How Homophobia Is Fueling the AIDS Epidemic in Africa
By taking their own culture war to Africa, American evangelicals are fueling not only the abuse of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) rights, but also the spread of the AIDS epidemic, according to Kapya Kaoma.
In a presentation at the International AIDS Conference, Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia who now leads churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, accused the Christian Right of whipping up a homophobic frenzy.
The priest, who went undercover to observe Scott Lively’s preaching in schools, parliament and churches, said that it had had the impact of a “nuclear bomb” in Uganda. The cohort of evangelical Christians has “promoted a lot of myths in Africa,” said Kaoma, including the belief that homosexuality is a Western import and that gay men are evil and violent.
The priest condemned the evangelical preachers for deliberately propagating misinformation, such as the assertion that gay men are responsible for spreading HIV.
The anti-homosexuality bill that would have mandated life imprisonment for homosexuality and the death penalty for being HIV-positive may have been derailed by international criticism. But alternative repressive legislation could very soon criminalize homosexuality, if the conservatives get their way.
The consequences of the messages from the American Christian Right, grounded in the culture war in the U.S., Kaoma said, have been the denial of basic services to gay, lesbian and transgender people in Africa, and even deaths. People should keep their cultural wars at home, he argued strongly.
“Don’t export them to Africa,” he said.
As well as condemning the Americans like for their anti-gay preaching in Uganda and other countries, Kaoma said he was “disappointed” in African leaders for being so receptive to the message.
“These guys are not just given time to speak, they’re also given access to the state media,” he said. “How can a single crazy person teach them (African leaders) about the ‘homosexual agenda'?”
Until the issue of discrimination over sexual orientation is resolved, Kaoma argued, “it’s a lie to say we’ll ever have an HIV/AIDS-free Africa.”
Evangelists aside, many others are contributing to the repression of LGBT people in Africa—and preventing those with a high risk of becoming HIV-positive from accessing treatment and prevention.
Gift Trapence, executive director of the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), a human rights organization, condemned other NGOs active in Malawi for being largely silent on the repressive treatment of men who have sex with men and other marganilized groups.
“The government should be taken to task,” Trapence said. “One wonders if these are really human rights organizations.”
The legal system is a barrier rather than a tool in the fight for sexual freedom in many countries in Africa. Sex with person of the same gender is illegal for men in 29 countries and for women in 20 countries on the continent. Even where homosexuality is not explicitly criminalized, morality or public decency laws can be used to punish sexual orientation, human rights activist Joel Nana said.
This makes HIV prevention and treatment for members of LGBT communities in Africa extremely difficult. A recent crackdown on organizations in Senegal means that no one is there to offer support for men who have sex with men.
Many lawyers regularly defend accused murderers and rapists, yet won’t touch cases involving sexual orientation, he said.
Alim Mongoche of Cameroon was one of 11 men arrested in a Cameroonian gay bar in 2005. In the year he spent in prison, Mongoche became very ill, to that point that he could barely walk. One of his fellow inmates had to carry Mongoche on his back to his court appearances. The 30-year-old was denied basic treatment for his HIV.
Mongoche died eight days after he was released.
“Had he not been arrested, he could have been here with us today,” Nana said.
Responding to those who argue that human rights are Western imports to the continent, Nana pointed out that the African Charter on Human Rights is “totally African” and that one of its provisions is against discrimination.
Legal and social taboos not only lead to rights abuses, they also undermine wider efforts to stop the AIDS epidemic, according to Mats Ahnlund, the executive director of the International AIDS Society (IAS).
“In general, if men who have sex with men are recognized in a country, it’s much easier to reach those groups,” Ahnlund explained.
Photo: lewishamdreamer/Creative Commons via Flickr
Yasmine Ryan is attending the Journalist to Journalist Global Media Training Program on HIV/AIDS, run by the National Press Foundation in Vienna ahead of the 2010 International AIDS Conference. She will be blogging daily from Vienna until July 23.
Want to learn more about reporting on HIV/AIDS? Click here to see the training resources from the program, including the speakers’ presentations.
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