The bigotry that keeps Aids alive

The spread of HIV will go on until gay men can seek treatment without fearing for their safety

Why is Aids such a horribly tenacious disease? Statistics released by Unaids for World Aids Day share some encouraging developments – new HIV infections worldwide have decreased by 19 per cent since 1999. However, there is a disturbing lack of progress in reducing HIV infection among gay men, particularly in developing countries. Experts have long stated that HIV epidemics cannot be successfully quelled unless the underlying spread of HIV by male-to-male sex is addressed. Yet, across the globe, socially accepted homophobia and violence against sexual minorities have created barriers to HIV-prevention efforts in this population.

To shed light on a problem that concerns me deeply as a gay man, I spoke with Dr Robert Carr of the International Council of Aids Service Organisations – a leading advocate for human rights from the Caribbean. A disturbing picture emerged from our conversation of the ways politicians and religious and social leaders – all around the world – have justified the isolation, harassment, abuse, violation and even murder of sexual minorities in the name of preserving religious beliefs or family and community "values".

What follows in the wake of this inhumane treatment of stigmatised people is the inevitable rise in rates of HIV infections and deaths due to Aids, not only among vulnerable groups, but also within the general population. Fear and isolation prevent people exposed to the virus from seeking HIV testing and treatment, and the disease continues to spread unabated. "It can be very dangerous to be gay in the Caribbean," Dr Carr told me, "and to speak up is to risk bodily harm."

Although Caribbean attitudes about people living with HIV/Aids have become much more tolerant in recent years, the opposite has been the case for sexual minorities. Homosexuality triggers tremendous hostility in all sectors of Caribbean society. "There is great resistance to the idea that men who have sex with men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons are deserving of social and legal protections," Dr Carr said. "Many reject the idea that the brutalisation of sexual minorities is wrong."

What is true of the Caribbean is true of Africa and many other parts of the developing world. Such attitudes are encouraged by conservative religious leaders (backed by funding from right-wing evangelical organisations in the United States and Canada) waging a righteous "Christian war" against homosexuality to preserve what they see as traditional values and morality.

"Homosexuality has been declared a 'satanic influence', and gay people have been demonised and depicted as less than human," Dr Carr said. "There have been many documented instances of vicious attacks against gay people, which have been videotaped and posted on YouTube with comments applauding the violence as right and just."

I am proud to be a Canadian, but was disgusted and deeply saddened to discover that Canadian right-wing extremist religious groups would stoop to such sickening levels. According to Dr Carr, these people feel the Western world has fallen prey to these satanic influences (gay marriage is rightfully legal in Canada) and that they must turn their energies and their pocketbooks towards preserving the sanctity of the developing world. They are solely taking advantage of a part of our world where people are less educated to promote their own evil agenda.

This horrifying situation in the Caribbean is just one example of ingrained societal prejudices around the world resulting in inhumane behaviour that is highly counterproductive to reducing the spread of HIV infection. Dr Carr said: "Gay sex workers in some countries have been taken to detention centres and systematically raped in the name of 'curing' their homosexuality."

In Kenya and Uganda, religious groups have circulated photos, names, and addresses of gay rights activists to be placed on posters in communities and published in newspapers with messages urging that they should be killed. "In every case, deeply entrenched attitudes and prejudices, which have been taken for granted over a lifetime as being correct, have enabled people to do things they would otherwise find abhorrent," Dr Carr said.

Last week at the Elton John Aids Foundation office in London, I met a man named Alan who runs a support group for HIV positive men in Mombasa. I was floored when he showed me a flyer posted in major Kenyan towns by a Christian evangelical group called Project See. This flyer featured a photograph of David Kuria, the director of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya. It shockingly encourages people to hunt him down and kill him. To aid in this goal, they printed Mr Kuria's phone number and email in bold type.

How this barbarism can exist is beyond my comprehension, but when it is encouraged in the name of Christianity it is truly repulsive. It directly flies in the face of the Christian values of love and forgiveness on which I was raised.

Adding fuel to this witch hunt is Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister of Kenya. On Sunday at a rally in his constituency, he said: "Homosexuals should be arrested and taken to the relevant authorities." What is happening in such situations, explains Dr Carr, is that people are "regarded as disposable, less than human".

They are "left with no protection under the law and no means of seeking redress for the wrongs done to them", he said.

In recent years the Elton John Aids Foundation has funded innovative programs to establish models of how such misguided attitudes about sexual minorities and people living with HIV/Aids can be changed.

Through a series of grants to the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV/Aids, the foundation has enabled community-based organisations, such as Dr Carr's Vulnerable Communities Coalition, to educate Caribbean radio stations and media groups – who have in the past fanned anti-homosexual fervour – about the connection between violence against sexual minorities and the rise in HIV infection.

As a result, over 90 Caribbean media outlets have joined together to produce documentaries, news reports, public service messages and entertainment programmes humanising gay people, promoting tolerance for sexual minorities and people living with HIV/Aids, and educating the public about the realities of the Aids epidemic.

Since the advent of this programme in 2004, there have been substantially improved relationships between the gay community and the police and even somewhat improved relationships with religious leaders.

Programmes like this now need to be promoted in other parts of the world where 79 countries continue to criminalise sexual relationships between same-sex consulting adults. Until it is, the price of unreasoning hatred will be measured in human lives.