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AIDS 2014: The sad plight of many gay men

Mon 21 Jul 2014 In: New Zealand Daily News

Paul Semugoma receives his award from Michael Kirby. The wide gulf between New Zealand's response to the HIV epidemic and the plight of gay and bisexual men in many overseas countries was brought into stark contrast at the World AIDS Conference today. In a major session on human rights, chaired by ex-NZ prime minister and now senior United Nations administrator Helen Clark, retired gay Australian jurist Michael Kirby highlighted some of the terrible deaths of glbti people around the world due to their sexuality. Of special concern is increasing violence against gay men in Africa and Kirby presented the Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award to Dr Paul Semugoma, a Ugandan doctor who has for years advocated against anti-homosexuality laws. In Uganda gay sex is illegal and the state-sanctioned systematic persecution of gay and bi men means it is even a criminal offence not to report the existence of a suspected homosexual to the police. In his acceptance speech Semugoma stated "I am African, I am Ugandan and I am gay," to sustained applause. As a result of being open about his sexuality he cannot return to Uganda and must now live in South Africa. Speakers at this session underlined that where nations criminalise homosexuality their gay and bisexual populations invariably experience high rates of HIV, the government incurs expensive treatment costs and there are inevitable and otherwise avoidable deaths. The New Zealand experience, where decriminalising homosexuality in the dark, early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic laid the foundation for a largely successful response, has been frequently admired by delegates who have been unable to achieve the same success in their own countries or regions. Gay lawyer Charles Chauvel, formerly a New Zealand MP and a past chair of the NZ AIDS Foundation, and who now works for the United Nations, described his work helping politicians around the world to usher in social change, especially in the area of discrimination and sexuality. In a chilling echo of the first out of control years of HIV/AIDS within extremely hard-hit gay communities such as San Francisco three decades ago, the conference heard of the current situation of teenage girls in rural South Africa which is particularly tragic with 24% of girls presenting at clinics for pregnancy being diagnosed with HIV. Most infections appear to be as a result of sex with older men and safe sex education as well as support and treatments are at best patchy. The UNAIDS-promoted target of Zero AIDS by 2030 was discussed and described as more aspirational than specific and unlikely to actually be achieved. But it appears possible to achieve a lowered incidence of HIV infection where each transmission leads on average to less than one onward transmission and therefore the disease slowly fades out. The NZAF booth at the Global Village NZ AIDS Foundation boss Shaun Robinson spent part of today at what is called the Global Village, opened by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, where organisations from around the world have a presence at colourful stalls. Robinson says he is impressed with the "huge diversity of people and situations, wide range of languages, and the number of indigenous people at the conference and in their customary clothing in the village. However, frequent HIV conference delegate Bruce Kilmister of Body Positive says there are far fewer Africans at this conference, a situation he puts down to the significant cost of travel to, and accommodation in, Melbourne. NZAF takataapui staffers have been involved in the indigenous people's pre-conference gatherings in the last few days with Jordan Harris addressing HIV work amongst gay Maori men in the context of their culture. In what Robinson says was a well-received presentation Harris has pointed out that it is not sufficient to just address them as gay but they must be considered as part of extended whanau, hapu and iwi. He told delegates that also engaging the whanau, hapu and iwi is vital. Robinson says he has been particularly concerned with presentations on the need to balance accessibility and affordability of medications with the needs of 'big pharma' to make profits. He was amazed to hear mention of a hepatitis cure drug which costs US$84 to make but is sold for US$84,000 per dose. Kilmister says he is enjoying bumping into and renewing contact with people he has met at conferences over the years, and feels that this is made easier by the smaller size of this year's conference. Although he was initially deeply concerned for people he knew would be traveling to the conference and might have been on the ill-fated flight MH17, shot down over Ukraine, he says luckily no one he knows was on the aircraft flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. "But it was quite emotional meeting up with a Dutch man I have come to know over the years and knowing he is safe." The conference area in downtown Melbourne is busy and cafes along the Yarra River and within a few blocks of the conference venues doing a roaring trade. Many volunteers, mostly from Australia but some from other countries including NZ, are helping run the event. They work a half day shift and get to spent the rest of the day at sessions without paying registration charges.    

Credit: Daily News staff

First published: Monday, 21st July 2014 - 11:38pm

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