amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

GRASSROOTS: The GMT Initiative Blog

amfAR's GMT Initiative supports grassroots organizations that respond to the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS among gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT).

Two steps forward – one step back

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Posted By Kent Klindera on July 31, 2013

Cameroonian GMT activist Eric Lembembe was tortured and murdered in his home.Cameroonian GMT activist Eric Lembembe was tortured and murdered in his home. (Photo: 76crimes.com) During a campaign rally last week, the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, called for “chopping off the heads” of LGBT persons.  This high profile statement from an African head of state is the latest in a series of setbacks in the struggle to reduce the spread and impact of HIV among GMT individuals.

The past several weeks have not only seen homophobic rhetoric, but also a startling rise in serious violence against individual GMT and HIV activists speaking up for their rights.  Most notably, in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Eric Lembembe, a key activist, was found murdered in his home.  His house showed no signs of forced entry; however, his body displayed signs that he had been tortured before his death. 

Global reaction to the murder in Cameroon was quick.  The U.S. State Department, European Union, and the Global Fund to fight HIV, TB and Malaria all came out to denounce the violence and demand that local authorities investigate the murder and deliver justice.  I hope their calls can help bring the culprits to justice, but to me, what is needed more is financial support to sustain a broader movement.

The murder comes on the heels of a fire, suspected to be arson, that destroyed one-third of the Access Center run by Alternatives-Cameroun, a long term amfAR grantee partner.  A beacon in the community, the center provides primary healthcare to GMT living with HIV, and serves as one of the few safe space for LGBT people to be themselves.  Five other national and local Cameroonian organizations working for the rights and health of LGBT people have been vandalized during the past few months. In Cameroon, same-sex sexual activity is illegal and activists suggest the attacks are an organized strategy by individuals who are taking these “laws in to their own hands.”  In the wake of these events, all five of the non-governmental organizations have closed their doors and suspended their HIV projects temporarily until the security situation can be contained.  In a joint press release they called for “additional financial and institutional support to secure the safety of their staff members and clients.”

Last week, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe publicly stated that Zimbabwe’s LGBT citizens should be killed. Last week, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe publicly stated that Zimbabwe’s LGBT citizens should be killed. It has been a tough few weeks in the world of GMT/HIV issues outside of Cameroon as well.  In Nigeria, a bill awaiting presidential signature would outlaw all human rights organizations working on LGBT issues.  In Uganda, the LGBT community continues to challenge a bill—under discussion in Parliament since 2009—that would punish same-sex sexual activity with life in prison. It formerly called for the death penalty. In Russia, a new law outlaws “propaganda” related to LGBT Rights—greatly curtailing the ability to reach GMT with vital HIV services.  In Jamaica, a young transgender woman was murdered a few weeks ago. And in Belize, an organized faith-based campaign is holding mass protests calling for the lynching of an LGBT activist. 

amfAR currently has partners in Cameroon, Belize, Jamaica, Russia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe—who are all on the frontlines of this struggle to reduce the spread and impact of HIV, and we stand strong with our courageous grantee partners.  I have had the privilege of working closely with many activists who are the targets of these heinous human rights violations, that are perpetuated by archaic homophobic laws and clearly work against local struggles to address HIV. Each day, I grow more and more concerned for their safety, and at times feel helpless in being able to effect change at a global level.  

In Belize, a faith-based campaign is calling for the lynching of the director of the GMT organization UNIBAM. In Belize, a faith-based campaign is calling for the lynching of the director of the GMT organization UNIBAM. (Photo: 76crimes.com)However, I also recognize that social change often takes standing up for what you believe in. And I am reminded of something the late Keith Goddard, longtime director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), once told me: In his eyes, all of these horrors actually indicated progress.  To Keith, twenty years ago, LGBT people were forced to remain invisible in many ‘rights constrained’ localities.  Today, however, the abuse and crimes against these human rights defenders are clear signs that LGBT people do exist, and these acts are a push back to their increasing visibility and increasingly successful demands for equal rights.  In Keith’s view, twenty years from now, those rights that are currently being demanded will actually be achieved—and this is all part of social change.

