Daisy Nakato is an HIV-positive, bisexual sex worker in Uganda. Last month, I had the privilege to be among the thousands of scientists, policy-makers, and development aid workers present when Daisy spoke at the 2014 International AIDS Conferenceabout living with HIV. The huge smile on her face belied a disturbing fact: Daisy’s bravery and openness about her identity meant she was leaving herself vulnerable to repercussions back home — repercussions she knew all too well.
In the months before the conference, President Yoweri Museveni signed Uganda’s infamous anti-homosexuality bill into law (a bill that was recently invalidated by a constitutional court). Shortly thereafter, a local tabloid published an article outing suspected homosexuals, and Daisy’s name was on the list.
The police came knocking.
She begged the police not to arrest her and subsequently went into hiding for weeks. During her time in hiding, she was isolated and did not have access to the antiretroviral drugs that for years have allowed her to suppress her HIV viral load and remain alive.
Daisy’s story is all too common in Africa, where homophobia and anti-LGBT legislation are on the rise partly because of the activism of anti-LGBT evangelists like Scott Lively. In such places, discrimination pushes LGBT and other stigmatized groups to the fringes of society where they lack access to HIV prevention, care, and treatment services. Under these conditions, HIV thrives among disadvantages groups. People continue to die, including children born with the disease.
AIDS is a discriminatory disease that thrives within the most vulnerable among us. The top official at the UNDP, Helen Clark, put it well when she said:
“AIDS is increasingly a disease of inequalities and exclusion . . . Success doesn’t mean protecting the general public while the epidemic remains unchecked by the most marginalized populations. Ending AIDS means ending it equitably and with dignity for all.”
Leaders like President Museveni and Scott Lively might not realize it, but their homophobic actions create the social and political conditions for HIV to spread. They directly counteract billions of dollars in public health investments that have succeeded in reducing global AIDS infections and deaths. If evangelists like Lively need some help understanding the real-life impact of their activism, here’s food for thought:
- AIDS has already claimed 36 million lives. Despite global declines from anti-AIDS initiatives, the prevalence of HIV is rising among marginalized populations like LGBT communities.
- Men who have sex with men are 13 times more likely to get HIV than the general population. Yet they are less likely to receive testing, care, or treatment due to social and political discrimination.
- People seeking HIV treatment in developing countries often report being turned away by health care professionals if they are sex workers, gay, or otherwise a member of a stigmatized community.
- In 2012, 18 million children had lost one or both parents to AIDS. That same year, 210,000 children died of AIDS-related causes.
- Racial prejudice also shapes the AIDS epidemic. In the United States, blacks make up only 12 percent of the population but account for44 percent of new HIV infections.
There are millions of lives at stake in the struggle against AIDS. Every life we lose because of intolerance in our hearts, laws, or health care systems is a failure for humanity. We need greater tolerance and inclusion so that people living in the margins of society, people like Daisy, are empowered to fight HIV in their lives and the lives of those in their own communities.
I would encourage people like Scott Lively to bracket off their moral and theological beliefs about homosexuality and consider the true costs of their actions. Are those costs in harmony with the teachings of Jesus?
If memory serves, Jesus ate with tax collectors and healed lepers. He practiced love and tolerance for all, and from that came healing. If Jesus went to Uganda, would he support Christians like Scott Lively, or would he protest alongside Daisy?
*photo credit – International AIDS Society/ James Braund (C) 2014 http://aids2014.smugmug.com/