Vienna, Austria -- From pre-conference events to the massive human rights march through downtown Vienna, world leaders, public health experts and HIV activists honed in with laser-like precision on a common message at The 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna : The ongoing persecution and criminalization of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men -- "MSM", in public health shorthand -- are undermining efforts to control the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Chief among the obstacles: More than 80 nations have laws that still criminalize same sex behavior. In some of these countries, conviction can even result in the death penalty, reports UNAIDS.
Further exacerbating the problem, according to a report by Planned Parenthood, "58 countries have laws that criminalize HIV or use existing laws to prosecute people for transmitting the virus. Another 33 countries are considering similar legislation.'
The trend is "even more pronounced" across Africa and the Diaspora, said Joel Gustave Nana, executive director of the Johannesburg, South Africa-based African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (ASMSHer). The West African laws vary in extremity -- just "exposing a person to HIV, regardless of if the virus is transmitted, is a crime in Benin, and Tanzanian law carries a possible sentence of life in prison for intentional transmission," reports Medical News Today. While the overall life for Black MSM may be better for in North America, there are drawbacks. The United States and Canada lead the world when it comes to prosecuting people who infect or expose others to HIV, a surprising new study reveals. Black men have been disproportionately targeted with these prosecutions. A Black, gay, HIV positive Michigan man was recently as charged as a bioterrorist for allegedly biting a neighbor's lip during a scuffle, Black AIDS Weekly reported in June.
"The prosecutions are arbitrary," said Nana, in an interview after a press conference organized by The Global Forum on MSM & HIV. On Sunday, the day before the conference officially opened, the Global Forum held a 24-hour event to address the soaring global rates of MSM seroconversions.
"The stigma, discriminatory laws and criminalization of HIV transmission encourage the spread of this disease," adds Nana. "Why should someone seek testing or medical advice come forward if you could be arrested? There is no incentive."
The fear of "coming out", pop culture which celebrates homophobia and churches and churchgoers that demonize gay Black men compound the problem for black MSM in America, the Caribbean and Africa.
"This is the context in which you have a runaway, dangerous HIV epidemic in Jamaica," adds Robert Dr. Robert Carr, the co-chair of ICASO, the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO). "There is a clear link between religious condemnation, criminalization, stigma and HIV infections. We see this all the time in the Caribbean."
Carr adds: "Politicians and church leaders endorse homophobic violence. Police refuse to protect MSM or are complicit or directly involved in the violence," he said, referring to a now-infamous incident of a 2,000-strong mob surrounding several gay men and stoning them. The police were called to the scene and the officers also struck the young men.
Carr sighs. "With Jamaican MSM infection rates at 32 or 33 percent, it became obvious that you couldn't do effective HIV work in this context."
Although a state sponsored, religious-based terror campaign has targeted African MSM from Algeria to Zimbabwe, there are some positive developments to report from AIDS 2010.
"We now have 14 countries out of 54 that include men who have sex with men in their national HIV strategic plans," AMSHer's Joel Nana said. "It doesn't mean the services will be delivered to those populations, but it is an acknowledgment. That's a first step."
"Kenya was the first African nation to include MSM in their national HIV strategy," Nairobi-based peer educator Job Akuno told Black AIDS Weekly. Akuno is a counselor with the Nairobi-based SHAP, Scaling Up HIV and AIDS Prevention, partially funded by PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. "That was in 2006. But ... it seems like we are rolling back on some of the gains that we made."
"Kenya is starting to look like one of the countries that we should look up to," Nana adds. "The HIV movement is more open to include MSM. And there is a strong MSM movement in Kenya, too . It is one of the few countries in Africa where a MSM organization was able to place an ad in the newspaper for the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17."
Akuno says the HIV Prevention and Control Act criminalizes deliberate HIV transmission. "The sentences are up to 10 years. No one has been prosecuted, but now there is talk to make the law harsher. If you criminalize HIV transmission or only target MSM, that will further stigmatize the disease and drive many people into not wanting to know their results. "
Job Akuno shrugs. "What can you do but hope for the best?"
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and his reporting and analysis have appeared in Ebony, The Advocate, ColorLines and other media.