“What you are doing is a gesture to transform the world,” said Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, in his opening remarks for the Be Heard! MSM Global Forum pre-conference on July 17.
Sidibe set the tone for this one-day event for over 300 MSM, LGBTI and allied advocates, leaders and participants. Morning and afternoon sessions focused on the theory and practice in MSM and LGBTI HIV prevention, care and support. More detailed information can be found on the MSMGF web site here.
Again and again, “Be Heard!” was emphatically pronounced with such force, calling us to stand up and, well, be heard.
But what does it look like to “be heard”?
For me, it is not limited to marching and rallying with posters and chants nor is the phrase exclusive to activists who are loudly expressive in their call for equal rights.
Being heard can be found in those still, small moments like coming out to that first person or bringing a friend to a local support group meeting for LGBT people.
I had my own “Be Heard” moment in the Vienna airport when I arrived. While waiting for a friend’s plane to land, I began chatting with a man at the arrival gate about the International AIDS Conference that we were both attending. We were as different as night and day. He was from Ethiopia and worked with a Faith-Based Organization in educating churches about HIV prevention and eliminating stigma. I told him that I work with Men who have Sex with Men, otherwise known as MSM, and other sexual minorities in HIV prevention.
After hearing this, he sat there. And he sat there. And sat there, looking down, deep in thought. I knew he was processing what I just said and I have him the time and space to do work out whatever he needed to work out in his head.
“I don’t understand MSM,” he finally replied, “Why do men choose that behavior?”
I answered that I could choose to have sex with women but I would be betraying my own natural sexuality, lying to myself, my partner and everyone else around me. So I choose to be with men as a way of honoring myself and others.
He sat and assumed his thinking position. Then he looked up at me and responded, “It is like HIV stigma. The culture and church don’t like it so they discriminate. That is not right.”
He then continued to say that he will go to the MSM sessions at the Conference so that he can learn more and share with others.
In a four minute, private conversation, one heart was changed. His mind still struggled with the understanding of the behavior yet he still empathized with MSM as human beings.
In that quiet, personal moment, I was heard.
How are you being heard? Share your experiences in the comment section below.