In Uganda, if a mother suspects her child of being gay or lesbian and does not inform authorities, she could be jailed. This is one of many unconscionable repercussions if a proposed bill becomes law in Uganda. Not only does the bill deny the very basic rights that so many of us take for granted, the sentiments it fuels in Uganda and around the world poison the character of our humanity.
Scheduled for debate in parliament at the end of this month, the proposed bill has drawn international criticism—from the Vatican to heads of state. In the U.S., President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken out in opposition to the bill. In Congress, California Congressman Howard Berman introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning the legislation, the same week he announced the House Foreign Affairs Committee would mark up the Armenian Genocide Resolution in March.
The “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” introduced in the Ugandan Parliament last October would render homosexuality punishable by death for people who have previous convictions, are HIV-positive, or engage in same sex acts with people under 18 years of age. By failing to turn someone over to the authorities, the proposed law, as written, effectively criminalizes the efforts of all organizations working in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, including those that deliver HIV/AIDS services.
According to UNAIDS (the UN organization responsible for monitoring the global HIV/AIDS response), HIV/AIDS continues to surge unmitigated in populations that are socially marginalized as a result of discrimination, stigma, and in this case, the government-sponsored criminalization of homosexuality.
Armenia, which decriminalized gay sex in 2003, is one of 67 signatories on an important UN declaration condemning harassment and prejudice based on sexual orientation.
Despite these laudable policy changes, there is not enough attention paid to the development of greater tolerance in Armenian society. Prevailing discrimination and harassment dehumanizes LGBT members of our community, and puts gay men and other men who have sex with men at higher risk of HIV infection than the general population.
HIV transmission among men who have sex with men is rising, accounting for nearly two percent of HIV infections, according to the National Centre for AIDS Prevention in Armenia. However, health experts and activists believe the official figures hugely underestimate the numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS and newly acquiring HIV infection in the region. Homophobia and discrimination—which invade the healthcare setting—are in large part to blame for driving gay men and other men who have sex with men underground and away from lifesaving HIV services and official statistics.
While there are many challenges to understanding and responding to these “hidden epidemics,” the time has come for all of us to be part of the solution. National governments, the private sector, churches, non-governmental organizations, and the media each have a role to play in strengthening capacity and willingness for a broader and more effective response to HIV/AIDS. For each of us, this means displaying greater acceptance and willingness to discuss these issues openly and free from judgment and hatred.
Injustice in our community taints the moral character of our resilient people, who in history have been targets of hatred and brutality, simply for existing. Speaking on Uganda, Obama described the struggle for greater equality and acceptance as a universal effort, not just for those whose rights have been violated. “Yes, there are crimes of conscience that call us to action,” he said. “But progress doesn’t come when we demonize opponents. It’s not born in righteous spite. Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity.”
While time opens hearts and brings greater tolerance, each of us must be a force for unity in our common desire to live a free and dignified life. Our history would expect no less.
Jirair Ratevosian, based in Washington D.C., is the deputy director of policy at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.