The Sin of Stigma

The last issue’s article, “From the Frontlines of the War on HIV & AIDS,” in which John Callaghan describes his journey from finding out that he is HIV-positive to living a full and fulfilled life with the virus in the United States, left me feeling very sad about the lived experiences of people living with HIV in Nigeria. As a lesbian, and a person who advocates for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer (LGBT) people in Nigeria, I know very well what life is like for a marginalized community.

Nigeria has the second largest HIV epidemic in the world and one of the highest rates of infections in sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2017, Avert estimated that 3.1 million people are living with HIV in Nigeria. Unlike the positive situation Callaghan describes in the United States, where ART drugs are readily available and saving lives and infection rates are drastically dropping, 65 percent of people living with HIV in Nigeria do not have access to these lifesaving medications, [and] 65 percent of people are not even aware of their status. People are reluctant to get tested because they don’t want to be associated with what locals call the “gay disease.” Yet, according to Avert, unprotected heterosexual sex accounts for 80 percent of new HIV infections in Nigeria.

Punitive laws, such as the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, criminalize same-sex marriage, but also criminalize organizations that serve LGBT people, especially gay men, who are at the highest risk of getting infected with HIV. Gay men do not feel comfortable discussing their sexual activities with their primary healthcare providers because they fear they will be outed and even reported to law enforcement. This makes it difficult to access ART drugs or get treatment.

Mass public misinformation and ignorance around HIV hasn’t helped the situation. This has only fueled the social stigma around people living with HIV. Nigerian churches have worsened the situation. The consistent narrative about homosexuality being a sin leads many closeted gay men to engage in risky behaviors, such as denial and drug abuse, both of which increase a person’s risk of getting the virus.

“Corrective rape” as a practice locals believe can “cure” a woman of being lesbian, has led to an increase in HIV infections among lesbians. Men who know or do not know their status rape women and inadvertently transmit the virus to women who are not likely to report the rape to the police because they do not want to deal with the shame and stigma that comes with being a rape victim. We’ve found that closeted gay men, married to heterosexual women, have unprotected sex with their male partners and still have unprotected sex with their wives, too.

The problems are many and complicated. A complex approach to tackling these issues in access to healthcare, evidence-based public health campaigns, social stigma and [the] dismantling [of] discriminatory laws, needs to be developed and implemented if we’re serious about defeating the HIV epidemic.

Pamela Adie
LGBT rights activist, writer, public speaker and photographer
Lagos, Nigeria

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