When AIDS struck, priorities changed, and quickly, from hedonism to survival. And, ironically, the advent of AIDS probably advanced gay rights more than anything else in history.
“HIV-AIDS changed public perceptions a lot: It showed a more humane side of the community,” says Ed Jackson, director of program development at Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, and a longtime activist. “It also galvanized gay men into being more active and more visible. It brought people out of the closet.”
Mr. Jackson said the large number of HIV-positive men, and the often-overlooked contributions of many lesbian women who cared for the sick, forced members of the gay community to interact with the system, instead of living on the margins. In fact, many of the early battles that mobilized the community were about seemingly mundane issues such as the right to visit partners in hospital (people were refused access because they were not considered immediate family, even if they were in long-term relationships), taking time off to be with loved ones who were sick and dying and claiming insurance benefits.
Gay rights came incrementally as these battles were waged before administrative tribunals and the courts and, in the process, gay and lesbian couples became more mainstream.
“We went from being marginalized as sick people to being normalized,” Mr. Jackson says. “Along the way, a lot of desires became mainstreamed; we wanted to be like everybody else, which is why you saw a push for things like gay marriage.
“We chose the straight path, if you will,” he adds with a smile.
Africa’s response was radically different
AIDS hit Africa about the same time as it did Western countries and affected the same demographic groups, principally men who have sex with men, recipients of blood and blood products and intravenous drug users. But the response was very different from places like Canada. Instead of rage and activism, there was denial and inaction.
AIDS was dismissed as a disease of Westerners with perverse sexual habits. The party line in virtually every country on the continent was that there are no homosexuals, and that Africans don’t engage in the unnatural acts that spread the disease. This dismissal delayed any serious response to the epidemic, and AIDS spread like wildfire, assisted greatly by truckers who travelled the transcontinental route that came to be known as the “AIDS highway” and the sex workers who populated road stops. By the late 1980s, when the rates of infection became so high that they could no longer be denied, AIDS was portrayed as a heterosexual disease, which was spreading so rapidly because men were promiscuous.
“It was never true that HIV-AIDS was uniquely a heterosexual disease in Africa,” says Christine Stegling, executive director of the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, and a long-time AIDS activist in Botswana.
“The reality is that there are men who have sex with men in Africa, just as there are everywhere, but because of the stigma, they marry and otherwise remain hidden,” she says.
“Politicians and governments have always refused to acknowledge that these practices and these communities exist.
“What’s different now is that gay men and transgendered people are starting to come out – in large part because rates of HIV-AIDS are so high in these communities – and that is making it a lot more difficult to deny their existence. This, in turn, has fuelled a backlash and the introduction of repressive anti-homosexuality laws.”
“HIV has been devastating but it has also created an entrance for LGBT work to be done,” Ms. Stegling adds.
“There is a lot of activism for rights in these communities but the response has put a lot of people’s lives in danger.”
Paul Semugoma, a Ugandan physician, knows that all too well. He is on a “wanted” list in his home country (where homosexuality is a crime) because he has spoken out for gay rights, and lives in exile in South Africa.