AIDS in the Closet
February 27, 2005
By Cassandra Vinograd, Associated Press
DAKAR (AP)—Tears trickle down
Serigne’s scarred face as he recounts what it’s like to be gay in his
Muslim west African homeland of Senegal. He rubs his throat, still sore from
the choke-hold of an attack.
Homosexuality is such a deeply ingrained taboo here that
it is punishable by law as an act against nature. The threat of violence and
rejection, experts say, is scaring gays away from 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 one per cent, largely due to a public health campaign that includes
heavy drug subsidies, media campaigns and even messages from local Muslim
leaders encouraging condom use. By comparison, South Africa has a 21.5 per
cent infection rate.
But Senegalese gays are driven so deeply into the closet
that experts fear they are being overlooked—raising the possibility the
country’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 assaulted him in the street
after a newspaper named him as a gay 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 women rarely wear head scarves and dance clubs are filled each weekend,
religious and social mores run against homosexuality. A conviction as an act
against nature can bring up to two years in prison and heavy fines.
Doctors say that because gays fear revealing their sexual
orientation during medical examinations, many carriers of HIV may be afraid to
visit medical facilities and may not know they are infected.
Gay men and doctors say many homosexual males take wives
to mask their relations with other men. That risks increasing the infection
rate among heterosexuals, who account for the vast majority of AIDS cases in
Africa. A majority of Africa’s infected are 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,” said Dr. Abdoulaye Wade, who is with
the AIDS division of Senegal’s Ministry of Health.
Wade said he is driven by social obligation to help
“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.
Gay men in Senegal say they are forced to lead secret
lives. They have no civic organizations to which they can turn for anti-AIDS
literature or counseling, or even gay-themed bars or restaurants where they
can gather information informally. They also allege that police harass them.
Senegal’s one gay group has been barred from meeting,
and its requests for gay-targeted anti-AIDS funding has not been answered.
Senegal’s homosexuals aren’t alone in suffering
anti-gay 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.”
“If those close to me and my neighbors know I’m gay,
the same thing could happen to me tomorrow,” Serigne said of his beatings.
“There is a lot of violence here, physical and psychological.”
Since a second attack, in January, Serigne has wavered on
promises he made to a dead friend to fight for AIDS treatment for gay men in
Senegal. Serigne said he wants to continue the struggle, but the threat of
violence has dimmed his hopes for success.
“I don’t want to betray my promise,” he said
through tears. “It was on his death bed.”
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