This week, a couple of our Cameroonian colleagues will be joining amfAR staff in New York City to share their story, and meet with others about increasing funding to their program.  Clearly, the outrageous news coming from Cameroon shows a step backward in the movement; however, their resolve to continue the struggle is an inspiration to me.  We need to stand firm with them, supporting our Cameroonian colleagues’ efforts to address these issues.  The only way we shall overcome is by sustaining locally based efforts in the face of these violent backlashes to progress.

Collaboration and Media Representation in Togo

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Posted by Ben Clapham July 17, 2013

Three years ago, the three organizations in Togo that work with GMT were at odds. They competed against each other for the same funds from the same international donors and rarely worked together. However, they recognized that the lack of cooperation was weakening their efforts to address the strong societal and institutional stigma and discrimination against GMT in Togo. So they joined together for the first time to apply for funding to help foster their collaboration.  

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Members of MENS, Club de 7 Jours, and Afrique Arc-en-Ciel work together at the meeting room at their new center.

amfAR is currently funding this consortium of the three organizations—MENS, Club de 7 Jours, and Afrique Arc-en-Ciel. The project is a game-changing first step towards a more coordinated and organized approach for and by GMT in Togo.  It includes a new center that houses all three organizations’ offices. The organizations are also co-hosting workshops to train GMT about advocacy and other workshops to educate the larger community about issues GMT face.

When I visited Togo last year, it was not even possible to have a meeting with a representative from each organization at the same table. When I arrived last week, the directors of each organization had just returned from a series of workshops held with prominent media houses and journalists to discuss ways to broker a more responsible and truthful media representation of GMT. To me, this change in one year represents a major shift in priorities, and a signal that there really is strength in numbers. 

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The three directors, Hugues, Georges, and Laurent, meet with two other members of the consortium at the center.

In the past, gratuitous, sensationalist media representations of GMT often occurred, including publishing photos of “supposed homosexuals” and writing articles about “homosexual parties” that were actually HIV prevention events that targeted GMT. The media workshops were an effort that could not have happened when the organizations were working separately, and all of the directors were optimistic that they served as a strong foundation for future collaboration with the Togolese media.

During my visit, I met with Hugues, Georges, and Laurent, the three directors, to assess both the successes and difficulties they had experienced thus far in the project. Admittedly, there are still many roadblocks to overcome for this network to succeed, including improving communication between each organization, which remains difficult at times. “A clear vision and strategy is needed for each individual organization going forward, so each has its special focus,” Hugues told me. “And together the individual strengths will add up to something much more powerful than any one organization alone.”

And regardless, they are now a network of GMT organizations working towards one goal—to improve the lives of GMT in Togo.

HIV Testing and Police Awareness in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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AHUSADEC team 
The director of PNLS, the National AIDS Control Program, (third from left) at an outdoor meeting with the AHUSADEC team.

Posted by Ben Clapham July 10, 2013

Upon arriving in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I was not sure what to expect from an organization in such a precarious part of the world. Armed militias and UN peacekeepers are everywhere here, and I thought it would be very difficult to do effective HIV outreach for GMT amidst all the chaos. But I’ve been in Bukavu for the past two days and all of my expectations and thoughts about what working in the eastern Congo is like have been shattered, thanks to the courageous work of amfAR’s current grantee,   Action Humanitaire Pour la Santé et le Développement Communautaire (AHUSADEC).

AHUSADEC’s new testing center, which is funded by amfAR and authorized by the Ministry of Health, is the first free testing center for HIV and STIs in the DRC for GMT. There are no formal LGBT organizations here, and AHUSADEC’s exuberant program director, Modeste, told me that they are the first group in the country that has dared to do work targeting the GMT population. “GMT are humans. They have the same rights as every Congolese citizen,” says Modeste.   “We have the opportunity, thanks to amfAR, to reach populations that have very little information and even less access to health services for STIs and HIV.”

Nurse-Bienfait-at-work-AHUSADEC.jpgNurse Bienfait at work at AHUSADEC’s new HIV testing center for GMT.

