Advocate Logo

Study Links Homophobia, HIV

By Gabriel McGowan

July 20, 2010

Uganda made international headlines late last year after lawmakers in the East African country proposed legislation to impose the death penalty for some gay Ugandans — as well as lengthy prison terms for their friends, families, and even landlords. The news, decried by human rights advocates, came amid an ongoing rash of brutal antigay attacks in African nations.

Now, the violence is prompting a new wave of warnings from public-health experts. In countries already ravaged by AIDS, the brutality and stigma may be fueling a dangerous surge of HIV infections among gay and bisexual men, according to a study released by Johns Hopkins University and the World Bank at a preconference event for the biennial International AIDS Conference, being held this week in Vienna.

"Kenya, Malawi, Zambia — nations with stunningly high infection rates among the general population — are now seeing double those rates among men who have sex with men," explained study author Chris Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights.

The research breaks new ground, offering first-ever HIV prevalence estimates among MSM in countries that traditionally have only tracked infections among heterosexuals. The results were released at an event hosted by the Global Forum on MSM and HIV.

In Kenya, where a group of gay HIV educators was recently beaten, doused with kerosene, and nearly set afire, up to 15% of MSM are now living with HIV — more than double the 6% prevalence rate among all Kenyans — the study revealed.

In Malawi, 11% of residents are HIV-positive — compared to 21% of the country’s MSM. And in Zambia, where lesbian women have become targets of "corrective rape" by men who seek to "cure" their sexual orientation, one in three MSM is living with HIV, compared to 15% of the general population.

The study adds new evidence to what AIDS researchers have long suspected — that homophobia leads to increased HIV risk.

"Due to stigma, a significant number of these countries simply fail to track HIV among their MSM," George Ayala, the Global Forum's executive officer, told The Advocate. "Equally troubling is that such stigma can completely derail lifesaving programming that MSM desperately need: HIV-related services, prevention work, outreach, and even epidemiological studies that would help us understand the full scope of this crisis."