International LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS activist Carlos Idibouo shares his life’s journey and calls for increased access to treatment and prevention
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
I would never call myself an activist. People call me an activist,” Carlos Idibouo tells me, sitting across from me in my studio. He is in town from Canada, and stopped by to tell me his story and plans for the future. Idibouo is recognized internationally for his LGBTQ and HIV activism work. An Ivory Coast native now living in Canada, he is on the board of several national and international organizations, including the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association, GLISA, where he represents Africa. He was a member of the LGBT Francophonie Conference Scientific Committee, part of this year’s Canada Pride Montreal. As I write this, he is in Indianapolis, attending InterPride, the 2017 World Conference, where he was selected by InterPride board of directors to represent Africa Region 16.
Idibouo travels the world to spread the word about equality—LGBTQ as well as women’s equality—and also HIV/AIDS prevention and education. He does it while speaking fluently in English, French or Spanish. He does it by speaking in the universal language of activism.
Quite recently he attended this year’s IAS Conference of HIV Science in Paris, France. Not only that, but he was one of the thirty people selected by IAS to write the Paris Community Declaration, an affirmation of the Denver Principles across all key affected populations, living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, in relation to PrEP and Treatment as Prevention.
Carlos Idibouo became involved in HIV activism at the age of eighteen, when he was still living in Ivory Coast. He volunteered for Red Ribbon, Ruban Rouge in French, the first Ivory Coast HIV organization, cofounded by Cyriaque Yapo Ako in 1994. Ako is an internationally recognized activist who, in 2006, as executive director of the Reseau Ivoirien des Organisations de PVVIH in Cote d’Ivoire, met with President Bush in D.C., for that year’s White House World AIDS Day. In 2003, Carlos Idibouo and Cyriaque Yapo Ako started the first LGBTQ organization in Ivory Coast. Rainbow Plus—Arc-en-Ciel Plus Cote d’Ivoire—served the LGBTQ community and members of the community living with HIV or AIDS.
At the beginning of 2006, Idibouo attended a workshop, where he ended up being interviewed, as a participant, by the media. Then the article came out.
“Cyriaque called to tell me that my picture was [on the front page] of the newspaper,” Idibouo recalls, explaining that he was completely unaware of the article that had been written about him or the picture plastered over the front page of the newspaper. “I hung up with Cyriaque and a few minutes later, my sister called. She knew that I was gay but she didn’t expect to see it in the newspaper. She started crying. She asked me what I was thinking. [She] was asking me questions I [couldn’t] really answer. I hadn’t seen the newspaper yet.”
At the time Idibouo was on his way back home to Abidjan (in Ivory Coast), returning from yet another workshop. He was waiting for a cab in a busy bus station—a crowded place where people wait in line to get a cab, much like at the airport here, in the States. While he was waiting, a woman came to him, staring closely at his face then starting screaming “It’s him! It’s him!” he recalls. A cab driver noticed the commotion and advised him to get into the first available cab and leave. Only once he was in the cab, on his way home, he realized what had just happened, and that the woman must have recognized him from the newspaper, and that his life was in danger in Ivory Coast.
When he finally grabbed a copy of that newspaper, he noticed his picture on the front page. The caption read, he mentions: “Carlos Idibouo, President of Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals.”
He knew that, as a gay man, he wasn’t safe in other African countries. That said, Ivory Coast was (is) considered a progressive country in Western Africa. But the country’s penal code calls homosexuality an immoral act. Hence, if gay people are found having sex, they are thrown in jail. That’s what happened to two guys, he points out. They were sentenced to eighteen months in jail for having sex. The penal code doesn’t clearly define homosexuality as a crime, but if caught having sex with another person of the same sex, an individual is taken to court where the judge rules based on his or her personal beliefs. “It’s a very subjective decision,” Idibouo emphasizes.
Meanwhile, he received a scholarship to participate in the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada. He had never traveled to North America before and had no idea what to expect. Yet, there he was, in Toronto, attending the conference. A man recognized him from one of the videos playing on screens, on the walls, and the two started chatting. At one point, the man asked if he wanted to stay in Canada.
“I just freaked out when he asked me that question,” Idibouo recalls. “[I told him] I didn’t know anybody [in Canada], and he said ‘but you know me now.’” (Over the years, the two became best of buddies.) They decided to pick up the conversation the following day.
After a sleepless night, he realized that he wanted, after all, to stay in Canada. His new friend put him in touch with a lawyer who, in turn, helped him apply for his refugee status.
