Tuesday, March 16, 2004

STOPPING THE SPREAD OF HIV: 2 break through silence to help teach gay Arabs

From The Detroit Free Press

It was a life-or-death business that brought two young men to the Ferndale nightclub.

But their urgency was masked by smiles, hugs of friendship, balloons tied to fake palm trees, and booming Arabic dance music.

Beside flickering candles, these two health educators -- paid with state public health dollars and foundation grants -- brought a message of HIV and AIDS prevention to one of metro Detroit's most secretive groups: gay Arab Americans.

Chris Ayoub and David Ponsart were holding a party they called Arabian Nights. Their goal was to lure from hiding those who health officials said may be Michigan's most at-risk gays.

They lured them with a party, then gave sex-education booklets printed in Arabic, socks with a tiny side pocket that holds a condom, and -- after reassuring chatter -- on-the-spot HIV tests by mouth swab.

"I tell them, 'Listen, I'm gay. I'm in a gay bar with you. I'm not going to tell anyone I found you here,' " said Ayoub, 31, of Hazel Park.

Ayoub said he knows why gay Arabs are secretive.

"In Muslim countries, any man having sex with another man gets the death penalty," he said.

Last week's midnight mission might seem odd to some taxpayers who helped foot the bill. But not to Eve Mokotoff, HIV/AIDS epidemiology manager for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

"We have to reach the population at risk," even if that means sending educators "to nightclubs dressed in tank tops," Mokotoff said.

The alternative? Having more men infected, then spending more money to treat them while they endure years of fear and suffering, she said.

Inside Ferndale's Q nightclub, strobe lights flashed as dozens of Arabic men danced and more crowded the bar or milled past a table of safe-sex brochures.

"We gave out close to 1,000 invitations" at other gay bars, said Ponsart, 28. By day, he sells kitchens for a modernization company. By night, he speaks newly learned Arabic in the bars he and Ayoub visit.

Ponsart lives in Hazel Park with Ayoub, a former high school gymnastics teacher. Since fall, Ayoub has worked full-time as an HIV-prevention educator.

"They are tapping into a community that has been invisible," said Craig Covey. He is chief executive officer of the nonprofit MAPP, or Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. MAPP found Ayoub and helped start the outreach program.

Covey recalled how, three years ago, HIV experts in Michigan began fearing that Arab Americans were spreading AIDS. MAPP had used focus groups and other marketing techniques to identify and educate gay Latinos, African Americans and other subgroups.

But in southeast Michigan, which has a large number of immigrants from the Middle East, "Arab Americans were the last group of gay men anyone tried to reach," Covey said.

"These people leave countries where there still are laws on the books making homosexuality a capital crime. They come here to find gay bars and gay books and gay movies, and they go a little nuts" -- sometimes becoming promiscuous and thus at high risk of contracting HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, Covey said.

Covey met Ayoub by chance at a gay-pride day in Ferndale. Soon, MAPP was overseeing a state grant that sent the diminutive gymnast on his first outreach visits to gay bars.

No one knew better the hazards of being Arab and gay. Born in Lebanon, Ayoub joined his family in Dearborn in 1996. When he told them he was gay, Ayoub said he thought his life was over. Family members were incensed.

"My brother chased me two blocks with a knife," he said. Next came six years of ostracism. Finally, his family began to accept him.

But for countless others in Michigan's Arab-American community, secrecy remains a must, Ayoub said.

"A lot of them are married. Their family asks them to. If not, it's a shame on the family," he said.

And many are tragically ignorant.

"They think if they only sleep with Arab men, they won't get infected. They think God will protect them," Ayoub said.

One of his biggest fans is Dr. Adnan Hammad, who heads the nonprofit health center in Dearborn of ACCESS -- for Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

"Chris has been very courageous and very effective," Hammad said. His center administers the $55,000 annual state grant supporting the outreach program and houses the small, sleek new office where Ayoub plans his nightlife.

Ayoub and his partner are "making breakthroughs" in a community saddled with "legacies that we bring from the home country," said Hammad, a native of Jerusalem. "But we need to support him to reach more people.

"Do not think they will come to the heart of the community to be served," he said.

"We have to go to them."