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AIDS Conference Seeks End to Discrimination Based on Sexual Preference

At the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City this week, there has been a great deal of discussion about violence and discrimination directed at homosexuals and lesbians, often based on the mistaken assumption that they are responsible for the disease. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Mexico City, participants in the conference also see improvements in attitudes as a result of education and government actions to protect people from discrimination.

Public health officials and organizations working to diminish the impact of AIDS around the world agree that more tolerant societies have better programs to combat AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. But, they say, discrimination against those whose sexual orientation differs from the norm, whether official, cultural or religious, often works against efforts to control the spread of the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

One nation that has taken steps in recent years to address the problem of discrimination against gays is the conference host nation, Mexico.

"What we have done is, first, an amendment to the constitution," said Dr. Jorge Saavedra, director of the Mexican National HIV/AIDS Program. "It was done in 2001. It states that no one can be discriminated against because of his or her preferences and then the national law was approved. It is a national law against discrimination and it addresses specifically sexual orientation," he said.

Saavedra says anti-gay discrimination and occasional violence continue in Mexico and other Latin American nations in spite of laws against such actions and that public education is still needed to change attitudes.

He says that Mexico, Brazil and Argentina are the leading nations in Latin America in terms of protecting gay rights. Globally, he says the countries that are most advanced in their non-discrimination policies are The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain and South Africa, all of which allow people of the same sex to marry.

Joel Nana, a native of Cameroon who works with a gay rights group in South Africa, says efforts by outsiders to influence governments in Africa have sometimes been counterproductive because of the impression many Africans have that gay sex is something being imposed from outside.

"The behavior has existed in Africa since the world was the world. But the language we now use to call the behavior is new and it is the language that freaks people and it is the language that makes people feel this is an imposition from the West. So what I would tell our European and American brothers would be to be wary of the way they introduce the issue to various governments. They should build on the issue of the behavior rather than the language," he said.

The situation for gays in the Middle East and Asia is especially difficult. Shivananda Khan, Chair of the Asia-Pacific Coalition on Male Sex Health and a resident of India, said, "We are trying to find ways of creating dialogue with Islamic leaders and Hindu leaders and Buddhist leaders to enable them to understand the diversity of sexuality in human cultures. Right now, if I were to speak about issues of sexuality in Iran I could potentially get hanged. In India I could be arrested and in Afghanistan and Pakistan I could also be arrested."

Khan says he sees signs of hope because of recent inter-faith dialogues between Christian leaders and Muslim leaders on the issue of ending violence against gays. He also notes that many of the discriminatory laws in his part of the world originated from the British and were based on their Christian values.

Delegates from other parts of the world say religion has often played a role in anti-gay discrimination and acts of intolerance, but they note that some religious leaders, like Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, have been champions of anti-discrimination. Some Christian leaders have encouraged more tolerance, citing the call to love thy neighbor. Members of some gay organizations say they see real opportunities for dialogue with religious leaders on this issue.