There were moments such as the chance encounter between Rabih Maher, 32, an activist from Lebanon, and Zoryan Kis, 27, an AIDS program director from Ukraine, who had not seen each other since a conference in Rome several years ago. The two hugged and gushed over an appearance by Elton John, then turned serious when they compared notes on the persistence of anti-gay prejudice in both countries.
“We are still seen as immoral,” said Maher, noting that there are three legislative proposals to ban so-called homosexual propaganda in his country. “People who don’t like us are much more organized and well funded than we are,” chimed in Kis, who said conservative groups in Ukraine use the gay issue to distract the public from economic issues. “I feel angry, but being here gives me more energy to keep going.”
There were moments such as the brief conversation between several shy teenagers from Swaziland who are living with HIV and a motherly social worker from South Africa named Chatiwa Kotter, who stopped by their sponsors’ exhibit booth, curious to find out about their problems.
“Tell me, do you feel accepted in your society? Do your friends know about it?” she asked kindly. A Swazi girl in neat braids smiled politely. Three boys behind her looked expressionless behind very dark glasses. Chatiwa told them she had met several women from their country at the conference who were also living with HIV. “They were so positive and vibrant, “ she said. “It made me take a step back and rethink everything I thought about HIV people.”
And moments such as the eager exchange between Abhinav Singh, 25, of India and Antony Adero Olnemy, 23, of Kenya. Both had just finished speaking at a panel as fellows in the U.N. AIDS youth program. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they said they face similar social and cultural taboos in their efforts to promote AIDS awareness among high-risk teenage populations.
“We both have a passion for our work and we feel so much connection, because the problems are the same,” said Singh, as Olnemy nodded in agreement. Both young men said that despite modern political systems and national awareness of the AIDS threat, India and Kenya have strong cultural prohibitions against discussing sex, especially in rural areas. They also said that they are not taken seriously enough by adults in the anti-AIDS community.
“If we want to educate our youth, we need to be reaching out on Facebook and Twitter,” Singh said. Olnemy echoed his frustration. “The schools think if you teach sex education, youth will indulge in it,” he said. “We are not promoting sex. We are promoting safety.”