AIDS, gay men and Africa
Last week, the New York Times reported the sentencing of nine men in Senegal to eight years in prison for 'unnatural acts.' The men were arrested in the house of a leading gay HIV/AIDS activist in Dakar. The events in Senegal join a long list of repressive political actions against gay men in African countries, including Nigeria, Gambia, Burundi and Uganda. Now there is a lot that one could say, from a human rights or social justice perspective, about the political treatment of men who have sex with men in Africa. But there is also a public health ethics perspective: demonization of homosexuality is counterproductive in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, just as it was in America during the early days of the epidemic. Condemnation and criminalization simply drives the behavior underground, away from prevention and treatment services, increasing risks of HIV transmission. The conclusion is hard to avoid: the HIV/AIDS epidemic has forced African countries to deal with homosexuality in their communities, but many have failed to develop responses that are justified from a public health point of view or even reflect basic human decency.