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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

       
     

gay men and their wives
By Daniel Somerville

December 8, 2003: A recent article in The Monitor argues that
directing HIV/Aids services and campaigns at Africa's gay men may
also help save their wives and girlfriends.

In an article published in The Monitor on December 3, 2003, Charles
Onyango-Obbo presents the argument that a more liberal policy on gays
can bring them into the fold of treatment and advice campaigns
relating to HIV and because so many gay men live double lives,
actually many women - their wives and girlfriends - will benefit from
this change in policy.

The article quotes the devastating figures released around World Aids
day - "70 per cent of the 36 million people worldwide infected with
HIV/Aids live [in sub-Saharan Africa]" and "Sub-Saharan Africa
remains the worst affected region with about 3.2 million new
infections and 2.3 million deaths". The reasons for this are, the
articles goes on, "bad and corrupt government, wars, lousy
infrastructure, illiteracy, and retrogressive cultural practices."

    



One such retrogressive cultural practice is the taboo, which remains
around the topic of homosexuality. Onyango-Obbo discusses the role,
which Dr Sylvia Tamale has played this year in bringing the topic
into the limelight in Uganda. Her argument that homosexuality should
be decriminalised was met with widespread criticism but sparked a
public debate on the topic of homosexuality and galvanised many
lesbian and gay groups into action. The lesbian and gay movement in
Uganda is one of the most vibrant and varied in Africa. Behind the
Mask are in touch with several groups and play a role in networking
them, not only with each other, but with LGBT groups in other parts
of Africa.

It is against the background of largely negative public commentary on
homosexuality however, that Onyango-Obbo says, "It is easy to
appreciate why, perhaps, the Population Council study [on
homosexuality in Africa] was not given attention around Africa. The
study found that Senegal, while being the only country in Africa that
has had better success than Uganda in rolling back the march of Aids,
has no meaningful programmes to deal with gays. In Uganda too, there
has never been a single Aids awareness message targeted at gay
people. This is because most people consider it an "ungodly" sexual
orientation.

"The Population Council study sought to find out the effect of this.
It discovered that there are far more men in Senegal who are gay,
than was publicly acknowledged. However, the killer finding was that
very many men who are gay, are otherwise "happily" married to women."
The Monitor article argues that, considering gay men are a high-risk
group for HIV infection, coupled with the fact that prevention
campaigns are ignoring them, "If we imagine that there are many such
African men then the infections which we are blind to and doing
nothing to prevent, are wiping out the gains made in the heterosexual
sector."

This potentially negative viewpoint that near-on blames the
homosexual (yet again) is qualified with: "The point here is that if
African societies and their governments were bolder and more open-
minded about homosexuality, and invested resources in dealing with
Aids among gays, then we would have made more progress."

The author declares that he shares the view that, at the end of the
day, in sexual behaviour, just like in other social activity like
drinking and eating, Africa is not much different than the West. "So
while we are hysterically hostile to gay people, the only thing that
this has achieved is to drive them underground. In reality, we could
have nearly as many gay people in Africa, as in the West, who knows?"

    



Someone who is familiar with the Senegal study of gays and Aids is
quoted as saying: "The people who will benefit most from having Aids
awareness for gay men in Africa, could well be their wives and
girlfriends."

But perhaps a little more could have been made of the issue of the
role that homophobia plays in the spread of Aids. The article is most
certainly a step in the right direction. Here is public
acknowledgement of how HIV prevention campaigns are ignoring gay men
and how this can affect the women who they have relationships with -
but what message is there in this? What understanding of gay men can
be garnered here? Why do gay men marry women in the first place?
These would have been useful angles to explore. The fact that society
forces gay men to marry because of social or cultural pressure puts
women in the position, not only of HIV infection if their husbands
continue to have unprotected sex outside the relationship, but also
in danger of great emotional hurt should their husband's orientation
ever be disclosed.

The visibility of same sex couples in the West is largely because
this path has been successfully trodden over the past half century.
Before the 1950s European and American gays also made marriages of
convenience in order to satisfy their families and the hostile
societies in which they lived. In South Africa where laws on
homosexuality were only changed in the last decade there is a split
in the gay community where younger gays and lesbians coming out now
live quite radically different lives to gays and lesbians in their
40s and 50s upwards who may well still be trapped in marriages that
they were forced into because of societal pressure.

Being a single man or even more so, a single woman, in Africa carries
with it much stigma and causes gossip and rumour. Two people of the
same sex living together, however discretely, is unthinkable and
largely impossible. So what option is left to gay men and women other
than to marry and then continue to explore their sexual orientation
with people of the same sex whenever the opportunity presents itself?
Aiming HIV campaigns at men who have sex with men and women who have
sex with women is one isolated step that may improve the use of safer
sex practices among those people. However, a real and sincere shift
in attitude and law could allow gay men and lesbians to live their
lives with dignity, with each other, and so prevent unsuspecting
heterosexual wives and husbands landing up in relationships with
lesbian or gay people who have no option other than to explore their
homosexuality through infidelity. Retrogressive attitudes, prejudiced
laws and unfair cultural expectations, social pressure and ultimately
homophobia itself - these things are to blame for the situation
discovered in the Population Council study. These things are to blame
for the spread of HIV among same sex loving people and so too, among
their heterosexual partners.