3 min

Vienna AIDS pre-conference on men who have sex with men a great idea

But also a missed opportunity

Activists protest outside the opening session of the AIDS conference in Vienna on July 18. Credit: International AIDS Conference (IAS/Marcus Rose/Workers' photos)

Last night marked the opening of the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria. From July 18-22 more than 20,000 people from all over the planet will converge to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of the global HIV crisis.

In the next few days, research findings will be shared, interesting programs and services will be presented and more models, frameworks and strategies than you can shake a stick at will be unveiled to the world.

And if Bill Clinton was telling the truth, we can expect some good news to come out of all of this, too. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure the good news is going to apply to gay men.

Too many International AIDS Conferences have come and gone in the last decade without enough attention being given to the situation facing gay men and other men who have sex with men.

This isn’t unique to gay men. Over the years many different groups have had to fight to get the world’s attention.

It seems scientists, world leaders, international organizations, donors and the conference host itself — the International AIDS Society — are all unable or unwilling to practise what they preach: to respond to the HIV epidemic based on the best available evidence.

If they did, they would be hard pressed to continue to ignore the new, growing and resurgent HIV epidemics among gay men and other men who have sex with men around the globe.

In an effort to give some serious attention to HIV among gay men, the Global Forum on Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSMGF) organized BE HEARD, a pre-conference event on July 17 here in Vienna.

At this one-day event, 650 men and women from all corners of the globe came together to address the worsening global AIDS crisis among gay men.

The day featured presentations, workshops and discussions among activists from every continent and more than 100 countries. Topics covered government denial and neglect; inadequate funding; limited access to prevention, treatment and care; heartbreaking human rights abuses; and the resulting HIV-related deaths among gay men.  

This situation was reiterated throughout the day by a number of high-level experts in the HIV field. Plenary speakers included Michael Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS; Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of The Global Fund; and Stephen Lewis, the previous United Nations Special Envoy on HIV in Africa.

One after another they stepped up to the podium and told the crowd how bad the situation is for us, how it is made worse by a serious lack of human rights in jurisdictions around the globe, and how, finally, we could count on their support as we fight on.

BE HEARD gave men a chance to get together and hear about challenges of HIV in our communities. It was an incredible opportunity to connect with men on the frontlines from around the world.

But it was also a missed opportunity.

This gathering of global gay activists did not need to spend the limited time they had together presenting statistics and program models to each other. If we really want to be heard, we should have spent that time strategizing about how we are going to use this international platform to demand action to end HIV in our communities.

Gay men need to dust off their whistles and take a page from the playbook of sex work activists, treatment activists or the emerging activists from Eastern Europe. They aren’t afraid to make some noise because there’s too much at stake for them.

As the 18th International AIDS Conference starts, there’s too much at stake for gay men, too.

Only one in five gay men on the planet has access to HIV prevention, care and support. Top-level officials pay lip service to epidemics among gay men, but they offer us no good news.

George Ayala, executive officer of the Global Forum, said only 2 percent of scheduled events at this year’s AIDS conference will address the needs of men who have sex with men.

Gay men have been silenced at this conference and if we don’t make some noise, we’ll remain invisible.

There was a time when gay men refused to sit quietly while people in positions of power and authority apologized for our situation but provided no solutions or commitments.

In those days, gay guys demanded action. We demanded money. We demanded laws to protect our dignity and our human rights.

In those days we refused to be silent.

There is an opportunity for leadership here from the MSM Global Forum. It needs to decide if it wants to play nice with the big boys and girls or throw down the gloves.

The conference is just getting started. Before it’s over, I hope gay men do what needs to be done to Be Heard.