Last edited: February 28, 2005

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 homosexuals.

“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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