Most conferences and conventions have their share of swag and the International AIDS Conference is no different. People are lined up like lemmings. Instead of going over the cliff, they are waiting for their free stuff – a t-shirt, a pen, a bell, a hat, a gelato, an umbrella, etc. It gets to be ridiculous as people ask if every and any part of the booth is being offered (including books, posters, stands, tape, etc.). There seems to be a conference radar for knowing where the swag is being offered, like blood in the water at a shark feeding frenzy.
So then I met African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) at http://www.amsher.net – an organization providing some of the most vibrant, distinct and well-designed t-shirts at the conference. The shirts come in deep purple, bright orange, spring green or vivid blue. Across the chest is the continent of Africa, constructed by various terms used to describe LGBT in Africa (from the predictable “homo” to the less familiar “Beatrice”). AMSHeR is a coalition of 17 LGBT groups in Africa, based in South Africa. Their primary goal is to increase visibility of LGBT across the continent and serve as a resource for local LGBT community groups in Africa.
The crowd around AMSHeR is thick, ravenous, milling about, muttering sizes and color choices for a t-shirt. They are pushing and asking anyone to get them a t-shirt. But the AMSHER men refuse to participate and instead have one simple request before giving a t-shirt: have a conversation with them.
This simple action creates a dialogue. They ask, “what do you know about gay men in Africa?” The express themselves simply, discussing how the LGBT rights movement is about human rights and have to expressed within a larger framework of human rights. They insist that social actions in Africa focus on visibility, to combat the myths that all LGBT are European. They invite conference attendees into understanding a little bit more about the experience of LGBT in Africa, about the work being done, and what still needs to happen.
It is a good talk. Does it affect the undead-like conference attendees who shuffle along moaning, “freeeeeee stuff”? Doubtful – but nothing short of a head wound will stop that particular epidemic (I wonder if the CDC guidelines on zombies apply?). It does make some of us more aware, more interested and looking forward to future collaborations. Look them up; they offer more than just a free t-shirt.
Written by Dr. Andrew Spieldenner