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Drag Queens and Volunteers Promote Safe Sex
email this pageprint this pageemail usDalia Acosta - Inter Press Service
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December 04, 2010

Havana - Margot Parapar gets plenty of laughs from the audience with this joke: "Now the human body is divided into five parts: head, trunk, upper and lower limbs, and condom." Using his female stage name, Cuban drag queen, comedian and health promoter Oliver Alarcón includes HIV/AIDS prevention messages in his shows.

"On-stage, I try to put my message into accessible language, so that it reaches people directly, without vulgarity and for a very mixed audience, because we are all vulnerable," the artist told IPS.

He took part in a gala titled "Canto a la vida" (Song to Life), in response to the global AIDS epidemic, at the Fausto Theatre in Havana Sunday.

The performance, one of the activities organised ahead of World AIDS Day, celebrated Dec. 1, was an initiative of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) and other cultural and health organisations working to promote health and respect for sexual diversity.

"Tailoring one's language to each specific audience" is, according to Alarcón, the key to promoting, through art, the practice of safe sex. "The majority of the audience may sometimes be the gay community, or heterosexuals, or the elite. The main thing is to know at whom the message is aimed," he said.

After joining the HSH-Trans (MSM-Trans - men who have sex with men and transgender persons) programme at CENESEX a year ago, Margot Parapar's stage appearances never fail to include messages on sexual health, blended with large doses of humour. "You have to know all about an issue, even if your aim is to popularise it," Alarcón said about the preparation involved.

MSM-Trans is a social network of transgender persons (transvestites, transsexuals and drag queens) and men who have sex with men (MSM), in several Cuban provinces, who are trained as health promotes by CENESEX.

On stage, in front of a rainbow flag as a backdrop, Margot states confidently: "I know everything: I am a protected oracle."

Behind the scenes, the actor acknowledged the essential nature of doing research to face the global AIDS pandemic and recognise human diversity.

For his part, Leonardo León, garbed as his artistic persona Chantal, said it was important not to oversimplify issues when talking about them.

"Our message must be perceived as attractive, up-to-date and close to people's hearts," he said, stressing the need to use "these shows that attract mass audiences, with all their diversity," for educational purposes.

Cuba began to adopt measures against the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1983, although the first case on the island was not diagnosed until 1986. At present official statistics indicate that there are about 13,000 HIV-positive people on the island, which has a total population of 11.2 million, representing a prevalence of 0.1 percent, the lowest in the Caribbean region.

Most heavily affected are men who have sex with men, who make up 72 percent of all diagnosed cases, Rosaida Ochoa, head of the National Centre for Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS (CNPSIDA), told the press.

As part of their prevention and awareness-raising programmes, both CNPSIDA and CENESEX have trained voluntary health promoters, who carry out active prevention work with their peer groups as well as wider population groups, and also through local media.

The health promoters are "a key factor, because as volunteers, they give their efforts and spare time to prevent STIs and HIV/AIDS." Malú Cano Valladares, founder and coordinator of the MSM-Trans programme, told IPS.

"They take their health messages to their usual meeting places, as well as to schools, communities and hospitals," she added.

CNPSIDA has trained 1,700 MSM as health promoters, and CENESEX has more than 400 in the MSM-Trans group, focused on STI prevention. At both institutions, other communities with specific goals, such as the right to freedom of sexual orientation, also join in the prevention work.

The two youngest members of the Oremi group of lesbian and bisexual women, for instance, were distributing leaflets and condoms last Sunday in Havana's Paseo del Prado. "People sometimes think that lesbians run no risk of contracting the virus, but they do," said Yasmín de Robles, one of the activists.

With Anaylis Noa, her partner of nine years, this young blind woman advised people to stay in a stable relationship as a means of preventing HIV/AIDS. In her view, lesbians are also vulnerable, because of the low perception of risk, when they practise oral sex or use sex toys without protection.

A recently-created group, Hombres por la Diversidad (HxD, Men for Diversity), also linked to CENESEX, carried out its first health promotion activity Tuesday, on the eve of World AIDS Day, and to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, celebrated Nov. 25.

According to Luis Enrique Mederos, a member of the HxD group and of the technical team working with a helpline for persons living with HIV/AIDS in Havana, promoting sexual health and facing AIDS in Cuba requires tighter "links between the Education and the Health Ministries," especially in order to reach the teenage population.

In the view of Luis Rondón, another member of HxD and a volunteer with the MSM-Trans programme in Old Havana under the auspices of CNPSIDA, training more health promoters, "developing closer relationships of trust," and expanding "the social influence exerted by the volunteers" are some of the improvements needed for fighting AIDS in this country.

"The orientation of sexual desire does not increase a person's risk of contracting STIs or HIV, but unprotected sexual practices and behaviours do," said a sign projected at the Fausto Theatre before the gala performance, echoing the views of institutions like CENESEX and CNPSIDA with regard to respect for sexual diversity.

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