Saturday, August 23, 2008

To be 22 Years Old, a Lesbian, and Living in Kyrgyzstan

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Notes from the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City
I had been looking forward to being in Mexico City for weeks. My August 1st flight from San Francisco was four and a half hours, it took half an hour to find a taxi at the airport and another hour in hair-raising traffic to reach my hotel in the Zona Rosa but so what? I had arrived. I could get only a narrow view of the behemoth from my tenth floor room but I had done a little homework beforehand and knew a few basic facts. Mexico City is located in the Valley of AnĂ¡huac in the high plateaus in the center of the country. The altitude is approximately 7,400 feet so you can count on a little dizziness and shortness of breath. Built by the Aztecs in 1325 the city once occupied an island in Lake Texcoco, but the lake has long since turned to dust. What’s left is a greater metropolitan area of 19 million people spread out in endless waves over the dry lake bed. The traffic and air pollution are legendary as are the opportunities to experience art, culture and great food, but my mind was on other things.

Mexico City was playing host to the XVII International AIDS Conference ( that would attract 22,000 delegates interested in the research, care, politics and activism that has grown up around HIV/AIDS since the disease first surfaced in the early 1980s, spreading across the globe and leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. My main focus was the Global Village, a self-sufficient area at the conference consisting of exhibitions, workshops, a networking area, marketplace and various kinds of entertainment. Open to both conference delegates and non-delegates, it offered community organizations from around the world the chance to be seen and heard. I thought it would be an opportunity to talk about Rights of Passage and make some contacts that could help further our goal of including authentic voices into the play.

Once I overcame my initial hesitancy to reach out, I realized that people were eager to hear about the project and talk about the work that they were doing. My first stop was a booth staffed by a woman named Rachel from an organization called Puppeteers Without Borders that creates programs to encourage communication and imagination while covering a range of complex topics including HIV/AIDS and domestic violence. Their productions have been seen by audiences in Kenya, South Africa, Israel, France, Bosnia, India and Vietnam. When I told Rachel about Rights of Passage she offered to pass my name along to a friend who she felt sure had some stories we could use.

Bolstered by my success, I quickly moved on gathering materials and business cards along the way. There was Hairdressers Against AIDS—whose logo was a giant AIDS ribbon made out of glossy black hair—giving haircuts to one and all; the Mekong Sex Workers Collective ( selling t-shirts that said “Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere” and hundreds of other organizations, mostly small and underfunded that were working on their own piece of the HIV/AIDS puzzle.

One of the most poignant stories for me was that of a young woman from Kyrgyzstan who had helped start an LGBT organization in her country where abuses directed against the LGBT community, including discrimination and rape, are not uncommon. It's called Labrys ( and the work is necessary she said because the mainstream human rights and women’s rights organizations there are homophobic and wanted nothing to do with them. They started in 2004 with four people and now have more than 400 volunteers. “But you’re so young,” I said, taking her hand and squeezing it. She just looked at me as if I were a little crazy and said emphatically, “I’m 22!”

Here's to all the 22-year-old lesbians in the world. May their enthusiasm never falter.

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