The anti-gay laws enacted in Uganda and Nigeria recently aren’t just cruel: they also pretty much guarantee a renewed upsurge of HIV in the population. That’s why here at Aidsmap we and the European AIDS Treatment Group have created a statement of basic principles to be observed when treating people with HIV. It’s launched today, Thursday 27 February.
In the last year I’ve become inured to violence against gays and lesbians, pleas to get them out of jail and petitions to stop anti-gay laws. Last Wednesday, though, it got personal; the Facebook post was about a friend, a Ugandan gay activist.
"Stop Paul Semugoma being deported from South Africa", it read.
Eventually, after a 24-hour flurry of letter-writing and rainbow-hued street demos, the South African Home Office released Paul back into the embrace of his partner, Brian Kanyemba.
I’d met Paul six years ago in Mexico City before an International AIDS Conference. At the previous conference in 2006 no African gay activists addressed the meeting. Two years later there were all these young gay guys around, not just southern Africans but Maghrebis and Indians and Tajiks too, daring the world to Stop them Now. The globe had discovered Gay Lib.
Paul was a diffident young doctor in steel-framed glasses, feeling his way, I sensed, not only into being a campaigner but, as an African gay man, into an identity with few role models.
"Aren’t you scared they’ll get you?" I asked, in the wake of the murder of activist David Kato. "They won’t touch me, I’m too well known," he said defiantly. Things are darker now: last Wednesday Paul was fighting for, at the very least, his freedom, and probably for his life.
What the criminalisation of good men like Dr Paul Semugoma tells us is that the anti-gay laws and witch-hunts being enacted in countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Russia are not only unjust and cruel. They are also, as bullies often are, stupid.
Any sane Ugandan would prize Paul as one of its brightest and best sons. Addressing 15,000 people at the Washington International AIDS Conference two years later, he talked about his work running his own small medical practice in Kampala; how gay men who came to him for lifesaving HIV treatment they could access nowhere else for fear of persecution.
Here’s someone – someone who could have joined the brain drain and secured a comfortable living in the west – treating fellow Ugandans for the disease that has scarred their country for 35 years. In the process he’s also advising them on safer sex and how to stop spreading HIV further – and also, simply by treating them, reducing the chances of their passing on HIV.
Four years ago it was proven that if you give people HIV drugs and they take them, their chance of infecting someone else falls by at least 96%. It’s stupid to drive into hiding the people you may need to treat to continue your fight against AIDS.
A couple of months ago, I was passed an email from a kindly doctor in Cameroon (where the director of another organisation founded by a gay doctor was also arrested for being gay last week).
"I recently came across a 20 year old boy who had been denied antiretrovirals by a clinician because he was a man who had sex with men [MSM]. Another MSM was chased away but I was able to intervene when I found him crying along the corridors in our clinic. If we continue this way, our MSM clients will default on medication and we shall be fuelling an epidemic."
Yet it’s usually a mistake to assume politicians are really stupid;they’re generally smart opportunists, and many are well aware that if you just refuse to treat a bunch of people, your reward is a resurgent HIV epidemic. So, if you are a homophobic President, what do you do to make sure gays are duly punished while containing the public health menace you think they pose?
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