Fight Homophobia and Stop HIV?
BY Lucas Grindley
March 13 2012 12:00 AM ET
When confronted with a homophobe, there might be no winning argument, but activists at the Hispanic Federation have found two messages that they say are proving effective in combating homophobia ' and HIV ' in Latino families.
The federation, a New York-based network of Latino nonprofit agencies, first started looking for the best message in 2010 because homophobia was a factor in the death of so many Latino men. With statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that men account for three quarters of new infections among Latinos, and that gay men account for 81% of those, it was obvious to the Hispanic Federation that its community's homophobia has serious consequences. Men who are afraid to be outed don't get tested for HIV, and they don't ask for services and treatment even when they are diagnosed.
In a lot of ways, closeted gays are similar to undocumented immigrants, says Jos' Calder'n, a senior vice president at the federation who oversees its HIV/AIDS programs. Both are "forced to live in the shadows" and with "all of the problems that creates, being afraid to access things that might be right there for you."
The stakes are highest for the new generation. CDC statistics indicate that the greatest proportion of infections among Latinos comes during ages 13 to 29, and many people in this age group are increasingly complacent about the danger of HIV and lax about prevention.
Calder'n says the federation wanted to force a conversation about the problem with what he calls the "movable middle."
"People who are virulently antigay homophobic, we know that we are not really going to move those people," he says. "But it's people like moms and fathers that are generally good people who may have some hang-ups because of the way they were raised."
And so the Hispanic Federation convened focus groups that identified two winning arguments against stigma: one that appeals to Latinos' sense of duty to their families and another to their innate understanding that discrimination is wrong. Then the organization turned those arguments into a social media campaign, launched last year, called La Homofobia Tiene Muchas Caras (Homophobia Has Many Faces). The federation got its message across with a website, Contra Homofobia (Against Homophobia), posts on Facebook and Twitter, and community gatherings. La Homofobia Tiene Muchas Caras was named one of 2011's outstanding social marketing campaigns by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"A lot of Latinos have faced discrimination firsthand, so they know that is inherently wrong," Calder'n says. "So that's a message that connected right away."
The point about family was an eye-opener in community meetings, Calder'n says. Latinos typically feel that family should come first no matter what.
"These are our family members, these are our loved ones, these are our community," said the group's president, Lillian Rodriguez L'pez, while announcing the campaign in New York on the steps of City Hall in May.
Too many in the movable middle don't see themselves as homophobic, because they aren't violent or harassing gay men. But L'pez warned, "It almost always starts at home, and it can be subtle," even in the form of a disapproving look that is interpreted to mean much more. The ads made the final connection about how Latinos' everyday behavior contradicted their values of fairness and family.
"Homophobia has many faces, among them fear and ignorance," read one ad, distributed in English and Spanish. "One of these faces could be yours, without you even knowing it. And the results can be dangerous or even deadly for a family member, friend, or coworker."