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Op-ed: Why We Must Press on Through Tragedy

Op-ed: Why We Must Press on Through Tragedy


As we mourn the loss of Erick Martinez on this International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, a call to carry on his work.

On May 7, Erick Martinez, prominent LGBT rights advocate, teacher, and mentor, was found murdered in Honduras. Erick dedicated his life to the fulfillment of health and human rights in the LGBT community, working as an officer of Kukulcan, the second oldest LGBT organization in Honduras, founded in 2002.

Erick's work is all the more courageous for the context in which it took place. The 2011 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights documents 34 violent LGBT murders in Honduras since June 2009. But many cases go unreported, and local advocates estimate the true number is more than twice that high.

Despite the risk, Erick was committed to speaking truth to power and pressing governments for justice. He built a stronger, more inclusive community. Erick's life and many others like his exemplify the situation we face on this, the 2012 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. We are in a global struggle, moving on a hard-won trajectory from stigma to strength.

In the global AIDS field, we see the impact of homophobia and transphobia every day. Exclusion, intimidation, and marginalization severely undermine LGBT people's access to HIV services and their ability to advocate for health and rights. The murders of LGBT people have a chilling effect on equality movements. And when authorities fail to bring perpetrators to justice, they imply tacit acceptance of anti-LGBT violence.

Beyond physical brutality, homophobia and transphobia can also take the form of public policy. Attempts to strengthen or expand laws against homosexuality frighten individuals away from life-saving services, and pathologization of non-conforming gender identity by health agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) perpetuate transphobia by characterizing transgender identity as a mental illness.

From a human rights perspective, it is imperative that we address these forms of exclusion and marginalization. There is a strong public health rationale for ending stigma.

Concentrated HIV epidemics are skyrocketing among men who have sex with men: a 2007 analysis of data from 38 low- and middle-income countries showed that MSM are 19 times more like to be infected with HIV than the general population. Though reliable HIV data is scarce among transgender communities around the world, existing research paints an even starker picture, revealing infection rates of 45%, 56%, 74%, and 78% among communities of transgender women and transgender sex workers in Asia, the United States, Europe and Latin America respectively.

Thankfully, vibrant advocacy movements support LGBT human rights the world over. More are organizing every day, working to address the needs of LGBT people in the HIV epidemic despite the discrimination and violence our communities endure.

One of the most publicized victories in recent times was the landmark 2009 ruling by the Delhi High Court in India, which read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that had previously codified the prohibition of "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" for over a century. More recently, in 2011, Ugandan advocates secured a resounding victory against the "Rolling Stone" tabloid magazine, as the High Court ruled that they and all Ugandan media were banned from publishing the names, photos and personal information of alleged members of the LGBT community. And on May 9, the Argentinean Senate approved a groundbreaking law that gives transgender citizens access to legal recognition and access to hormonal treatment and other procedures through the public health system.

The legal and policy environment now counts many important tools toward the realization of the full health and rights of LGBT people. The "Yogyakarta Principles" (2006) articulate basic standards for all U.N. Member States in the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. And last year, a landmark resolution was passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to address human rights violations faced by LGBTI individuals worldwide.

The leading players in the global AIDS response have also made progress toward addressing the impact of homophobia and transphobia on HIV prevention and treatment. Later this year, the Global Commission on HIV & the Law is expected to issue its final report on specific actionable, evidence-informed and human rights-based recommendations for effective HIV responses, including how these affect MSM and transgender people. The WHO, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria have all issued guidelines on addressing HIV among MSM and transgender people.

(Other initiatives -- like the 2011 United Nations Political Declaration on HIV & AIDS and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief -- have made steps toward addressing the epidemic among MSM but have left transgender people glaringly absent.)

We are mourning Erick's death without having fully grieved another painful loss. Just over a week ago, Brandy Martell, a transgender woman and well-known peer advocate in the Oakland/East Bay transgender community, was murdered a few blocks away from our office.

How do we move forward with our social justice work in the midst of sustained social assault and multiple losses? How do we as advocates care for ourselves and each other without losing momentum from our recent achievements?

There will be no silver bullet, pill, vaccine or law that ends homophobia and transphobia. The way forward is not easy. Our challenge is both a necessity and privilege. We must continue shining a light on the lived experiences of front-line members of our communities as a strategy for combating ignorance and bigotry. In so doing, we can connect the dots for people who don't see homophobia and transphobia's consequences on the health and economy of our society as a whole, or who don't understand the role that national governments can play in ensuring that human rights and dignity for LGBT people must be protected, thus instigating a positive ripple effect on our collective health and well-being.

Today we remember Erick and Brandy, and we celebrate all those who envision a world where each person is truly free and equal in dignity and in rights. We salute their struggle to create a world without homophobia and transphobia for all of us.

GEORGE AYALA is executive director for the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF), which will host the fifth MSMGF Pre-Conference Event to the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. on July 21: "From Stigma to Strength: Strategies for MSM, Transgender People and Allies in a Shifting AIDS Landscape." The MSMGF Pre-Conference is the largest global gathering of activists, researchers, implementers and donors focused on the health and human rights of men who have sex with men.

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