They may have arranged the Arabian Nights party, complete with loud Arabic dance music and flickering lights, but Chris Ayoub and David Ponsart came to the Ferndale, Mich., bar mainly to spread a message of safer sex. The audience to which the two health educators spoke about HIV and AIDS prevention was one of the Detroit area's most secretive--gay Arab-Americans. It is also a group state health officials fear may be one of Michigan's most at-risk gay communities. "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,"' Ayoub, 31, of Hazel Park, told the Detroit Free Press. The assurances are necessary given the stigma about homosexuality in the Arab world.
Ayoub and Ponsart's efforts at the Q bar are funded by state public health dollars and foundation grants. To ensure they had a solid turnout they distributed over 1,000 invitations at other bars. At the party they distributed Arabic-language AIDS pamphlets and offered HIV antibody tests. "They are tapping into a community that has been invisible," said Craig Covey, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. MAPP helped Ayoub start the outreach program. With roughly 300,000 immigrants from the Middle East in southeast Michigan, state health officials realized that this was one group that had been overlooked, largely because it was among the most reclusive.
"Arab-Americans were the last group of gay men anyone tried to reach," Covey said, adding that gays could face persecution and criminal charges in their home countries if authorities discover their secret.
Ayoub says many gay Arab-Americans are also ignorant of their risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, believing that if they sleep only with Arab men, they will not be exposed to the virus. Ayoub and Ponsart's work has earned the support of some who provide aid to the community. They are "making breakthroughs" in a community saddled with "legacies that we bring from the home country," said Adnan Hammad, head of the nonprofit Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, Mich. Among its varied social programs, ACCESS administers a $55,000 annual state grant supporting the HIV outreach program.