When President Barack Obama brought up gay rights in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta responded by saying “Gay rights is really a non-issue”. By that he meant the rights of gay people are of little importance! But this general attitude across Africa puts lives of thousands of people at risk of HIV infection and living in fear of persecution.
Homosexuality remains illegal in 38 of 55 African nations. Such a stance against homosexuality is concerning from ethical, health and human rights perspectives. Men who have sex with men account for a substantial minority of those affected by HIV, with their risk of infection more than double that of the general population. Many African countries, Malawi included, harbour homophobic cultures and attitudes. Together, this creates an environment where homosexuality is highly stigmatised, with homosexual people socially isolated and marginalised.
There are mountains of research that show criminalisation does little to change behaviour, while actively contributing to increased stigma and marginalisation of socially excluded groups, such as sex workers, drug users and men who have sex with men. This amplifies the health risks by driving stigmatised communities underground, isolating them from health or support initiatives.
Criminalisation of same-sex sexual practice cripples any initiatives aimed to prevent HIV transmission among this group or to provide treatment to HIV-positive men. Men are rightly afraid of disclosing their sexuality to service providers—who are required by law to report same-sex sexual practices. Anyone trying to organise a programme around HIV prevention for men who have sex with men could be charged with “promoting homosexuality”. Research has shown that where homosexuality has been criminalised, men are likely to avoid HIV testing or seeking knowledge about safer sex if it risks exposing their sexual activities. But beyond this, increased levels of stigma—which inevitably results from criminalisation—mean gay and bisexual men are actually more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour.
Criminalisation also decimates gay networks and communities. Gay and bisexual men in Western countries such as Australia and the United States had the social capital needed to mobilise the community to initiate HIV information and prevention programmes—this approach has been found to be successful in reducing transmission. Criminalising homosexuality removes the capacity for gay communities to organise and to mobilise around HIV prevention by effectively making such initiatives a criminal offence.
Criminalisation forces LGB men and women to live in stressful circumstances, and amplifies the stigma and marginalisation these groups experience. It renders LGB people invisible and creates significant barriers to openly accessing relevant health services and treatment. (remixed from The Conversation) n