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IHRFG’s 2014 New York Institute: Funding at the Intersections of HIV/AIDS, LGBT Issues, and Human Rights

IHRFG recently held its semi-annual conference and pre-conference institute in New York. Over the coming weeks, we will share reflections from the grantmakers who came together to explore timely issues in human rights grantmaking. Click here to read more lessons and join the conversation!

Having just attended my first International Human Rights Funders Group conference, and specifically the LGBT pre-conference institute on Monday, July 14th, Progress and Setbacks in LGBTI Rights Globally: What’s a Funder To Do?, I left the room very excited. Simply put, it was great space to be in! As a more HIV/AIDS-focused donor, my work for the past five years at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, has been supporting community-based LGBT organizations in low-and-middle income countries, many of whom use human rights approaches to address the HIV burden in their community. As was pointed out during the day, a majority of funding for the LGBT rights sector comes from HIV/AIDS sources, yet it is striking to me how rarely donors from the HIV/AIDS sector and LGBT rights sector actually engage in dialogue together. The institute offered me that opportunity, and I recognize the need for more of these discussions.

banner image originalThere clearly are challenges of using HIV/AIDS funding to support LGBT rights advocacy and programming, however, in many ‘rights-constrained settings,’ leading with a public health approach for the promotion of human rights offers an opportunity. If countries are serious about reducing their HIV burden, they must support the rights and needs of ‘key affected populations’ (e.g. sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), people who inject drugs, and trans* individuals). These individuals are at much higher risk of contracting HIV based on biomedical, behavioral, and structural issues. That said, HIV funding prioritizes funding for gay men and other MSM, which brings its own challenges in a male dominated world, and it is difficult to empower communities while focused on disease. However, HIV/AIDS offers one entry point to support LGBT rights programming.

As was expressed by many others, including our hosts David Mattingly (Fund for Global Human Rights) and Sarah Gunther (Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice), I was extremely impressed by the turnout. Over 100 individuals from the donor and LGBT rights activist world spent the day discussing various issues related to funding in the sector. Clearly, the tide is turning as more and more human rights donors are recognizing the need to explicitly invest in the LGBT sector. However, throughout the day we also heard the challenges of funding within silos of specific identities and the need to fund around those silos, supporting a progressive agenda that brings human rights and health agendas together

For me, the first session, facilitated by Carla Sutherland, set an interactive nature for the day, helping to define LGBT rights and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) strategies. It was well facilitated, discussing successes and challenges of an ‘LGBT identities’ vs. using SOGI nomenclature. While quite complex, recognizing values and human behavior in the context of various issues (e.g. sexuality, sexual behavior, culture, religion, stigma and discrimination, colonialism, sexism), it became evident that we must continue to help the majority of the LGBT people in the world recognize their rights and exert them. While challenging in that the majority of LGBT peoples in the world don’t necessarily identify as LGBT, it was wonderful to have deep discussions about funding and strategies to support such complex issues. Experiences of the past year, with setbacks in Nigeria, Uganda, and Russia – to name a few – compel us to continue to work towards getting it right.

In the afternoon, I spoke on a panel discussing grantmaking strategies. I shared amfAR’s experience of utilizing an activist-led grantmaking process where, through an open call for proposals, LGBT activists in the Global South set funding priorities and make final recommendations on which of their peers deserve to be funded. To me, the process is transparent and grounded in the ‘lived realities’ of LGBT peoples throughout the world. As a HIV/AIDS donor, it is been fascinating to see that most of the individuals involved in our effort do not see condoms, lubricant, and antiretroviral (ARV) medication as their immediate need, but view other structural issues – such as economic empowerment, legal recognition, familial connections, and psychosocial support – as much more important. Hence, these human rights approaches are truly vital to the HIV movement as it seeks to reach zero new infections by 2020.

As I write this, I’m heading to Melbourne, Australia for the International AIDS Society AIDS 2014 Conference – a gathering of over 10,000 researchers, implementers, activists, and donors working to reduce the spread and impact of HIV in their communities. I walk into the conference with my marching orders from the LGBT rights movement – about how vital human rights approaches are for success in the HIV sector. While we continue to see huge gains in biomedical approaches to ending AIDS (including the reality that a cure is in sight), we must be vigilant in continuing to bear the human rights torch in any effort.


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