International LGBT researchers come to Pitt to battle HIV-related stigma back home | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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International LGBT researchers come to Pitt to battle HIV-related stigma back home 

"They're working in circumstances that as Americans, we just can't imagine."

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In a country where homosexual acts are outlawed — and, in some cases, punishable by death — Shery isn't afraid to walk in public holding his boyfriend's hand.

"If two men are together and they show romantic affection in public, no one actually gives it a second glance," Shery says of his experience growing up in Pakistan, a culture he describes as "homo-affectionate." "On that front, it's a little more comfortable to live there."

But while they can be affectionate, they can't adopt children, hold property together or risk telling their parents about their relationship. (Shery asked that his last name not be used.)

And since it's expected that "children [take] care of you when you get old," Shery says, "there are no old-age homes. It is scary if you're by yourself. There is no safety structure."

One of the four international scholars at Pitt, Shery has long struggled to reconcile his sexual identity with Islam, his parents and, most of all, himself.

"For 19 years I thought I was the only gay man in Pakistan. I didn't have any friends who were gay. I was a little effeminate; I was harassed in my school a lot — even in the college and university, I segregated myself," the 31-year-old recalls.

Still, Shery landed a coveted well-paying job as an engineer at Siemens/Nokia in Pakistan after college — hating almost every moment of it. He'd begun to meet gay people in Pakistan; his first exposure came at 19, when he discovered online forums where men would arrange to have sex with other men.

"I wasn't comfortable having sex back then," he says, but it was a relief that other people had the same feelings.

After five years as an engineer, he quit, told his parents he got fired, and considered showing up at a meeting for Naz Health Alliance, an organization that provides resources to men who have sex with men, and to transgender people. Even though he worried there would be photos of him at the meeting, and that he'd be publicly outed, he attended.

The organization was just getting off the ground in 2007 as the AIDS crisis in Pakistan intensified. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of people suffering AIDS-related deaths in Pakistan increased fourfold — just one of the problems Naz sought to address.

The organization had enough funding to open six community centers in five cities across Pakistan. It offers snacks and STD testing and serves as "a place where they could mobilize easily without the threat of being harassed," Shery says. It was also a place where he finally felt accepted.

Shery rose through the ranks and says the organization often flies under the radar, which sometimes makes it difficult to do effective public messaging and get HIV-positive people into treatment. In addition to laws against homosexual behavior left by British colonizers, "The hardest is the Sharia law, under which people could even be sentenced to death if they are found having sex outside their marriage ... and gay marriage isn't legalized," Shery explains.

And even among the people who overcome the stigma of getting tested, many people who learn they are HIV-positive are never treated.

That's a problem Shery is trying to address while he's at Pitt. He's designing a study that asks why people who know their status are never treated, which could eventually lead to interventions to interrupt that pattern.

Most of his theories about why people don't get care are broad and anecdotal: "We are doing work, but we don't know how to properly document it, how to publish it, analyze it," he says.

For Stall, the Pitt researcher who oversees each project, a project like Shery's is an example of the program's purpose: to support people who already have relationships with public-health organizations "where they could actually make something happen."

"These are the folks on the front lines, and we're trying to give them some of the tools they need to create data, be able to interpret data, and use the data to be resources in their home countries for the fight against HIV," Stall explains.

Watch Stall interact with the international scholars long enough, and it's clear he has a deep reverence for their research. They're asking fundamental questions about HIV in their countries, to be sure, but they're questions no one else has been brave enough to pursue.

"They're working in circumstances that as Americans, we just can't imagine," Stall says. "Each of [them] are heroes of the AIDS epidemic."

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