Op-ed: As Long as Homophobia Lives, AIDS Won't Die



MSM are among the most-at-risk populations in Zambia for HIV and AIDS,
chiefly because they are “hidden," unable to access or ask about health
services freely due to prejudice and blatant homophobia in traditional
African society. As a result, MSM have a high risk of dying of
HIV/AIDS-related illness — a scandalous statistic in an era when many
HIV-positive people are living productive and optimistic lives with free
modern treatment.

After meeting Hayden, I knew I could no
longer stand on the sidelines. I featured his story in my weekly
newspaper column and have continued to advocate for the end of
homophobia and for HIV/AIDS services to be made accessible to MSM.

year at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City, I
made a commitment — not only a professional commitment, but also a
personal one. I committed to bring the issue of MSM health risks to the
forefront of political and social discussion in Zambia, and hopefully
across Africa. I committed and already started to stimulate public
debate and dialogue around MSM and HIV using my radio programs,
newspaper articles, and every public speaking opportunity I get to speak
on HIV (and I get many!)

I know that many in Zambia will claim
that I am a Western “puppet,” using my commitment to obtain financial
and personal gain from MSM advocacy. Nothing could be further from the
truth, but I do not mind. I am receiving no financial or other
assistance from any quarter. My activism is my own and comes at some
personal risk to me, but that risk is nothing compared to the risk faced
by the mostly hidden gay community in Zambia.

I do it because I
care about Zambia — and Zambians — all of them. I care deeply and
passionately about erasing HIV and AIDS from our future. And I know that
we cannot fully tackle the epidemic unless we reach all segments of our
population — without exception — with health information and services
they need and deserve.

December 1 is World AIDS Day, and this
year’s theme (and for the next four years) is “Getting to Zero: Zero New
Infections. Zero Discrimination, and Zero AIDS Related Deaths.” How can
we in Zambia even hope to achieve zero new infections when gay men and
MSM are discriminated against and frightened into hiding from HIV

One of my life mentors is Professor Michael J. Kelly, a
Catholic priest, educationist, and HIV activist. In his 2008 book,
Education: For an Africa Without AIDS, he responded to the question “Are
we looking in the right place?” by stating: “We are like a person on a
dark night, hunting frantically under a lamplight for a lost key — not
because that is where the key was lost, but because that is where we are
able to see.”

For the last 30 years, we have been looking for
answers and solutions to HIV/AIDS where we can see, leaving some of our
most vulnerable citizens in the dark. It is time to shed light on
this problem. It is time to stop unnecessary suffering and deaths among
gay men/MSM just because we cannot bring HIV services to them. It is
time to start doing something today.

ZIDZE PANO N’ZA TONSE (Chewa language): “Everything that comes here is the concern of all of us.”

Mannasseh Phiri is the executive director of Society for Family Health,
the Zambia affiliate for Population Services International.

Tags: HIV & AIDS