An Interview With Global Forum on MSM & HIV Executive Director George Ayala

Part of the LGBT Foundation interview series


One of the best things about being part of the project team launching the LGBT Foundation and preparing for the LGBT Token Sale is the people involved. We’ve assembled an incredible team of advisors and project leaders passionate about our mission. We’ll be introducing you to that team in a series of interviews for LGBT Foundation. This week is project advisor George Ayala, executive director of the Oakland-based Global Forum on MSM & HIV, a global network of experts and advocates focusing on sexual health and LGBTQ rights, research, and policy.


You’re the executive director of the Global Forum on MSM & HIV. How did you get involved with that?

I’ve been doing HIV work since the late 1990s. In 2004, I was part of a group of activists who gathered at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok. It was mainly gay men and some allies who were really worried that not enough was being done to address the disproportionate HIV burden being shouldered by gay men all around the world. There was a lot of silence about this at the international level.


This same group organized a pre-meeting before the 2006 International AIDS Conference to raise the same issues. We gathered together about 300 people and that group established themselves as the Global Forum. I was supporting those efforts at the time as the Director of Education at AIDS Project Los Angeles and the group was looking for an organizational host. They looked to AIDS Project LA to host them. I then left my job and moved to the Bay Area but I retained a consultancy with AIDS Project Los Angeles to support the Forum, and I used it to write the first big grants that permitted us to hire our staff and open our offices in downtown Oakland.


And how has the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) grown since then?

I’d say we’re now about 13 staff strong and we have a budget of just under $4 million. We’re principally an advocacy organization but we do quite a bit of technical support work in the service of that advocacy. We watch what’s happening in Geneva — we monitor, for example, the economic policies that originate in Geneva, or UNAIDS. But we also watch bilateral investment in HIV response to make sure they’re in line with what is actually happening epidemiologically.


Because it’s not a one-size-fits-all issue.

Right. Gay men and transgender women shoulder very disproportionate burden of this. Part of what complicates our work is the policy environment. In many countries around the world homosexuality is criminalized and it complicates our abilities to do good HIV work in places where there are criminal laws. Violence and stigma are still huge problems for gay men and trans women.


Because our work is international, we have to involve ourselves with LGBT rights work, with anti-stigma and anti-discrimination work. My organization’s work happens at the intersection of HIV, public health, and human rights, and that’s by necessity. In the U.S. right now, things are not necessarily perfect in regard to the HIV response, but outside the U.S., we really need to pay attention to those structural drivers and disparities, so that’s where we place our focus.


Why do you think overall support for LGBTQ organizations has decreased in recent years, especially in the U.S.?

Support has wanted because there’s a perception that we’ve done our job, we can check that box. Same-sex couples have the right to marry, so we “won.” That’s a narrow way of thinking about social change, and not just because it only focuses on the U.S. in that context. The truth is, the lives of LGBTQ people are complicated outside of Western Europe and North America and we need to pay attention to that. To me, LGBT rights are a global social change movement. We really need to pay attention to the ways in which LGBTQ people are treated all over the world. There are some really horrific examples of how LGBTQ people’s rights are violated. Violence is a really big problem, and this is especially true for trans women.


HIV in the United States is also kind of viewed as a job done, and we can move on to the next thing. But the truth is that there is a lot of unfinished business with HIV that is tied to the unfinished business we have with respect to rights. HIV incidence is on the rise among gay men and trans women in particular, and it’s no surprise that violence and discrimination are still troubling our communities all over the world. We have to sound the alarm that there is still unfinished business in these two areas of work.


What are some things you’ve accomplished during your time with MSMGF that you’re most proud of?

When we got founded, no one was talking about gay men or other vulnerable populations, like sex workers and trans women and people who inject drugs, and obviously there are overlaps in these groups in regard to HIV. And now, 10, 12 years later, the entire HIV sector is talking about the unevenness in HIV in the population and the disproportionate HIV burden these groups shoulder. All of the multilateral organizations and major funders now have policies in place that address the specific needs of gay men and trans women and they use those to encourage governments to think strategically about their HIV responses. I’d like to think we had a big hand in helping to influence global normative guidance in that way. When we first started out, less than 2% of global investment in HIV prevention was targeted at gay men and that’s still a challenge for us. But in 12 years that’s doubled to 4%. Again, we had a hand in helping to incrementally increasing investment in prevention for gay men.


Our organization also gave birth to a handful of regional networks of gay men and trans women who are working on these issues more regionally, and are in turn providing support to community-based organizations at country level. We’re now in contact with over 122 community-based organizations across 62 countries. That kind of global networking is really quite powerful. It’s powerful when activists in Indonesia — who are now, by the way, enduring a crackdown on LGBTQ people by their government — can be in conversation with activists in South America or the Caribbean or Southern or Eastern Africa. We work very hard to establish that network so that we can ensure a healthy information exchange and support.


That global scope is exactly what the LGBT Foundation is trying to encompass. How did you become involved with the Foundation?

I got involved through Hornet. Hornet and MSMGF moved into a partnership about two and a half years ago. Both organizations are really concerned about the state of affairs regarding HIV and, more broadly, sexual health. Both organizations recognize that part of promoting sexual health is the need to address, head on, stigma and discrimination and violence facing gay men worldwide. So we understood there was a strong alignment in terms of our goals and our mission. Hornet has a very sizable user base and MSMGF was really quite interested in modernizing HIV prevention messages in this era, and so we joined forces. Together we created a campaign called Blue Ribbon Boys that ran on Hornet, so we were able to reach Hornet users with fresh, modernized sexual health messaging. From there MSMGF learned about the Foundation’s work through Hornet, so with great interest we decided to pursue it.


What is it about the Foundation and its goals that you think sets it apart from other LGBT-centric nonprofit foundations?

There are a few things that really intrigue me about the Foundation’s work. In the first place, it’s really not safe to be LGBTQ in many places of the world. The Foundation’s work strikes me as unique in that it is concerned about security and using the most recent technologies to ensure secure transactions between LGBT people and vendors, especially in places where that really matters.


It’s also intriguing because the buying power that LGBT communities have around the world as consumers has been underutilized and underleveraged. If we could combine those two things to make change and draw attention to the power of consumerism and the buying power of the LGBTQ communities with technologies that can secure transactions, especially in areas where stigma and discrimination and violence are still concerns, that, to me, seems like a win-win.


And there’s also the LGBT Impact arm of the Foundation.

Exactly. In addition to that, if we can generate resources for causes in countries that are led by LGBTQ organizations, that would be really great. With my experience, I know for a fact that the small, grassroots, community-based organizations led by LGBTQ people working these issues at country level are grossly under-resourced and we need to support those efforts. That’s how change happens. So I’m very excited about what could happen with the Foundation. From experience as executive director with MSMGF, with our budget, the majority of money that we raise goes out the door to support these kinds of organizations. So I know the need and I know those organizations and their struggles and I think there’s big potential here.


How important is it that the Foundation aims to address the spectrum of LGBTQ people and not just a small pocket within that group?

Absolutely important. It’s exciting that the Foundation and its approach really does bring everyone together. And it raises some really important questions about disparities [within the LGBTQ community] and how we handle those disparities. How do we think about the distribution of resources to address the concerns that we have about our community? It also raises questions about what our responsibility is in regard to helping each other and helping ourselves. I think rolling those questions into a single initiative makes this endeavor unique.


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