While the immigration process in Canada is different from that in the U.S., going through the immigration process, as a legal immigrant or as a refugee, is often an endless, frustrating, depressing, anxiety-causing experience. It involves filling out mountains of paperwork, fingerprinting, waiting for hours to talk to officials, schedule interviews and going through interviews—and that if people are lucky enough to actually get an interview. But for those going through this process it’s all worth it. Coming from a poor country to a country that, until then, one could only dream of, can be an overwhelming, as well as mind-boggling, experience.
“It’s not something that you plan,” he comments. “I don’t think anybody plans on going through this kind of experience. I came to Canada not having a clue what was going to happen to me in terms of claiming a legal status. I found that out when I was already in Canada. And I had to go through the process, because I had made the decision to stay.” This is not something that one can change their mind about halfway into the journey, he further explains, because by then the return ticket is not valid anymore and people don’t have money to buy another ticket. So, they have to stay and go through the entire process.
Thing is, while waiting to receive any news from the immigration office, people find themselves living for years in an ongoing state of uncertainty, unsure of what is to happen to them. Yes, upon applying for legal status they receive a work permit and social security number to go with that work permit, but that only allows them to work, to find a job and earn a living. Pay taxes, too. But they still lack that piece of paper that proves that they’re legal refugees or permanent residents.
It usually takes years to get through it, from applying for legal status to becoming a citizen. (It took Idibouo two years and three months to receive his refugee status. Only then, he could apply for permanent residency. Three years after becoming a permanent resident, he could apply for citizenship.) Years of living in this state of uncertainty can lead to depression and anxiety.
“I want to set up a platform where people will be able to self-identify themselves, without worries,” Carlos Idibouo explains. The House of Culture for Human Diversity will celebrate the diversity of human beings and human rights, be those women’s rights or LGBTQ rights. The new nonprofit will focus on HIV awareness and education, in particular on eliminating stigma and using culture and art to address stigma and related issues.
Some evidence points to an environment of exploitation that endangers the health of migrants. While there’s little information regarding causes of post-migration HIV infections among migrants in the U.S., studies have shown that, oftentimes, socio-economic conditions put migrants in Europe or North America at higher risk of acquiring HIV. That is, because of socio-economic conditions many migrants end up in relationships that, in turn, put them at high risk for HIV (and other STI) infections. Migrants to several of the European Union and European Economic Area seroconverted after moving to those countries; as reported in a recent Avert article, sixty-three percent of the HIV-positive migrants to European Union and European Economic Area seroconverted after they had relocated to their new countries.
Idibouo is very much aware of these statistics (or lack thereof in certain cases) and offers his personal story as a way of giving voice to a much needed, yet often avoided conversation. Idibouo’s story helps to right the wrong assumption that many immigrants bring HIV with them to their new countries. Not only that, but it also adds to the already complex HIV story, while touching on lesser-known facets of HIV seroconversion.
“There are rich men, in a position of power, talking about speeding up your immigration process, [and so] at the end of the day you want to believe them,” Idibouo shares, commenting on migrants who end up in relationships that could place them at risk for HIV. “And you find yourself in a very vulnerable situation where you can’t say no. You don’t have the right words to convince the other person that you don’t want to engage in any kind of sexual intercourse with him.” He pauses, as if trying to find the best way to explain it. “You see, [for migrants] coming to North America, to the rich people country, is part of a dream process. You come here and the first person that you meet on your path is one who tells you that he’s going to marry you and that you won’t have to worry about anything—legal status, money, work. For someone who comes from a very poor country and hears all these things, it’s like [finding] paradise. You don’t measure the notion of risk. You’re aware of it, but it’s the last thing on your mind, because the most important thing for you is your [immigration] status.”
So, even if they are aware of, say, HIV, new immigrants or refugees tell themselves that they’re in a country where HIV is not a death sentence anymore, and that there are medications available to them. They tell themselves that if HIV does happen to them, they’ll deal with it later, once they get their immigration status in order. And so, they go with that person who seems to offer their dreams on a silver platter. They do what that person says, while throwing safety out the proverbial window.
“You can’t say no,” Idibouo reiterates, “because you have just met someone who would be able to save your life and you’re afraid that you’re going to lose that person. And so, you’re trapped. It’s only later on, when you get your legal status, that you realize that you could have avoided [risking exposing yourself to HIV]. But by then it’s often too late.”
