Stubborn homophobic and transphobic belief systems — both in the United States and across the globe — are blocking basic proper access to HIV treatment. Experts worry about a link between religious extremism and rising HIV rates among certain demographics like men who have sex with men (MSM).
Highlighted at the 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam last week, The Elton John AIDS Foundation has been in partnership with the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to provide grants for HIV-related needs of LGBT people who qualify. PEPFAR’s rapid response grant can provide money to people in dire need within 72 hours.
But there’s something standing in the way of the effort to end new HIV infections worldwide: rampant and growing homophobia, which some say is propelled by a shift toward conservative attitudes.
"Our concern at the moment is that there is a shift towards the right," Shaun Mellors, director of knowledge and influence at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance told CNN. "It's all bubbling up, and it's all increasing at the moment in a really scary way." Mellors coordinates the Elton John Foundation's life-changing rapid response grants. CNN also profiled a transgender woman living with HIV in Guyana, who is shunned by nearly her whole community and blocked from using basic services like the bus, and who turned to the Elton John Foundation for help.
The perceptible shift in ideologies is happening both in Christian and Islamic parts of the world. "We know it's coming from the US,” Mellor added. “We know the organizations who are coming to Africa" to influence.The World Congress of Families, for instance, sends workers to Africa and promotes traditional “family-friendly” marriages and relationships.
A recent study led by Human Rights Watch found a correlation between crackdowns on LGBT people and rising HIV rates. Their findings suggest that attacks, raids and a general hostile attitude towards LGBT people in Indonesia by leaders and Islamist militant groups has thwarted public health efforts to control the HIV epidemic.
HIV rates are highest among MSM in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by the Caribbean in particular Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, while some HIV rates among women are falling. What do these places have in common? The areas are prone to excessive homophobia.
Crimes against people living with HIV are rampant in sub-Saharan Africa. The ex-President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, gave his own people fake HIV treatment and they were denied real antiretrovirals. In Uganda, because of an anti-homosexuality law, open homosexuals face life imprisonment — a punishment almost certainly inflated because of religious beliefs. Tanzania’s crackdown on homosexuality resulted in the closure of critical HIV clinics last year. In Nigeria, its anti-homosexuality law was linked by researchers to an decrease in HIV care.
In addition as we reported over a The Advocate: The Trump administration is seeking to repeal Obama's anti-LGBT laws around the world. At a State Department event on international religious freedom last week, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said foreign policy that seeks to discourage homophobia amounts to religious persecution.
“Our U.S. taxpayer dollars are used to discourage Christian values in other democratic countries,” he said at the Ministerial on International Religious Freedom, held in Washington, D.C. “It was stunning to me that my government under a previous administration would go to folks in sub-Saharan Africa and say, ‘We know that you have a law against abortion, but if you enforce that law, you’re not going to get any of our money. We know you have a law against gay marriage, but if you enforce that law, we’re not going to give you any money.’ That is a different type of religious persecution that I never expected to see.”
Mulvaney’s statement “is either intentionally deceptive or unintentionally ignorant,” ThinkProgress points out. President Barack Obama’s administration threatened to withhold aidfrom countries with homophobic laws, but these were not simply marriage bans — they were laws providing for incarceration or for being gay. One proposed in Uganda would have subjected gay people to the death penalty in certain cases; when the legislation passed, the maximum penalty was changed to life imprisonment, and the law was overturned on a technicality by a Ugandan court. Still, LGBT Ugandans face oppression and violence.
Some have branded Jamaica, on the other hand, as “the most homophobic place on earth” but there are certainly other places in the world that treat LGBT people with more brutality. Most young Jamaicans who come out as gay or transgender are automatically tossed out of Christian Jamaican households.
Populist extremism is also on the rise in Europe, fueled by a growing intolerance to immigrants and people of other religions. A trend of gay-bashing is surging in the United Kingdom, right in line with the Brexit movement.
Let’s not pretend for one minute, however, that the United States is immune from homophobia. Homegrown American fundamentalism, in the form of “Christian” organizations like “God Hates Fags,” who claim that “God created AIDS,” is what you see at almost any gay pride event. I myself have been told that HIV is a punishment for sin. As we all know, religious and political beliefs, terrifyingly, significantly affect how our leaders fund HIV and AIDS programs. At #AIDS2018 President Bill Clinton said PEPFAR has been on the President Donald Trump’s chopping block for some time.
Among the speaker highlights at the 22nd International AIDS Conference, which included Elton John and Prince Harry, Charlize Theron also delivered an impassioned speech, saying that the persisting stigmas that fuel the HIV epidemic and slow progress must stop.
It’s one thing to support traditional marriage and families, but it’s another to influence programs that people depend on for survival. The support of HIV intervention programs shouldn’t be contingent upon how a community, no matter how fundamentalist, perceives homosexuality based upon religious beliefs.
People’s lives depend on it.
Whether its a religion that wants to toss you off a building, or a religion that insists you’re headed to hell, you matter and deserve full access to proper HIV treatment.