KHOPOTSO: The report is a project of the US-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). It suggests that the neglect of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered people in Africa’s AIDS response is a result of the homophobia and morals that foreign donors, voluntary organisations and domestic AIDS services want to impose. But high up on the list are local African governments themselves. Cary Johnson is the author of the report.
CARY JOHNSON: If they read our report, ‘Off the Map’, what they’re going to find is the very strong argument that government cannot tackle HIV in the general population without simultaneously tackling it among gay and lesbian people. Gay and lesbian people are part of the population. They have the basic human right to HIV prevention, treatment and care services. And they also have the right to be given information and materials with which to protect themselves and their families. So our hope is that governments will read the report, not from a perspective of fear of gay and lesbian people, but from a perspective of wanting to empower the entire population to protect itself.
KHOPOTSO: Africa has a total of 54 countries and most of these governments outlaw homosexuality and other sexual minorities. Johnson is well aware of the challenges of reaching out to these homophobic governments.
CARY JOHNSON: We’re being erased ‘ we don’t exist. At the same time, we’re being criminalised and vilified. We’re being told over and over about the un-Africanness of homosexuality’¦ But as we all know it is actually the homophobia that was brought into Africa by Western and other powers. It was the laws that criminalised sodomy that came as a result of colonialism much more than any argument that homosexuality itself was brought by colonialism. There are tons and tons of texts being produced that talk about indigenous nature of homosexuality in various African cultures and that’s more or less a given at this point, though people like Mugabe and Nujoma and Zuma and others continue to argue that we did not have a place in the broad social fabric that is Africa.
KHOPOTSO: Even though the sexual minorities community is broad, ‘Off the Map’ concentrates more on same-sex practising people. Not much research exists on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among homosexuals, but some surveys show a higher trend in infections.
CARY JOHNSON: In Senegal, the main sero-prevalence study that had been done among men who have sex with men in Dakar, the cohort evidenced a sero-prevalence rate of 24%. Now, that’s in a country with a sero-prevalence rate of less than 1%. (It’s) very similar to the rates of sero-prevalence that we find among commercial sex workers. We know that this is being backed up by research that’s recently been produced in Kenya and in Ghana that the rates of HIV sero-prevalence for men who have sex with men are exponentially higher. From the research that OUT (South Africa) has done we also know that self-reported rates for lesbian women are also higher than one would expect. OUT has reported that lesbian women self-reported a 9% sero-prevalence rate.
KHOPOTSO: Johnson says a range of issues influence the risks of HIV infection among homosexual men and women.
CARY JOHNSON: People have a perception that lesbians are at zero risk ‘ they only have sex with each other and there’s no penetration, therefore, they’re not at risk. But we all know better. We know that lesbian sex can be and is often, penetrative. We know that women who identify as lesbians also often have sex with men for various reasons. We know the impact of curative rape. So, the idea that lesbians are not at risk is a fallacy. For men who have sex with men’¦ probably the primary risk factor is the biological risk factor. We know that unprotected anal sex is probably the most efficient way of transmitting the virus ‘ a 5 to 10 times more likely means of transmitting the virus than penile-vaginal sex.
KHOPOTSO: The report also shows that same-sex practicing men and women are at an increased risk as a result of human rights violations that prevent them access to effective HIV prevention, voluntary counselling and testing and treatment and care services. While in South Africa the situation may not be as dire as in much of the continent, the issue of AIDS among gays and lesbians, is a subject of re-dress in the new National Strategic Plan for HIV and AIDS. Jonathan Berger, a researcher with the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg, says the publication raises some pertinent questions.
JONATHAN BERGER: One of those questions is: Why have we and, often, we continue to try and de-gay the epidemic? This has been most vivid in this country in the entire debate on the so-called ‘gay blood’ issue. To what extent is sex between men a driver of the epidemic? These are questions we have to start asking’¦ The issue of the National Strategic Plan 2007 to 2011 has recently been released. And if you do a global search for gay or for lesbian, it is going to be there. And that’s because of the people who are now being brought into the task team. The issue of prisoners, for example – that wasn’t there, either.