Mexcio’s anti-homophobia campaign offers lessons to world

August 7th, 2008 - 11:22 am ICT by IANS  

By Sumita Thapar
Mexico City, Aug 7 (DPA) In Mexico City, home to the 17th International AIDS Conference, it is not uncommon to see men embracing and kissing each other in shopping malls or walking down the street holding hands. Such open displays of homosexuality were rare just a few years ago, said Charlie, a 42-year-old gay man who is HIV positive. Mass-media campaigns and a civil union law for same-sex couples have encouraged greater acceptance of homosexuality in Mexico, even within the largely homophobic Latin society.

Tears in his eyes, Charlie said a decade ago there were only 30 people who formed Mexico’s openly gay community. “Today, only two of us are alive. Information was little, and treatment was very expensive,” he told DPA.

According to UNAIDS, the joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS, unprotected sex between men accounts for more than half of the infections.

“Ignore the men-who-have-sex-with-men populations and you lose the fight against AIDS,” said Jorge Saavedra, who has led Mexico’s national HIV/AIDS programme, CENSIDA, since 2003.

In every region of the world, HIV infection rates are much higher among men who have sex with men (MSM) than in the general population. Studies reveal that MSM are on an average 19 times more likely to get infected than heterosexual men in poor and middle-income countries.

“MSMs are excluded from (HIV prevention and care) services. We have not tried enough. Mexico, Australia and Brazil have shown that effective response among MSMs is possible,” Saavedra said.

Mexico’s bold initiatives to tackle both homophobia and the spread of HIV have served to change the landscape for AIDS prevention in Latin America.

Saavedra was responsible for launching the Mexican policy of universal access to antiretroviral drugs, which currently covers 47,000 people living with HIV and AIDS. In 2004, he spearheaded an official anti-machismo education campaign, following it up a year later with the first government-endorsed anti-homophobia drive.

In 2006, he appointed the first transgender woman in a government position.

Activists in Mexico say that Saavedra’s policies, such as the civil union law that came into force last year, have helped combat homophobia. The law may not legalise same-sex marriage or allow gays and lesbians to adopt children, but it does give couples the right to inherit property and have joint health and life insurance policies.

Saavedra, the first openly gay national leader in Mexico, called for greater involvement of MSM in the planning of national AIDS responses globally, the decriminalisation of sexual behaviour between consenting adults and greater commitment from donors to pay for MSM programmes.

He said that his new goal was to officially declare the 51 new walk-in HIV clinics in Mexico as “homophobia-free services.”

When the conference opened, UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot said: “I salute Mexico’s anti-homophobia campaign - one of the boldest and most creative in the world.”

In 86 countries, consensual, adult homosexual activity is a criminal offence. In 10 countries it is punishable by death.

Crimes against homosexuals all over the world include killing, torture and arbitrary imprisonment. Homophobia increases their vulnerability to HIV and is one of the main drivers of the AIDS epidemic.

“It is very difficult to provide services to MSM in countries that do not acknowledge their existence,” said Craig McClure, executive director of the International AIDS Society, which organises the biennial conference.

Saavedra said: “Homophobia comes from ignorance and prejudices that come from religious beliefs. MSM is not a population to blame for HIV. It is a sub-group that is suffering most the impact of HIV.”

Jamie Lopez, 45, a lawyer and gay-rights activist in Mexico City, helped compile a book about 10 local gay couples: “We asked our friends to come forward to tell their story. Many were afraid to talk openly about it. One couple has three children they look after, but they cannot adopt them officially.

“The best way to change society is to make ourselves visible and demand our rights,” Lopez said. “People want you to be in the closet. We are a very conservative society. Religion has caused a lot of homophobia.”

Brazil has also shown remarkable leadership in stamping out homophobia. Prompted by high levels of violence against homosexuals and a need to ensure their rights, Brazil established a Mixed Parliamentary Front for Free Sexual Expression in October 2003.

Two years later, a campaign called Brazil Against Homophobia was officially launched. The National Business Council on AIDS attempts to sensitise business leaders about countering homophobia in the workplace.

“There is greater openness to homosexuality in Brazil. The national programme is partnering with gay groups to provide leadership. A section of the church has also been supportive of gay rights,” Carlos Andre Passarelli, director of Brazil’s International Centre for Technical Cooperation on HIV/AIDS, told DPA.

“AIDS has some positive aspects - it has brought visibility to groups like the MSM. It has given them funds to organise themselves and prevent HIV.”

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