We will never, ever get the global AIDS crisis under control as long as countries continue to criminalize gay sex.
That’s a fact. Not my version of the facts as an LGBTI journalist – but a proven scientific fact. A fact evidenced by experts ranging from medical journal The Lancet to the United Nations.
Some countries argue that making gay sex illegal helps public health. The exact opposite is true, as shown by an excellent report from the Human Dignity Trust.
A study in The Lancet showed black men who have gay sex are twice as likely to get HIV if they are in an African or Caribbean country that makes them criminals for that reason.
It isn’t a coincidence. In neighboring countries where one criminalizes gay sex and the other doesn’t, HIV is more common in the ones that do. So Senegal is worse than Burkina Faso, Zambia has a bigger problem than South Africa and Jamaica rates more poorly than the Dominican Republic.
This weekend is the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. And Tuesday (1 December) is World AIDS Day. So here’s another fact: 40 out of 53 Commonwealth countries criminalize homosexuality. And 60% of all AIDS cases are in the Commonwealth despite it having only 30% of the world’s population.
And it’s not just gay and bi men we should be worried about, but the wider LGBTI population.
Transgender women are at greater risk than other adults – 19% of transgendered women are living with HIV. The refusal of care, harassment, verbal abuse and violence they face is part of the cause. And because of the way trans people are all-too-often treated by society, they don’t get included in HIV prevention.
So why is criminalization and persecution HIV’s best friend?
Firstly, because make gay sex illegal makes people hide and stops them learning about the virus and how to protect themselves.
One study found 73% of Zambian men who have sex with other men believed anal sex was safer than vaginal sex. Almost half of Lesotho bi and gay men didn’t even know that being a bottom in anal sex put you at risk of HIV.
Criminalization makes it harder to meet other men for sex. But it also makes that sex far riskier. It stops gay people from forming lasting relationships and families. So men are more likely to have anonymous, unsafe sex with multiple partners.
And persecution pushes LGBTIs to drink, take drugs, have mental health problems, self-harm or even be suicidal. Hardly surprising their sexual health is also poorer.
The worse the persecution is, the worse the situation is.
Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act in 2013 cracked down on LGBTIs. After the law, gay and bi men were far less likely to access healthcare. The reason? They were too afraid.
Testing people for HIV and treating those who are positive helps stop the virus in its tracks. But would you come forward for testing and treatment if you feared discrimination, blackmail or arrest?
Obviously the laws make it harder for government’s to tackle HIV. How can they justify spending taxes on educating sexual criminals about safe sex?
But the irrationality gets far worse than that.
Despite being in the eye of the AIDS storm, African officials have poor understanding of how HIV relates to men who have sex with men. The taboos and the laws blind those who should be fixing the problem.
Official ignorance is just the start.
There are active efforts to stop HIV work. We’ve seen workshops for men who have sex with men raided, for example. A new law in Uganda, passed by parliament just yesterday, specifically targets NGOs working to prevent HIV among gay and bi men.
A UN report about Asia and the Pacific found police actually banned HIV prevention work because it ‘aids criminal activity’. They seized condoms and lube saying they are evidence of prostitution or gay sex. They censored HIV education materials and harassed sexual health workers.
As with all other aspects of criminalization, it doesn’t just hurt gay and bi men. Everyone suffers.
Men who have sex with other men are more likely to be HIV positive. But the virus doesn’t stop in some kind of gay bubble. Many of these men, perhaps even the majority, are also married or in relationships with women, passing the virus to that population.
Even lesbians get caught up, despite lesbian sex being incredibly low risk. Shockingly, some people believe lesbianism can be ‘cured’ by rape. ‘Corrective rape’ has spread through southern Africa where many are HIV positive. And, of course, rapists don’t usually worry about wearing condoms.
The facts and experts are united. Full, universal LGBTI rights are vital to winning the AIDS war. Decriminalization – of both gay sex and prostitution – is an essential first step.
To this day, we blame people with HIV for the virus. But they are its innocent victims. We should, instead, blame those who criminalize them, those that stigmatize them. Their persecution spreads AIDS.
With thanks to Jonathan Cooper of the Human Dignity Trust. You can read his report providing detailed evidence that criminalization boosts and causes HIV infections here.