International HIV/AIDS Alliance (London)

Africa: What's Love Got To Do With It?

Falling in love is one of those amazing experiences that fill us with emotions and feelings that are hard to explain, and almost impossible to describe. We have very little control or influence over whom we fall in love with, or even when we will fall in love – destiny and Cupid are in control of this. Or are they? Dealing with the process of puberty brings with it a journey of sexual awareness and greater identity of gender and orientation, a process that can be difficult, confusing and lonely – especially when what you are experiencing or feeling is perceived to be “different” or “wrong”.

Unfortunately in too many countries individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender are facing this confrontational and difficult journey, often without the support and understanding that is required to travel it.

Some members and structures of society are trying to define and dictate how LGBT people should live, who they cannot love and are denying their very existence simply because of homophobia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, homophobia is “an extreme and irrational behaviour to homosexuality or homosexual people” and sadly it results in hate crimes, sexual and emotional violence and in some instances even death.

In at least 76 countries around the world, being gay is illegal. In five countries (Mauritania, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen) and in parts of two others (states in northern Nigeria and southern Somalia), homosexuality is punishable with the death penalty. Punishment in the other countries can range from fines to short and lifelong prison sentences, hard labour, forced psychiatric treatment, and whippings – simply for having sex with a person of the same sex. Thirty six of those countries are in Africa, where I come from. In most of them, men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people are criminalised under “unnatural offenses” laws introduced during British colonial rule in the 19th century, but increasingly, these are being supplemented with newer laws which ban not only same sex acts but any form of self expression for LGBT people. What’s love got to do with it? Falling in love for some is illegal, immoral and a crime.

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), a global day of action against homophobia and to raise awareness of LGBT rights. It marks the day in 1990 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) decided to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. That day marked a leap forward but we still need to do much much more to combat stigma and discrimination, particularly as the continued criminalisation of LGBT communities around the world is exacerbating the HIV epidemic, and undermining human rights which are so important for an effective response to HIV.

In February this year Uganda’s President Museveni signed the notorious “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” into law with harsh penalties for those who promote or “aid and abet” homosexuality as well as life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality”. The new law has sparked a wave of violent attacks against LGBT Ugandans and seriously hinders the ability of Ugandans from the LGBT community to access much needed health and social services, or to simply live a “normal” life. The law also means that those organisations that are providing HIV services to MSM could be criminally liable, this in a country where HIV prevalence amongst MSM in Kampala is 13%, more than three times the prevalence among heterosexual men.

We know that homophobia and transphobia fuel hate crimes against these communities. Both groups are already at much higher risk of HIV than the general population, with transgender women up to a staggering 49 times more likely to be infected with HIV. Just consider for a moment that more than 1300 transgender people were reportedly murdered worldwide between 2008 and 2013, with more than 200 killed in Latin America last year alone. Most of these crimes are never recorded in police data or investigated, and in some cases they are even perpetrated by state authorities. What’s love got to do with it? Being a transgender women exposes you to a greater risk of HIV, violence and murder.

There’s no doubt that love, understanding and taking action contribute to change. The Indian Supreme Court last month declared that “it is the right of every human being to choose their gender”, and so granted rights to transgender people to decide for themselves what their identity is. Paradoxically in December last year the same court made millions of LGBT Indians criminals again overnight when it reinstated legislation that prohibits same sex relationships.

To coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia the International HIV/AIDS Alliance is launching a powerful short film, It’s All About Love, telling the story of a young gay couple in Namibia who are using their experiences to overcome stigma and discrimination and help others. Their story shows how acceptance from friends and family can benefit not just individuals, but also help the wider LGBT community to access stigma-free support, a key factor in reducing HIV prevalence rates.

In many countries, political leaders are taking steps to combat homophobia and transphobia but in too many others, they are fuelling hatred. LGBT people in these countries desperately need our support and solidarity, and from donor countries like the US and UK, they need emergency funding to help them deal with the sudden security threats they face. Also vital are political leaders who are willing to speak up for LGBT equality, particularly from countries in the global south. Today, IDAHOT, is an important day, but we need to ensure that our attention and support for the global LGBT community continues throughout the year, bringing together our collective voice and action to deliver sustainable and meaningful change.

Shaun Mellors grew up in South Africa and is now based in the UK, where he is Associate Director for Africa at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, a unique alliance of national civil society organisations dedicated to ending AIDS through community action. The Alliance works on HIV, health and human rights through local, national and global action with communities in over 40 countries on four continents.

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