However, AHUSADEC is a group dedicated to improving healthcare access and human rights for all, not a GMT organization, and for that reason I was apprehensive about how they would involve the GMT community in the project. But after meeting with some local GMT individuals, it seemed clear to me that AHUSADEC has gained their trust and support. The testing center is run by an openly gay male nurse, Bienfait, and it was no surprise that the young GMT I met were very comfortable with him and openly shared many private things in their lives. But not only did they trust Bienfait, they were also jovial and amicable with the entire staff.   The testing center opened less than one month ago, and AHUSADEC has already managed to test nearly 60 GMT.

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(Left to right) AHUSADEC’s director Raphael, Modeste, Colonel Honoré, amfAR’s Ben Clapham, and an assistant police colonel meet about protecting sexual minorities in Bukavu.

The Bukavu landscape at sunset.

amfAR is also funding AHUSADEC‘s training program that brings together GMT and the police to educate both groups about human rights and HIV at the same time, promptingdiscussions and exchanges between them.   GMT in DRC have often been subjected to police harassment and violence, but AHUSADEC has now garnered the attention of the Congolese National Police. Yesterday we met with Colonel Honor é , the police colonel in Bukavu who is in charge of protecting women, children, and sexual minorities from human rights abuses and sexual abuse, and she told us that she will sign an official document promising her support to protect sexual minorities in Bukavu.

As the sun sets across the beautiful Lake Kivu, I am reminded of the amazing struggles AHUSADEC faces here in Bukavu to work with GMT and of the brave people doing the work.

amfAR receives funding from the Ford Foundation for grant making in Southern Africa.

”Born this Way” in Cameroon

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Posted by Lucile Scott on July 3, 2013

 born-this-way-movie-poster.jpgThe new documentary Born This Way focuses on the lives of GMT in Cameroon.“You can’t be out in Cameroon, eventually the law will get you,” says one man interviewed in Born This Way, a documentary chronicling day-to-day life for LGBT in Cameroon. The film—which was an official selection at the 2013 Berlin and Human Rights Watch films festivals—focuses on the lives of clients and staff at Alternatives-Cameroun in Douala, which has been an amfAR grantee-partner for the past five years. The organization’s Access Center offers HIV prevention and treatment and also serves as a community hub for GMT, providing much-needed social support, and even hosting the occasional dance or amateur fashion show.  But last Wednesday morning, Alternatives staff arrived at the Access Center to find that an unknown assailant had set fire to their building.

Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal in Cameroon and punishable by up to five years in prison, and more people are arrested for “homosexuality” there each year than in any other country. In June, unknown assailants burglarized the offices of Central African Human Rights Defenders Network, which also advocates for the rights of LGBT, and the offices of a prominent human rights attorney who has defended individuals prosecuted for “sexual relations with a person of the same sex.” In all three cases, complaints were filed with the police, but no arrests have been made.

“We are seeing what appears to be selective disinterest in enforcing the law and holding perpetrators accountable,” said Yves Yomb, executive director of Alternatives, in a Human Rights Watch press release. Despite the risks of harassment, violence, and legal prosecution, Yomb—and several other activists—have come out as gay publicly, and have even appeared on TV to talk about LGBT rights. Many more LGBT Cameroonians agreed to speak candidly on camera about their sexuality in Born This Way. “We are tired of pretending that gay people do not exist in Cameroon,” says Yomb.  

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Members of Alternatives-Cameroun visit the beach.

Born This Way reflects Yomb’s sentiment and the idea that even amidst the recent homophobic attacks on people and property and the ongoing discriminatory arrests—or lack of arrests in the case of the fire—Cameroonian LGBT are fighting back by increasingly speaking out and pushing for change. Filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullman describe Born This Way as “a view from the inside of a secret community on the verge of transforming into a social movement.” Or as one interviewee surveying a lush tropical landscape states, “We want to fight for the cause in our country which we love.” “Remember the trial of Rosa Parks,” says another woman, adding that it was because of that challenge to America’s racially discriminatory law “that everything was possible for the future.”

Born This Way has appeared in festivals around Europe and the U.S. and will screen next on July 14 at the Outfest International Film Festival in L.A. Yomb will be attending a screening at a fundraiser in New York in late July.