processes—working to build trust between ethnic groups. During our conversations, a huge light bulb went on in both our heads. We recognized that the work he was doing as a peace builder for the nation is sorely needed within the LGBT community in Sri Lanka as well. I left quite encouraged, as this activist seemed to be quite excited about applying his skills to build peace in the LGBT community. Time will tell, but I left with a whole lot of hope for this beautiful country.

Courage

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Posted by Kent Klindera, September 24, 2012 

Today, I’m in Dhaka, Bangladesh, meeting with colleagues at the Bandu Social Welfare Society (BSWS).  amfAR is funding BSWS as part our “Evidence in Action” project—funded by ViiV Healthcare Positive Action and the Elton John AIDS Foundation in order to increase the knowledge base about effective, community-based HIV/AIDS services for gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT). 

The project is working with past amfAR grantees in need of more formalized evaluations to scale up their programs. BSWS is pretty amazing, having been around for 15 years serving sexual minorities. For their current project with amfAR, they are tackling very challenging issues in Bangladesh, working with gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) who are living with HIV. 

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Staff and beneficiaries at Bandu Social Welfare Society  

I was honored to have lunch with a male couple—very much in love, and both living with HIV. One was a bit more effeminate (he did ALL the talking) and he told me about their struggle to disclose their HIV statuses amongst their families and their community.  In fact, they are living openly as a couple and as HIV people. Pretty amazing considering the double stigma. That is why BSWS is engaging them—to figure out what has made them so courageous, and how they can inspire others

amfAR has secured an external evaluator to work with BSWS and conduct a formal evaluation of the project, which also includes helping GMT living with HIV adhere to medication and find social support. They will also be launching a campaign to reduce HIV stigma (sadly, 30 years into the epidemic, still quite strong in Bangladesh) among GMT individuals in general. Whatever the results of the evaluation, BSWS and amfAR will have data to offer to larger donors—including the Bangladesh Ministry of Health—which will hopefully encourage scale-up investment.  We should have results in about a year, so watch this space!

A Visit With DISAM in Tarapoto, Peru

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Posted by Benjamin Clapham, September 4, 2012

I am just leaving Tarapoto, Peru, a small town in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. I spent the past two days with Diversidad San Martinense (DISAM), a youth-led organization for and by gay men, other MSM, and transgender individuals (GMT). Peru is an interesting place in terms of government support for HIV programming for at-risk populations. Peru is one of just a few developing nations that have world-class researchers working with GMT, and the government is increasingly showing support for broader civil and human rights for these populations. Nevertheless, societal stigma and discrimination is rampant and still threatens access to vital services.

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DISAM is receiving amfAR funding (through a grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation)—the organization’s first ever official grant—to analyze gaps in health services for GMT and to work with health professionals in filling those gaps.

I attended a working lunch with the members of DISAM and 10 local policymakers, health professionals, local authorities, and other stakeholders to discuss the issues facing GMT in Peru. I was pleased to hear that several people in the room were concerned about security and were working with health personnel to increase access to testing and treatment. The objective of the meeting was to capitalize on the power and position of these stakeholders to get concrete plans in place for helping GMT in Peru. DISAM has already been able to get two orders passed in the San Martin Province that state that discrimination based on sexual identity and gender is not permitted in public places. Although these orders are not official laws, they mark positive first steps towards inclusive public policy in Peru for GMT. Alex, the director of DISAM, acknowledged that Peru is ahead of most countries in the region in terms of services and policies for GMT, and was optimistic that more changes were coming.

I left Peru with a great sense of pride. DISAM reminded me that a small group of people really can make a positive impact.