The story of the ostrich is an interesting one. When in the presence of grave danger, it prefers to bury its head in the ground, believing erroneously that by doing so that is by pretending that the danger does not exist, the danger will quietly go away! Perhaps the ostrich is a believer of the concept that, ‘If I do not see you that automatically means that you too do not see me!’ Life is never like that, and more especially, where danger is concerned. Sometimes we human beings also like to behave like the foolish ostrich. We often see what will hurt us gravely but prefer to look the other way for several reasons which may be society mediated, religiously oriented, culturally ingrained or as a result of our outright ignorance.
I am talking about the way we see homosexuals in our society… yes, homosexuals, those men who have sex with their fellow men. Some people I believe, are already frowning at my mere mention of the term, ‘homosexuals’, but do they not exist in our society? Are they not among our brothers and husbands and fathers and friends? Are they not among those who buy from us and sell to us? Do they not pray with us or even preach to us in the churches and mosques? They have been found among lawmakers, and even among kings. What I am saying is that homosexuals are not UFO’s (unidentified flying objects). They are human beings and are amongst us. But we prefer to deny them and not talk about them or even acknowledge their existence just the way we blatantly distanced ourselves from HIV/AIDS for several years, but were finally forced to embrace the sad fact about its existence after it had started destroying and killing us like no man’s business. Like the Ostrich, we have since buried our heads in the soil, pretending that homosexuals are not there or that they do not matter. Whom do we think we are fooling? None other but ourselves!
Especially considering the fact that HIV/AIDS spreads like wildfire among them, the homosexuals and then from them to those of us who are not homosexuals, because, these homosexuals are also bisexuals meaning that after having sex with fellow men is secret places, they return home to meet wives and girlfriends! In the fight against HIV/AIDS I will argue that we are a stumbling block to victory and we open ourselves to defeat by the scourge by vehemently refusing to acknowledge them – the homosexuals. And in so far as we continue to act as such, we must be ready to continue ‘fetching water with basket’ a futile effort indeed, even to the most mundane. By not acknowledging them, we must continue to fight a losing battle with HIV/AIDS.
It is a fundamental fact that most same-sex behaviour is conducted out of natural preference (please don’t ask me why a man would prefer his fellow man sexually, for that is not the intent of this focus). Apart from the natural preference for a fellow man, there are also situations when men are thrown into certain situation and are therefore forced to be engaged in homosexual practices (not their faults now, is it?). This happens when they are obliged to spend long periods in all-male company, such as in the military, prisons, monasteries and other strict religious domains, male-only educational establishment etc. While such institutional male homosexual behaviour represents only a small part of all male-to-male sex, it can nonetheless be important from the point of view of the AIDS epidemic. Male prisons, for example have been shown to make a significant contribution to some countries’ epidemic – both through drug injecting and male-to-male sex (UNAIDS technical update, prisons and AIDS)
In most countries, as is in The Gambia, a certain proportion of sex between men is some way commercial due to unemployment and failing economy. One only has to spend late nights in the various hotels around town to observe how our young men sell themselves for hard currencies to tourists! Much sex work is also highly informal, with the expectation perhaps of a small ‘present’ from ‘the boss’ for services rendered. This too may border on fear and job insecurity as individuals may do it unwillingly in order to protect their sources of income and employment. Sex between men occurs in most societies though its extent certainly varies from place to place, for cultural or other reasons. Its existence, however, is frequently denied by the authorities in many places because of religious teachings or cultural taboos, or because as individuals they feel uncomfortable with the subject.
Sexual acts between men have often been condemned, by civic and religious leaders, and criminalized by law. In some countries, penalties for those accused of sexual acts between men are among the severest available. Elsewhere, even where same-sex behaviour is not illegal, there is frequently unofficial persecution by the authorities (the police or military, for instance), or discrimination against or stigmatisation of those men known or thought to be having sexual relations with other men. For these reasons, in many parts of the world, The Gambia included, much sex between men is hidden or secretive. I don’t know and would wish to know how many programmes in the fight against HIV/AIDS are directed towards homosexuals in this country. But before I am furnished with that piece of information, I would like to hazard an intelligent guess. To my knowledge, no programme is directed towards them! So why is this so? Because no body knows where to reach them as they operate clandestinely since they have no rights here. As such, they continue to pose a serious threat to their wives and female partners.
Many males having sex with males out of preference or for commercial purpose as male sex workers have a wife or regular female partners at home. Frequently, the clients of male sex workers are married men or are behaviourally bisexual.
Challenges to be overcomed if we must engage the HIV virus on the homosexual front:
In The Gambia policy-makers and programme managers sometimes deny that male-to-male sex occurs or that their occurrence is significant to be taken seriously. Denial of the reality of male-to-male sex is an enormous obstacle to efforts at AIDS prevention and care must be taken not to relegate it, or else will be tantamount to ‘washing our hands in order to crack palm kernels for the chickens!’ Inadequate epidemiological data: Lack of, or unreliable epidemiological data are an obstacle to HIV prevention work. In The Gambia, risk exposure categories are not properly set up to take account of male-to-male sex. Perhaps research should be carried out to ascertain the prevalence of homosexuality in this country. This will be a first step towards tackling the HIV/AIDS on the homosexual front.
Lack of knowledge or awareness: Because HIV education emphasizes only heterosexual transmission, men may be ignorant of the risks of male-to male sex or consider that the risks don’t apply to them – and may therefore be less likely to protect themselves. Just as awareness programmes are directed towards the heterosexual mode of transmission of the virus, the homosexual mode should not be left out in the cold. Difficulty of reaching many of the men who have sex with men: Many homosexuals engage in casual, fleeting and anonymous sexual encounters.They may also not think of themselves as having sex with men. The combination of these factors makes them difficult to reach for prevention work. Male sex workers can be particularly difficult to access especially where the work is clandestine and where the workers are not organised into establishment.
Ways and means to identify them must therefore be sought.
Inadequate, inaccessible or inappropriate health facilities: Males having sex with fellow males seeking attention on sexual or medical matters, or tests for HIV or other STDs, may find such facilities to be lacking. Alternatively, the facilities may exist, but the men may find access to them difficult – for reasons of negative attitudes on the part of health staff towards same-sex behaviour, lack of discretion or anonymity for clients, inconvenient location or opening hours, or cost. So homosexual friendly services must be provided for those who are inclined in that respect.
Stigmatization and criminalization: The Gambian society is hostile to men who engage in same-sex behaviour, stigmatizing it and treating it as sinful or as criminal. Such men will then often not choose, or have the opportunity, to be honest about the fact that they have had sex with other men. Fearing to be questioned about their sexual behaviour, they will be reluctant to report symptoms of STDs including HIV. Because of this, all efforts at education on HIV and safer sex, the provision of condoms and appropriate STD and other medical care, are made extremely difficult. Hostility on the part society also hinders effective HIV prevention efforts aimed at adolescents and young men who have sex with other men. We must reach them now, or be FORCED to reach them much later when we must have lost so much in terms of both human and material resources!
Naturally, the choice is ours!
We cannot continue to ignore the threat we pose to ourselves as individuals and as a society by continually burying our heads in the dust and assuming that homosexuals do not matter or that they do not exist. Such stance could completely sour the good work being done daily by all stakeholders who continually battle to stem the spread of the disease. HIV/AIDS must be fought from all fronts. We must put religion, culture, personal feelings and all other sentiments aside if we are not to negate the efforts we are making and the successes we have achieved thus far. We MUST recognise those engaged in male-to-male (homosexual) activities we must accord them their right and provide them with conducive environments that will make it easier to reach them with services with which they can protect themselves and all others.