A group of brave men and women met in the run-up to this week’s Aids conference in Vienna: people for whom disclosing their sexual orientation could result in losing their homes, jobs and even lives.
At the Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) Global Forum, David Kato of the Sexual Minorities of Uganda group personifies this. Kato is part of a coalition mounting a challenge to Uganda’s anti-homosexuality Bill.
He said it appeared that the Ugandan government intends criminalising the "promotion of homosexuality". The new law would require all citizens, even family members, to report homosexuals within 24 hours. Ugandans who engage in gay sex abroad also faced being arrested on their return.
"By denying that everyone — including lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersexed individuals — has rights, the Bill violates the principle of universality in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and many other international and regional instruments," he said.
Peter Njane, from Kenya, is a member of gay rights organisation Ishtar, which recently staged an event to mark the International Day Against Homophobia. "The media covered the event and photographed people who were not ‘out’ — they were driven from their homes by their families," he said.
The Kenyan penal code also criminalises homosexuality on the grounds that it is un-African and a "Western ideology".
One result, Njane said, was that the fight against HIV was driven underground. "About 90% of Ugandans are Christians, so when gay men seek healthcare they are told to repent and are even chased away. They tend to self-medicate and by the time they see a doctor it is too late."
Ishtar offers men information, counselling and testing and provides lubricants and condoms. It also creates a supportive space for men who have learned their status, most notably through a "post-test club".
"We started doing monthly testing in 2006 and were shocked by the number of people who were positive. Once diagnosed, they didn’t know what to do. The post-test club is a space where anyone who has had a test can come, whether positive or negative. We now have 27 men who are open about their status."
The MSM Global Forum on HIV and Aids was founded in 2006 to break the silence about gay sex, create a shared space for activists and lobby donors to ensure funds are directed where they are most needed, said George Ayala, the forum’s executive officer. "We wanted to raise awareness about how HIV disproportionately affects members of our community," he said.
In low- and middle-income countries, gay men are 19 times more likely to be infected. "It’s easier for funders to talk about women and children because they don’t carry the same social stigma as sex workers and gay men — particularly in places where these are against the law," Ayala said.
Across most of Africa stigma and discrimination are so entrenched that even the most innocuous support for gay rights groups meets violent opposition.
Ghanaian human rights lawyer Nana Oye Lithure described how, after she had told the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences that homosexuals have rights, she was vilified and received death threats.