Thirty years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, stigma and discrimination continue to slow efforts to prevent and treat the disease. And more and more, gay men are becoming the targets in sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda, for example, legislation had been pending that could have imposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts.
In its final day of doing any real business, the Uganda Parliament Friday did not vote on a controversial anti-homosexual bill. The bill had been widely condemned around the world, including by President Obama. While the official last day of parliament is May18th, much of the remaining time will be spent swearing in new members of parliament. The new parliament convenes in June and there is a chance that the bill’s author, David Bahati, could reintroduce it.
Life and death
UNAIDS uses the term “men who have sex with men,” or MSM, rather than gay. It says many men who engage in these sexual acts do not identify themselves as gay. UNAIDS also says transgenders are major targets of stigma and discrimination. These are people who do not conform to the standard male or female gender roles.
A leading U.S. magazine on HIV/AIDS, POZ, features a profile of some sub-Saharan African activists who risk their lives in promoting gay rights. POZ Editor-in-Chief Regan Hoffman is co-author of the article entitled Fearing No Evil.
“We’ve seen a significant uptick in hate crimes against gay people and we’ve seen them in the United States, as well as around the world. And the correlation between gay hate crimes and the risks to public health are something that people don’t understand,” she said.
In January, prominent Ugandan gay activist and school teacher David Kato was brutally murdered. He had been a leading voice against the anti-homosexual measure. About 80 countries around the world, including Uganda, have laws that make same-sex behavior a crime.
In 2010, a gay Malawi couple was sentenced to 14 years at hard labor after they announced their intention to marry. The judge told the men he wanted to protect the public from people like them. They were later released and told to have no further contact with one another.
Hoffman said hate crimes and anti-gay laws only help prolong the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“HIV is not a disease that only affects gay people. It never has been and it never will be. It affects anyone who shares a needle or has unprotected sex. And the disease predominately still around the world is a heterosexual disease,” she said.
Hoffman said Uganda’s image regarding HIV/AIDS has changed from the time when the country was praised for acting early against the disease.
“Uganda was a role model for HIV prevention and care because they were aggressively treating it and treating people benevolently who had the disease. It was remarkable. I’m not exactly sure what happened in terms of Uganda’s reversal of rates. I know it had to do in some part with a change in public attitude and also governmental attitude about being open about sexuality and therefore sexually treated disease,” she said.
Fight or flight
She said creating a climate of fear around HIV/AIDS only drives the epidemic underground, away from prevention and treatment programs.
“Whether you’re gay or straight, the odds of you going to get testing for HIV or seek care for HIV are very low because to do so might imply that you are a gay person. And if that can land you in jail for life, or you could be beaten and killed, why in God’s name would you go and seek your HIV status or seek care?”
The POZ article also features Kenyan activist David Kuria of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, who’s picture appears on the magazine’s cover.
“He does not have an easy life. His life is at risk. I was worried when we wrote the story that his life would be in greater danger. But he said to me that, you know, others have died and he does not want to see this continue. And the only way to stop it is to stand up against it,” said Hoffman.
Kuria told POZ, “In Kenya, it seems that men who lead double lives do so because they do not believe they have a choice. It is either marry a women or risk being killed.
In the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, it was often gay activists who sounded the alarm.
“You know,” she said, “it was the gay community that really was visible and they were the most outspoken and most effective advocates and activists. And so people tended to equate HIV with the gay community in a negative way, which was ironic because it was the gay community that fought for early access to care, awareness, testing. And it was the gay community that saved, in fact, many straight peoples’ lives.”
Hoffman has been living with HIV for about 16 years. She says she let down her guard and had unprotected sex twice with a man she had known for years. The man did not know his HIV status. She says had she continued to heed the warnings originally put out by the gay community she probably would not have been infected.