Despite alarming HIV rates amongst the men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people, many countries, community leaders, media and society at large continue to hold discriminating stereotypes against them. "Punitive laws will drive MSM and transgender populations underground" rightly said Aradhana Johri of Department of AIDS Control, Government of India. In US alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, although Black American MSM people represent only 13 percent of the US population but they account for about 44 percent of the new HIV infections particularly among those aged 13 -19.
Unless we protect the rights of same sex couples to live a life of dignity, and discourage those who are judgemental about their same sex behaviour, not only we will fail to reduce stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and same sex behaviour, but also fuel homophobia and negative perceptions about HIV testing. People will continue to chose to hide their high-risk behaviour and not seek counseling and testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Although, US President Barack Obama took a politically risky decision by legalizing same sex marriage, only 6 states in US have allowed gay marriages so far.
"We've only 6 states in US that allow gay marriages, the rest don't... and in 29 states you can get fired not because of doing a bad job but because of just being a gay. There is a lot of fighting about that but I think civil rights is a long process. Our country was built on racism and slavery in the past, we didn't have equal rights for African Americans in our country, yet we have come a long way today, and we have a long way to go, it's a long hard march. That's the way that every country faces on gay rights issues, I guess," said Jim Pickett, the Chairperson of International Rectal Microbicides Advocacy (IRMA), and Director (Advocacy), AIDS Foundation of Chicago, in an interview with Citizen News Service (CNS).
According to Pickett, a gay man, living openly with HIV, his sexual orientation is his prerogative. "My marriage does not hurt anybody, so why should anyone care?" Pickett rightly argued. "It's good for people to be married and happy and have someone they love in their lives."
Last year, during his work on the rectal microbicides project in Ethiopia, there were serious issues with homosexuality and homophobia, after the meeting. Some people protested.
"One of my colleagues had to hide for just being who he is. Ethiopia is not the only country but that's the reality. Just when we are pushing for change; while we are pushing that way, there is a strong push back and you know we have seen that in Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and other places, There are people like Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe's president) who are against our rights," added Pickett.
"In this country, it wasn't long time ago that the white and the black weren't encouraged to get married. Now we look at that and say oh my God! ... how insane ... ! Young people will not believe that if they see it in the history books" Pickett pointed.
'Hopefully some day there will be the similar thing when young people will find it difficult to believe that we used to discriminate against same sex people who wanted to get married" he concluded.
Pickett feels that parts of the current old people are still holding on to the past, however, young people will somehow play important role to change the issue around gay marriages.
"The youth are going to be the ones who will change it. They are always the ones who change the world." Pickett added. "It's going to take people at all levels to lead this but the real energy is in today's kids, they are going to rebound their parents' decisions."
Unless we can address same sex couples' rights and related issues, we can never really turn the tide of HIV. (CNS)
Jittima Jantanamalaka - CNS
(The author is the Managing Director of Jay Inspire Co. Ltd (JICL) Thailand, and produces radio programmes in northern Thailand. She has written consistently on health issues for Citizen News Service (CNS) in English and Thai languages and produced video series on health too. Website: www.jay-inspire.com, Email: [email protected] )