Civil rights abuses against LGBT & HIV-positive individuals threaten to put lives at stake
Left Field by Patricia Nell Warren
As the AIDS epidemic spread across the U.S., a big barrier to stopping it was the stigma on vulnerable groups—especially LGBT people. After thirty years of civil-rights struggle, the U.S. has improved its attitude, with most state sodomy laws nixed, and greater tolerance in many sectors of society. But in recent years, some other nations with a high HIV infection rate are pushing into more deadly stigma, not less.
One case has dominated the news recently: Uganda. Among its 31 million people, eighty-four percent are Catholic, Anglican and evangelical, mostly ultraconservative. There are an estimated 1 million HIV-positive persons, along with what rights organizations estimate to be hundreds of thousands of closeted LGBTs. For decades, Ugandan homophobia had already been brewing as the Museveni regime adopted a far-right Christian ideology. Homosexual acts are already illegal (fourteen years in prison). Gay men were often beaten to death with iron bars.
Now, with Parliament poised to pass the notorious Bill #18, the Anti-Homosexual Act, the country may sink to new depths of stigma. Section 3 of the bill defines “aggravated homosexuality” as sex with a minor, disabled person, ward, inferior—or sex if you’re HIV-positive. Anyone charged with “aggravated” must undergo HIV testing. The penalty: death by hanging. Further, Section 13 prohibits “promotion” of homosexuality. Section 13.2 decrees that a corporation, NGO, etc., can also be an “offender,” and its head person imprisoned for seven years. Section 14 requires anyone having knowledge of illegal sex acts to report them to authorities.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how this law, if passed, will disrupt HIV/AIDS care. Not only Ugandan nationals but also foreign corporations and NGOs could be at risk.
One NGO operating in Uganda for eleven years is AIDS Healthcare Foundation. AHF partners with the government on the Uganda Cares program that established a network of treatment and prevention centers across rural districts. On January 18, AHF opened yet another center in the village of Lukaya.
Many government Ugandans who dictate health policy are far-right Christians. Among these is Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni. She runs several health programs, speaks out against homosexuality, supports Bill #18. Her special representative on HIV/AIDS campaigns is homophobic pastor Martin Ssempa, who lobbies for Bill #18.
Another problematic official is minister of health Christine Ondoa, also a born-again pastor who supports Bill #18. In 2011, when Ondoa was appointed, U.S. religious-right researcher Bruce Wilson commented: “The position will give Ondoa authority over a significant portion of Uganda’s foreign HIV/AIDS mitigation funding, which in the year 2010 included over $270 million dollars from the United States.”
If the bill passes, what will happen to an LGBT person who is outed while undergoing testing or treatment in an AHF clinic? Will he or she be prosecuted under the “aggravated” clause? Will AHF be required to report LGBT sex acts their careworkers learn about, since that’s one of the clauses of the law?
Far to the north of Uganda, the Russian Federation is another nation where growing stigma is a worry—especially since Russia has the highest HIV infection rate in Eastern Europe and central Asia. This is largely due to IV drug use and needle sharing.
After the Soviet Union fell apart, AIDS was low priority—but gay rights did get off to a good start. In 1993, to qualify for EU membership, Russia had to decriminalize homosexuality. A lively LGBT activist movement was born. But a story was also circulated that Russia’s first AIDS case was a soldier returning from Africa who had sex with a dozen other soldiers—and the story was heard by people eager to stigmatize. Russian society is reconnecting with a strict old conservatism rooted in Russian Orthodoxy. The church, which was driven underground during the Soviet era, is once again dictating national policy. In recent years, neo-fascist ideas from Western Europe are seeping into Russia. Russian fascists are as anti-gay as the old Nazi variety.
Now the Russian Duma (parliament) is about to pass its own law outlawing “homosexual promotion.” This will affect the publicizing of anything relating to “blues” and “pinks” (Russian slang for gay men and lesbians) including HIV/AIDS. Orthodox church leaders loudly support this law.
Russia gets millions in PEPFAR and USAID funds from the U.S. But while it promises HIV treatment for all who need it, healthcare delivery systems are shaky and foreign NGOs estimate that only five percent actually get help. According to a 2011 report in the Yale Journal of Medicine and Law, “The stigma directed toward high risk populations, including IDUs, people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), and men who have sex with men (MSMs), is one of the main difficulties in making HIV/AIDS services and treatments accessible.” Since the pending law prohibits “promoting homosexuality” to minors, it could be difficult to get prevention messages to closeted LGBT youth.
On the other side of the world, a horrifying situation has its fuse lit in Papua New Guinea. Located on the Pacific Rim, this small island country and its 5.8 million people are independent of Australian colonial rule since 1975. Its democratic government does offer AIDS care and cooperates with foreign NGOs and USAID, which pour millions into PNG programs every year. PNG has its tiny struggling LGBT rights movement.
But PNG is experiencing the social chaos of rapid development, economic stress, and collapse of tribal traditions…and incubating a huge AIDS epidemic. In a recent report, the UN stated that PNG is the site of ninety percent of HIV infections in Oceania. Former MP Dame Carol Kidu says the old sodomy laws are contributing to the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Homosexual acts have stayed illegal since British colonial times.
HIV/AIDS-related treatment and prevention are also made difficult by the fact that the country is going heavily Catholic and Protestant, thanks to intensive missionizing. Indeed, according to the United Nations Population Fund, “Although [PNG] politicians are mandated by the people, and have power and authority over churches, faith-based leaders have greater moral authority over the people. It is important that all service providers are aware of this.”
As a result, many PNG citizens operate off fierce reaction against the country’s pagan past, including old tribal practices of magic and male homosexuality. So searing stigma is aimed at men who are gay or perceived to be—especially if they’re HIV-positive.
In some remote areas, villagers don’t shrink from vigilante action. As I was working on this article, the world was jarred by a cellphone photo taken in a village near Mount Hagen, in the PNG highlands. There, a lynch mob of villagers were burning a young woman alive on a pyre of tires. Police tried to rescue her, but the outraged mob prevented intervention. The woman had been accused of witchcraft, causing a young boy’s death. Many villagers believe that witchcraft causes disease, including AIDS.
Other witch-burnings have been reported, along with persistent reports of sick villagers being buried alive if their families and neighbors believe they have AIDS. An Australian Broadcasting Corp. reporter who spent time in the highlands commented to the BBC, “The people up there still have very strong beliefs in terms of sorcery and witchcraft, and that is heavily linked to people with HIV.”
PNG’s new prime minister, Peter O’Neill, commits to some democratic reform and condemned the witch-burning. But he admits that government has little motive to establish LGBT rights. O’Neill added, “There’s very strong feelings about that within the country.”
AIDS stigma is not limited to countries dominated by reactionary Christianity. In 2010, according to a BBC report, the UN Development Programme and the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health noted that nineteen out of forty-eight countries in that region are barring many gay and bi men from access to treatment because their laws criminalize these men in some way, making it dangerous to reveal themselves. Non-Christian countries on this list include Thailand, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan.
A 2010 comment from a UN representative puts it in a nutshell: “The effectiveness of the HIV response will depend not just on the sustained scale up of HIV prevention, treatment and care, but on whether the legal and social environment support or hinder programmes for those who are most vulnerable.”
Text of Uganda Bill #18: www.boxturtlebulletin.com/btb/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Bill-No-18-Anti-Homosexuality-Bill-2009.pdf
HIV in Russia: http://aids.about.com/od/clinicaltrials/a/russia.htm
Papua New Guinea: Dark Secret: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6978421.stm
Copyright © 2013 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved