Laws criminalizing gays impede work of HIV programs globally

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More than 70 countries around the world criminalize same-sex activities, to the detriment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the globe, and hindering their access to HIV prevention and treatment services. That was the message expressed at a Congressional briefing Tuesday afternoon, hosted by the Global Forum on Men who have Sex with Men & HIV (MSMGF).

“This gives police the authority to harass organizations offering health services to these populations,” said George Ayala, Executive Officer of MSMGF.

Even in generalized epidemics, MSM are disproportionately affected by HIV, said Joel Nana from African Men for Sexual Health and Rights. He gave Senegal as an example, where HIV prevalence is less than one percent in the general population, but greater than 21 percent among MSM. The HIV epidemic among MSM is not just about unprotected sex, he said. “It’s social discrimination. They can’t access testing, they can’t access prevention services that everyone else can, or you’re going to be subject to arrest or stigmatization.”

MSMGF held the May 17 briefing in honor of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in collaboration with the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and the office of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). Various nations, groups and individuals spoke out in honor of the advocacy day, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, the Foundation for AIDS Research, and the United Nations Development Program Associate Administrator Rebeca Grynspan.

Coinciding with the Hill event, MSMGF released a new report entitled, “Engaging with Men Who Have Sex with Men in the Clinical Setting – A Primer for Physicians, Nurses and Other Health Care Providers.” Aimed at those that deliver HIV and primary care services in diverse clinical settings who often mitigate risk within a community, the report provides an initial framework for encouraging ethical and effective clinical practice with MSM by modeling stigma reduction, evidence-based clinical effectiveness, and purposeful engagement with patients who might also be MSM.

An obvious topic of discussion at the briefing was the recently-revived consideration of an anti-gay bill in Uganda, which, when originally debated in early 2010, triggered an international outcry among civil rights groups, physicians and public health experts, and the U.S. Congress . The legislation would impose life imprisonment or the death sentence for same-gender consensual sex, and those found guilty of not reporting suspected homosexuals to the authorities could face prison time as well.

“You are very powerful people,” said Ugandan physician Paul Semugoma, of Frank and Candy, an LGBTI organization. “This bill would have become law if it weren’t for the protests, especially in the U.S.”

Although last week’s session of parliament was dismissed without considering the bill, much to the relief of human rights advocates around the world, they do expect the bill to be taken up by the Ugandan Parliament once again next year.

During a question and answer session at the end of the briefing, panelists were asked to comment on the ever-imminent field guidance from the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator on MSM. The guidance was to be released at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna in July 2010, but has been delayed. Panelists urged attendees to pressure OGAC to release the guidance, and also to push for OGAC’s watchful governance over how the guidance is rolled out and managed.

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