The battle to legalise same sex relations continues

16 May 2018

Progress on decriminalising same sex relations continues but it’s slow – and in the meantime stigma and discrimination continue to undermine the HIV response.

Head and top half of an LGBTI activist holding scales of justice

In many countries, laws that criminalise homosexuality are a major driver of the HIV epidemic - they actively dissuade key populations from seeking testing and treatment, and healthcare providers from offering services for fear of recrimination.

However, progress is being made in overturning anti-gay laws. Last month saw the total number of countries with anti-LGBT laws drop to 74 with Trinidad being the latest country to join the modern statute books (pending an appeal).

Activists hope that upcoming court rulings in Kenya and India will see this figure drop to 73 or even 72.

These new legal rights are of course to be celebrated but challenging harmful cultural norms and ending the stigma and discrimination that prevent effective HIV responses take time.

British Prime Minister Theresa May last month expressed “deep regret” for Britain’s role in criminalising same-sex relations in its former colonies. About half of the world’s remaining laws against gay sex were originally imposed by the British in their colonies.

In an attempt to address endemic discrimination, May announced Foreign & Commonwealth Office funding for an ambitious £5.6 million two-year programme, led by the Equality and Justice Alliance.

This new consortium will engage with Commonwealth leaders, governments and civil society actors to advance equality and equal protection before the law in order to secure the rights of all Commonwealth citizens, regardless of gender, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression. 

There’s no doubt that this step by such a prominent player on the world stage is significant but the challenge is not just about repealing outdated laws. In some countries, where same sex relations are currently legal, people live under the constant threat of new moves to criminalise homosexuality and any sexual practices deemed to be ‘against nature’, including those of sex workers.

Laws criminalising same-sex relations also make it extremely difficult for organisations that offer sexual health and HIV services to reach men who have sex with men, as their work brings them under scrutiny or worse by authorities.

And the reality is that even where same-sex relations are legal, stigma and discrimination (including self-stigma) are often still barriers to accessing services. Where individuals are placed at the heart of healthcare provision, in a way that doesn’t stigmatise and where they can feel comfortable, there’s a marked increase in uptake.

In Argentina, there are now 21 service centres friendly to LGBTI people that have increased the accessibility and acceptability of health services. Healthcare professionals have been trained on the specific healthcare needs of this key population as well as on non-discrimination, accessible opening hours, and the active involvement of LGBTI people in the design and functioning of services.

From progressive local service provision to global movements for justice, grassroots campaigns and events such as the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB) have a vital role to play, giving marginalised people a voice and celebrating milestones on the way to a fairer and more just society for all.

Written by Becky Moss

Content Editor