He ended up in a complicated relationship. On one hand, because of that very relationship he didn’t have to worry about food or money, and lived in a beautiful place in Toronto. On the other hand, nothing in that beautiful place belonged to him. Every single glass, plate or book had a story and a history he was not a part of. The rules of engagement in the relationship itself were vaguely defined, too.
After a while, Idibouo moved to Montreal for studies. The relationship continued, with Idibouo commuting between Montreal and Toronto.
“In December 2011, I organized an HIV forum in partnership with Clinique l’Actuel in Montreal,” he recalls. People could come to the forum and, if they wanted, they could get tested for HIV. And as an activist, he volunteered to get tested for HIV, so that others would follow his example. He wasn’t worried about the results, because he was getting tested regularly and the results would always come back negative. This time around was no different. And yet, he left the clinic with the feeling that something was not right.
In April of 2012, while still in Montreal and right before leaving for Toronto, he decided to get tested for all STIs. The doctor told him that he could include an HIV test for free. So he got tested for HIV yet again.
As days went by, the clinic would call him in Toronto to let him know about his many test results-—that he had tested negative for one STI or another. And then one day, the clinic called again. He got transferred to the doctor, who, in turn, told him that he had to speak with him in person. Idibouo insisted that, if the call was about his HIV test result, he needed to know. He mentioned that he’d been working in the HIV field for many years and was prepared for whatever the doctor had to say to him. And he basically talked the doctor into giving him the HIV test result over the phone. It was positive. He asked to have his file transferred to his doctor in Toronto.
Idibouo comments that, while nobody wishes HIV, or any other disease, on anybody, he’s glad that it happened in a time and day when medications are available. “I didn’t lose my hair; I’m just shaving because I want to,” he laughs. “I didn’t lose weight, didn’t have to go through side effects related to AZT….” He then confesses, “I was ashamed, knowing that I have been working in the field for so many years, and found myself being HIV-positive. I was ashamed, but not for long, because I was waiting to see how people around me reacted to the news, and they didn’t blame me.” Yet, the complicated relationship he was in ended several months later, in December 2012.
Then he offers, “I’ve never told my folks back home.” When I ask what’s going to happen when his family will see this article, he calmly answers, “I’m fine with that. I have a different approach to talk about things now.”
Now, Carlos Idibouo is at work founding a new nonprofit. The House of Culture for Human Diversity represents the outcome of all his work as an activist, throughout the decades. “I want to set up a platform where people will be able to self-identify themselves, without worries,” he explains. The House of Culture for Human Diversity will celebrate the diversity of human beings and human rights, be those women’s rights or LGBTQ rights. The new nonprofit will focus on HIV awareness and education, in particular on eliminating stigma and using culture and art to address stigma and related issues.
Now, he’s very much involved in the U=U campaign. “I love it,” he says, because “the science is able to prove [that undetectable really means untransmittable].” But, he points out, not everybody can afford to become undetectable because of poverty, lack of access to care, and other factors.
Aside from U=U campaign, Idibouo is also a PrEP advocate. Recently, Ontario decided to subsidize the cost of PrEP, making it much more affordable. But, he mentions, some people, in particular those new to the country, still cannot afford PrEP. And so, despite all the progress, availability does not mean affordability.
“I’ve never been afraid of HIV,” Idibouo says. “When I was very young [as an HIV activist], I’ve seen so many people dying, some dying in my arms. Even when I cofounded Rainbow Plus, there were [still] people from the LGBT community who were dying [from the virus]. So, I’ve never been afraid of HIV. I’m afraid of human beings, because human beings give social power to HIV—that is, the discrimination that comes with it, the stigma and rejection, and people who could survive but let themselves die because of that social power that humans give to HIV.”
But that can be reversed. People can take the power away from HIV. They can educate themselves about HIV and make “getting to zero” new infections happen. He mentions the importance of looking ahead and embracing new prevention strategies such as the 90-90-90 treatment target to end AIDS. Its goal is that, by 2020, 90 percent of the people to know their HIV status; of those HIV-positive, 90 percent to be in treatment; of those in treatment, 90 percent to be undetectable.
“Every single person, especially if they’re sexually active, needs to be involved and part of this campaign,” Carlos Idibouo emphasizes. Every person needs to take the power away from HIV. “I took power over HIV. After all, being able to recognize your weaknesses is a strength.”
Learn more about Carlos Idibouo and the House of Culture for Human Diversity by visiting: http://bit.ly/2kN4FsT.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U. She interviewed advocate Omar Garcia for the October issue.