The following story may seem slightly irrelevant. Of course the day to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS came and went. I never saw any red ribbons, but then, I can’t remember if I left the house that day. There were tweets about AIDS, although they had to share the spotlight with #RIPPaulWalker tweets. However, for AIDS Day I wrote a story that also highlighted the issues faced by the LGBT community. And we are sharing the story here because race, religion and ethnicity aren’t the only reasons for conflict. We come to many wrong conclusions and thus act in a shameful manner. Society corners them and is even repulsed by them. The question though is this, why are we so bothered by what one does in private? Why can’t we love someone of our own choice, without letting our sex get in the way? We were born this way, so why can’t we accepted for who we are?
The island’s legal system considers homosexuality as an offense. Many believe a conservative nation like Sri Lanka is still not ready to accept non-heterosexual relationships as a real thing. Many believe interest in the same sex is a phase or an illness that can be cured. In most cases, homosexuals are forced into marriage with the hope they could be cured.
Fortunately, society is gradually becoming more open-minded and the conservative mindset of many is changing for the better. Organizations like Equal Ground organizes many campaigns and events where the LGBT community can meet and raise issues they have. Such events are also attended by heterosexuals who want to fight for gay rights and also understand the LGBT community.
Sri Lankan authors like Shyam Selvadurai have addressed issues faced by homosexuals in novels like Funny Boy, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea and Cinnamon Gardens. More and more Sri Lankans are now open about their sexuality and encourage others to raise a voice for the LGBT community.
With the growth of the community, the term LGBT too is seeing an addition of other letters and now also includes questioning, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA). However, there are many factions within the community, as the subgroups believe the rights they fight for aren’t similar. Further, communities of this nature tend to focus on one issue at a time. Campaigns are carried out, but gay marriages aren’t recognized by law in many countries.
“LGBT communities must adopt a holistic approach instead of taking up issues individually,” UNAIDS Country Officer and Public Health Specialist Dr. Dayanath Ranathunge said, adding that a lack of active campaigns, support groups and services have led to the alienation of homosexuals in society. “We are in denial that such people exist, although society has to work closely with them to understand them,” Dr Ranathunge further commented. He also said that the LGBT community has no real definition, which could be a barrier to both understanding sexuality and recognizing their rights. Dr Ranathunge also spoke about why HIV/AIDS is believed to affect homosexuals the most.
Hypodermic needles, from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery or breast feeding and contaminated blood transfusions are ways in which HIV/AIDS can be transmitted. Yet, common belief is that HIV/AIDS can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse which could be virginal, anal or oral. In fact, many wrongly believe that AIDS is a ‘gay disease’ which has also led to an increase in homophobia.
The truth however, is that HIV/AIDS is not something that only affects the LGBT community and sex isn’t the only way the virus can be transmitted. Yet, it is one of the most common methods, which is why it seems like HIV/AIDS cannot be discussed without also discussing sex and homosexuality. Due to the nature of anal sex, an individual who indulges in such sexual practices is more vulnerable to the virus. Another reason why homosexuals seem the most affected is due to the stigma that surrounds homosexual relationships. Religion plays a huge role here, as many faiths consider homosexuality a sin. Further, the law of the nation also creates anti-gay beliefs and attitudes in the country. “They can’t confine to one relationship and can’t have stable partners due to a fear of exposure,” Dr Ranathunga said, adding that many homosexuals have unprotected and casual sex. Further, due to the law and social stigma, homosexuals are afraid to get tested and thus may spread the virus without their knowledge.
However, homosexuals should not hesitate to get tested. Dr Ranathunga said, “according to our oaths, a doctor cannot be biased,” adding that doctors who handle HIV/AIDS patients are trained to be impartial and not let the patient’s sexual orientation or preferences get in the way of treatment and care. “However, this doesn’t always happen as some doctors can be insensitive about the patient’s feelings,” he added. “There are now special programs where the Ministry of Health and society works together and actively encourages individuals to seek help,” he commented, saying that, “the infectivity of a patient drops to nearly zero percent if they seek treatment regularly,” and, “if a patient is diagnosed at the age of 25 and receives proper treatment, he can live up to 65.”
It is also important to look at children who were ‘gifted’ HIV while still in their mother’s womb. They have no choice, but to live with a virus that will forever label them and restrict them. There are also those who go abroad, especially to the Middle East, in search of work. They are often raped, which has led to many Gender Based Violence (GBV) movements. “It is important to catch them on return and make sure they are not infected,” Dr Ranathunge said, adding that, many practice unsafe sex due to their vulnerability living alone in a foreign land.
However, why is HIV/AIDS feared so much? Why is a day dedicated for AIDS on December 1? Red ribbons are worn with pride to spread awareness. Organizations like Lanka Business Coalition for HIV and AIDS (LBCH) organize awareness programs in commercial institutes and address issues regarding stigma and discrimination. The National STD/AIDS Control Program has clinics around the nation, where tests are carried out and treatment given. Further, anyone who suspects they have AIDS can find listening ears at the clinics, where pre and post diagnosis counseling is offered. The importance of counseling for HIV/AIDS patients and homosexuals were stressed too by many organizations, as many are emotionally affected and often need to share their feelings, fears and insecurities.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus infection / Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is caused by the HIV virus and affects the immune system. Due to prolonged periods without symptoms, patients are often not aware of the disease until it’s too late. The virus weakens the immune system which makes patients more vulnerable to other diseases, leading to situations where the immune system cannot even fight against a common cold.
There are many myths about AIDS, especially on how one can be infected. Due to a lack of sex education, many assume AIDS can be spread through touch. There was a time when AIDS patients were treated like lepers and were feared by society. However, campaigns now reveal the truths about HIV/AIDS and awareness programs are conducted around the country.
Further, prevention methods are also discussed and people are encouraged to have protected sex. Sadly, Sri Lankans are still quite oblivious about sex and protection, although condoms are now sold at most pharmacies. People are however, reluctant to purchase condoms as they feel humiliated and embarrassed. Earlier this year the Rotaract Club of Cinnamon Gardens posted a video titled, “Buying Condoms in Sri Lanka” which aimed at helping people purchase condoms. There are also gels that can be used to prevent being infected. Further, people are encouraged to not have casual sex and be aware of the sexual history of their partners.
However, it is important to remember that HIV/AIDS can be transmitted through body fluids too. Blood transmissions have led to the spread of the virus and injecting needles that carry blood with the virus has also significantly affected the spread of the virus. While mosquitoes or other insects cannot transmit the virus, people are told be aware of needles used for tattoos, piercing and other types of branding. Thus it is important to know about prevention methods and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The campaigns and programs all boil down to a message of equality. Heterosexuals aren’t ‘normal human beings’ and non-heterosexuals are not abnormal and if our sexual orientation defines how human we are, we definitely need to rethink our beliefs and values. Thus it is important to not only fight for the rights of the LGBTQIA communities, but also dispel the myths that surround HIV/AIDS.