The Cayman AIDS Foundation will launch a support group for the local gay community that will meet monthly, something organizers said will be the first of its kind in the Cayman Islands.
Foundation Executive Director Noel Cayasso-Smith said that educating Cayman’s gay community about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections is the main purpose of the group.
“Even though statistics show that in Cayman’s gay community, HIV infection rates are low, we are looking to improve and head toward … zero infections.”
The Cayman AIDS Foundation was legally established in 2010, but prior to that existed in the form of several unincorporated groups which supported those with HIV or AIDS.
Mr. Cayasso-Smith said that forming a regularly meeting gay support group for education purposes has been a goal of the organization for some time. One impetus for launching it now is the three-part lecture series on gay and gender rights, which starts Thursday, Jan. 15, organized by the Truman Bodden Law School Student Society. Mr. Cayasso-Smith also thinks the time has come for such a group.
“[Homosexuality] is an issue everyone tries to skip around and avoid,” he said. “It’s time for Cayman to wake up and realize we have gay people in our community.”
Mr. Cayasso-Smith said there are more than 200 gay people in Cayman whom he knows personally, but he acknowledges there are still people who haven’t admitted in public they are gay. He is hoping that by hosting a monthly support group, the Cayman AIDS Foundation can interact with more gay people in the Cayman Islands and educate them about HIV and AIDS.
“I do notice sometimes that there’s a lack of safety [in sexual practices],” he said. “So I really see the need to educate our gay community about the dangers of HIV and [sexually transmitted infections]. It’s great to have sex, but it’s important to do so safely.”
In addition to providing educational materials, Mr. Cayasso-Smith said the support group would have discussions about male and female condoms and about other methods of protection, including abstinence.
Another focus of the group will be encouraging testing for HIV.
“Cayman’s gay population needs to understand the importance of being tested because early detection can save your life and prevent you from developing full-blown AIDS,” he said, noting that through medications and healthy lifestyle choices, those with HIV can now live long, productive lives.
The Foundation already has a confidential support group for those who are HIV positive. These people are referred to the organization by Cayman’s Health Services Authority. Mr. Cayasso-Smith said the Health Services Authority supplies the Foundation with statistics on those who have tested positive, but they do not tell them who they are – it’s up to the patient to seek out the support of the Foundation.
Mr. Cayasso-Smith thinks attitudes about homosexuality are changing in Cayman.
“I think it’s got to the point where before, people were afraid to come out and show their sexuality, where now, even in the nightclubs, people are willing to come out and show who they are,” he said.
The first meeting of the new gay support group will be on Saturday, Jan. 31, at 6 p.m. at the Foundation’s office in the Caymanian Village plaza on North Sound Road.
“If it grows too much, we’ll have to find some place else where people will feel secure,” he said.
The agenda for the meetings will be focused on education, which is the Cayman AIDS Foundation’s mission mandate.
However, Mr. Cayasso-Smith said the meetings could lead to more unity among the gay community, and perhaps even a group that will look at issues that affect their lives, beyond the risks of HIV/AIDS.
“I think what we need here is an independent organization formed that could assist our gay community with human rights and other issues,” he said, noting that the lecture series is a good first step.
The Cayman AIDS Foundation has only two paid employees – Mr. Cayasso-Smith and office manager Merilda Miller – and gets limited funding from the government, just over $45,000 in the current budget year.
Mr. Cayasso-Smith said the Foundation needs roughly $80,000 per year to pay for salaries and to run its various programs. To make up the difference, it holds fundraising events and tries to solicit private and corporate donations, but Mr. Cayasso-Smith said that can be difficult.
“HIV/AIDS still carries stigma and discrimination here in the Cayman Islands,” he said.