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4 min

Through publicity stunts and tears

Highlights of the International AIDS conference

The most moving moment of my personal conference agenda was not the AIDS vigil in Yonge-Dundas Square. Though admittedly the woman who was weeping and shaking her glowstick to the rhythm of the names she spoke — enumerating out loud the many people she had lost to the disease — was heartbreaking. And the cry of “Where’s Stephen Harper?” at a quiet moment of the vigil made me wonder if we finally had a prime minister negligent enough to make us rude.

No, for me it was the female journalist from Kenya who, looking somewhat out of place, stepped up to the mic at a session on strategies for reaching men who have sex with men (MSM) in developing countries.

“Before I came here I was a bit judgmental of you people,” she said. “I had a lot of prejudice, like a lot of the Kenya media. But now I realize it’s a human rights issue.” She then went on to urge delegates to sensitize media to lesbian and gay issues, cheering them on in their efforts.

Some people complained that there wasn’t much new coming out of this conference. But a mind changed from nay to yay on queer issues? Works for me.

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In the last few months at Xtra, we’ve run several short items on world news like the booth of Gays And Lesbians Of Zimbabwe (GALZ) getting smashed up at the annual book fair, Nigeria’s nasty new antigay laws and homophobia in Jamaica.

So it was weird to be sitting in the same room as the people behind the stories — there’s the guy who was at the book fair! — and weird that they seemed so cheerful and full of life.

When a Canadian reads news items about queer issues in poor and/or homophobic countries, the typical reaction is, “Poor them.” Which is partly true, but not the whole story. In news briefs — often passed along poorly translated via poorly sourced news channels — you get only the horrors, not the political give-and-take happening on the ground. Yes, a defeat is crushing, but progress happens over time. For example, considering the antigay laws Nigeria is going to pass, activist Oludare Odumuye pointed out that it’s a response to the progress made by the country’s lesbian and gay group, launched in 1999.

“We have shown we exist. We have appeared on national TV. We have done work that has brought people out of the closet. The bill was sent to the house because we’re too strong and visible.”

Optimistic? I guess you need to be. “Worse than dogs and pigs” is how Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe described homosexuals in 1994. Pretty nasty, but it drew an interesting line in the sand. After that comment, GALZ membership grew exponentially from about 70 middle-class white people to about 400 people — its membership is now 99 percent black. GALZ even has the budget for its own centre, a house known by pretty much every taxi driver in Harare. The Zimbabwean government might hate homosexuals. The Zimbabwean people? Not so much.

But it can be one step ahead, two steps back. In the past few years, GALZ lost about one-third of its membership; they decided to seek refugee status in other countries.

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The publicly accessible Global Village in Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s north building was the heart of the conference. It was easy to stroll through it between sessions and there was always something going on. Groups with booths there came up with lots of low-cost gimmicks — draped fabric, sex toys, cheap T-shirts, ribbons, murals — to attract attention, making the place a cacophonous clamour, replicating the messiness of the real world.

So it was a strange trip going over the tracks into the bowels of the south building where the posh exhibitors set up shop. The sound was muffled. The light was dim. The first thing you saw was huge custom-made pharmaceutical industry booths, looking all George Jetson-y with moulded fixtures and Plexiglas. Spooky. I saw a lineup of people at one booth and wondered if they were giving out free drugs. No such luck — free espresso and hot chocolate.

Beyond the pharma booths were scientific posters, hundreds of them. Researchers stood in front of them, quietly scribbling experiment results. Here also was the home for pavilions from national governments and richer not-for-profit groups. On Tuesday a group of about 20 protesters marched into the very slick South African pavilion, about the size of a small living room, and started protesting. About what, I’m not sure. Against celebrities at the conference, I think. And for treatment access, I think. Despite all the chanting, all I could make out was, “Now we’re going to lie down in protest” and then they laid down, then stood up again, chanting the whole time.

About 10 spectators hung around the pavilion entrance, trying to figure it out. “Get rid of Monte? Who’s that? The health minister?” one man wondered.

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Only in the world of AIDS would there be both a LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans]/queer networking area and an MSM [men who have sex with men] networking area. Both were pretty quiet compared to the South Asian area, which seemed to have a speaker speaking all the time, or the colourful sex workers’ Stiletto Lounge, where a crowd of people always seemed to be taking photos. The LGBT/queer area had a rainbow flag. The MSM area had a washroom stall covered in graffiti and a water-feature tribute to activists who have been killed. Simultaneously raunchy and sobering.

Openly gay city councillor Kyle Rae was something of an ambassador during the conference, shuffling people around and being everywhere at once. Probably his biggest claim to fame was handling Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, who was reported to have visited the Holt Renfrew on Bloor St W not once, but twice. Talking to Rae at the MSM lounge, he noted that people were saying there wasn’t much science at the conference, but he pointed out that behaviour — ie stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS — was equally important.

“Condoms save lives. We learned that at the beginning.”