Looking Out for the Neighbors
MSM Initiative Steps into the Breach in the Americas
April 12, 2011—The U.S. is the largest funder of HIV/AIDS programs in the world, but proximity offers no guarantees for some of its closest neighbors. Throughout much of the Americas—Central and South America as well as the Caribbean—AIDS funding is scant compared with many other regions of the world, and support for programs addressing HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM) perhaps most of all.
amfAR’s MSM Initiative, in partnership with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, has stepped into the breach, committing $1.3 million since 2007 for grassroots MSM groups fighting HIV in the Americas. One of the largest funders of AIDS programs in the region, John’s foundation has supported 100 percent of amfAR’s MSM awards in Latin America and the Caribbean—45 grants in 21 countries.
In Belize, UNIBAM’s head, Caleb Orozco, discusses
stigma and discrimination among MSM.
With MSM accounting for around 25 percent of all new HIV infections in the Caribbean and Latin America and homophobia a powerful social force, the region has desperately needed champions. Reaching out to highly diverse MSM communities, the MSM Initiative supports a broad range of projects—HIV prevention among indigenous MSM in Venezuela, sign-language HIV education in Guyana, HIV risk-reduction outreach for transgender people in Brazil, safe-sex information for MSM via radio in Colombia, behavior change programs for MSM in Haiti, and many more.
In Belize, two-time MSM Initiative grantee UNIBAM (the United Belize Advocacy Movement) illustrates the human impact of these projects. For the last few years, UNIBAM and its executive president, Caleb Orozco, have been working with an HIV-positive volunteer named Michael (his name has been changed here to protect his privacy). When the 20-year-old first discovered that he was positive he fell into despair and refused to seek treatment. “But accepting that he was positive helped him begin a journey toward taking care of himself and accepting his identity,” said Caleb.
After joining UNIBAM in 2009, Michael began to change his life. It hasn’t always come easily. “Even last year I made Caleb walk 10 feet in front of me so that no one would suspect we were friends,” he admitted. But today Michael’s efforts on behalf of the MSM community are making a difference. A victim of violence as a younger man, he is now working to empower MSM to defend themselves against homophobic assaults. Michael and UNIBAM are also documenting hate crimes to make a case to authorities about the dangers faced by MSM.
Not long ago Michael took up the cause of a transgender youth who was expelled from a state-funded school for wearing girl’s attire. By collecting documentation and advocating on behalf of the student, Michael helped UNIBAM call national attention to the issue and successfully pressure authorities to reinstate the student. And he was able to help initiate a long-overdue dialogue on trans rights in a country where same-sex sexual behavior is illegal.
The government of Belize has no official statistics on how many MSM there are in the country and there has been no direct investment in HIV programming for MSM. Largely ignored and underfunded, the HIV crisis among MSM in Belize and throughout the region has accelerated. But with the support of amfAR’s MSM Initiative and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, organizations like UNIBAM, and activists like Michael, are helping to turn the tide.