Tears trickle down Serigne's scarred face as he recounts what it's like to be gay in his Muslim west African homeland. He rubs his throat, still sore from the choke hold of an attack.
Homosexuality is such a deeply ingrained taboo in Senegal that it is punishable by law as an act against nature. The threat of violence and rejection, experts say, is scaring gays away from HIV treatment and making them a high-risk group in a country that has been spared the ravages of AIDS seen elsewhere in Africa. "Being a homosexual here means being marginalized.... It's double to be gay and sick with HIV--that's another thing," said Serigne, who isn't infected.
Senegal is estimated to have an HIV infection rate of less than 1%, largely due to a public health campaign that includes heavy drug subsidies, media messages, and even messages from local Muslim leaders encouraging condom use. By comparison, South Africa has a staggering 21.5% infection rate.
But Senegalese gays are driven so deeply into the closet that experts fear they are being overlooked--raising the possibility that the nation's real infection rate may be higher than reported.
Serigne, 27, who asked to be identified only by his first name, has been attacked twice; the first time, men attacked him in the street after a newspaper named him as an AIDS activist. "They began to beat and punch me, they threw me on the ground, kicking me. My arm was hurt, my face was completely beaten up, and after they threatened me saying that if I didn't stop defending the gay cause, they would finish by killing me," said Serigne.
While Senegal is a relatively liberal Muslim country, where headscarves are rarely worn and dance clubs are filled each weekend, religious and social mores run against homosexuality, and gays can be tried as having committed an act against nature and punished with prison sentences up to two years as well as heavy fines. Because gays fear being outed in the course of a medical examination, doctors say, many carriers of HIV may be afraid to visit medical facilities and may not know they're infected.
Many gay men take wives to mask their relations with other men. That risks increasing the infection rate among heterosexuals, who make up the vast majority of AIDS cases in Africa. Also, the majority of Africa's HIV infections are among women. "The majority of men having sex with men are married; they live their sexuality in a different sort of way," said El Hadji Diouf, of the aid group Family Health International.
Compounding the problem, doctors say, is that many physicians refuse to treat gay men for religious and legal reasons. "It's violence, being afraid to go to the hospital because you know that if you go, the doctor will know that you are a homosexual. And he will reject you," says Abdoulaye Wade, with the AIDS division of Senegal's Ministry of Health.
Wade says he is driven by social obligation. "If I find a population that can be infected or can transmit, I cannot close my eyes, even if there is the risk of social judgment," he said.
Senegal's gays aren't alone in suffering antigay violence and verbal abuse in Africa. In September attackers in Sierra Leone raped and murdered a prominent lesbian activist, FannyAnn Eddy. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has called gays "worse than pigs and dogs." Gay men in Senegal say they are forced to lead secret lives. They have no civic organizations to which they can turn for AIDS literature or counseling or even gay-themed bars or restaurants where they can gather information informally. They also allege police harassment. Senegal's one gay group has been barred from meeting, and its requests for gay-targeted AIDS funding as yet unanswered.
"If those close to me and my neighbors know I'm gay, the same thing could happen to me tomorrow," says Serigne of his beatings. "There is a lot of violence here, physical and psychological." One week following his second attack in January, Serigne is faltering on promises he made to a dead friend to fight for AIDS treatment for gay men in Senegal. Serigne says he wants to continue the struggle, but the beatings are dimming his hopes for success. "I don't want to betray my promise," he says through tears. "He was on his deathbed." (Cassandra Vinograd, AP)