ST. MARC, Haiti (AP) _ A dozen men in T-shirts declaring “I am gay” and “I am living with HIV/AIDS” marched with hundreds of other demonstrators through a Haitian city on Sunday in what organizers called the Caribbean nation’s first openly gay march.
The march, held a day ahead of World AIDS Day in the western city of St. Marc, called for better prevention and treatment in a country long plagued by the virus.
Organizers said they hoped the march will break barriers to reach more HIV-positive people and gay men with programs that have helped decrease the country’s infection rate by two-thirds in the last decade.
“They suffer double the stigma and double the discrimination,” said Esther Boucicault Stanislas, a leading activist known as the first person in Haiti to publicly declare that she was HIV-positive after her husband died of AIDS in the early 1990s.
About 500 participants that included health ministry officials and workers with United Nations programs followed a speaker-truck through the dusty city, chanting and carrying banners en route to the mayor’s office. No officials received them.
AIDS awareness marches have taken place before in Haiti, but Boucicault and organizers with New York-based AIDS service organization Housing Works called this one the first march to include an openly gay group in Haiti.
The nation of 9 million remains the most affected by HIV in the Caribbean, itself the region with the highest infection rate outside Sub-Saharan Africa.
Haiti has long fought stigmatization and discrimination after its migrants were some of the first AIDS cases identified in the United States. Unfounded beliefs that Haitians caused the epidemic helped decimate the country’s tourism industry.
The country has since been a success story, with its HIV infection rate falling from 5.9 percent in 1996 to 2.2 percent today — due in part to programs like the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has given Haiti more than $320 million since 2004. The deaths of people with HIV also contributed to the decline.
But gay men remain at risk because they hide from social programs due to prejudice and harassment, despite making up one-tenth of reported HIV cases in the Caribbean, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS reported.
In socially conservative Haiti, discrimination runs especially deep.
Debate over Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis’ nomination earlier this year centered almost entirely on rumors that she was a lesbian, with lawmakers standing up one after another to denounce her as immoral. She was approved for the post only after agreeing to read a statement on Haitian radio that the rumors were defamatory and untrue.
On Sunday, opposition was muted to the small contingent wearing white T-shirts bearing the word “masisi” — a Haitian Creole slur for gay men that the marchers celebrated and chanted as their own.