Timor Leste Red Cross exludes homosexuals from HIV-AIDS Reduction Program

ETLJB 19 September 2009 Before the undemocratically-formulated Constitution was adopted in East Timor in 2002, constitutional protection for homosexuals in East Timor was expunged from an early draft. The then Constituent Assembly (the prototype of the present National Parliament) voted to remove gay protections from the new nation’s draft constitution.

Fifty-two of the Assembly’s 88 members specifically voted to exclude “sexual orientation” from an antidiscrimination clause. Discrimination was banned based only on “color, race, gender, marital status, ethnic origin, economic or social status, beliefs or ideology, politics, religion, education, and mental or physical condition.”

One member of the assembly, Joao Carrascalao, (who was the East Timor Transitional Administration’s Minister for Infrastructure) called homosexuality “an illness” and “an anomaly” and said protecting gays would create “social chaos.” Another member said the only homosexuals in East Timor are foreigners.

This is the grotesque and primitive social context in which HIV-AIDS prevention policies are supposed to operate in East Timor; a context in which the most basic rights of homosexual citizens are denied and in which homosexuals are publicly vilified by political leaders (some of whom were deeply engaged with the illegal Indonesian occupation and the universe of human rights violations perpetrated during the period from 1975 through to 1999).

This context is problematical not only for the civil rights of homosexuals in East Timor but also for HIV-AIDS prevention policies and it is reflected in a recent position vacant advertisement for an HIV-AIDS consultancy with the Red Cross.

In that advertisement, the Red Cross notes that it is one of the most active implementing organizations working in the National HIV/AIDS and STI Program, lead by the Ministry of Health. HIV/AIDS is emphasized in CVTL’s (Cruz Vermelha de Timo-Leste) Strategy 2006-2009 with the objective of increasing HIV/AIDS knowledge and its prevention in youth and Most at Risk Groups (MARGs). Since 2005 CVTL has been involved in HIV programs with MARG including transport workers, clients of sex workers and female sex workers.

The job advertisement continues: “CVTL are currently receiving a grant for their activities with MARGs, specifically clients of female sex workers and men with multiple partners. Funding is from the Ministry Of Health, and is part of the country’s Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM) grant. This grant started in January 2008 and will continue until December 2011.

Not a single mention of outreach programs for homosexual men in East Timor! Homosexual men are the most “at risk” group for HIV-AIDS transmission!

The “results” that are expected to be achieved by the Red Cross HIV-AIDS program in East Timor are to continue its “successful implementation” of their grant to reduce the risk of STI and HIV/AIDS transmission among for clients of female sex workers and men with multiple partners, in four districts – Dili, Bobonaro Covalima and Oeccusse.

But how can any HIV-AIDS reduction policy claim to be such so long as it omits that part of the community that is most vulnerable to HIV-AIDS; namely, the gay community.

The Red Cross HIV-AIDS program in East Timor is also purposed to increase knowledge and practice of safer sex behavior in those limited target populations through outreach targeting reduction in the number of partners, mutual monogamy and/or using condoms correctly and consistently.

How can HIV-AIDS transmission be stopped by monogamy and the suppression of promiscuity? Monogamy is a myth. Promiscuity is the natural condition of the human being.

The policy failure here extends not only to this fatally-flawed HIV-AIDS reduction program from the East Timor Ministry of Health and the Red Cross but also to a lack of advocacy by the many so-called human rights groups in East Timor; a lack of advocacy for the enactment of laws that protect the rights of homosexual men and women and a vacuum in the agitation for laws that criminalise the vilification of homosexuals and homosexuality and which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The obscurantist approach to HIV-AIDS and homosexuality in East Timor is heavily influenced by the antidemocratic and antihuman polices of the Catholic Church and the propagation of religious doctrines rather than the rational objectives of secular public health policies.

What a despicable program! ETLJB condemns the Red Cross and the Government of East Timor for the exclusion of the gay community from its supposed HIV-AIDS reduction policies. This exclusion is tantamount to an endorsement of homophobia and it colludes in the vilification of homosexuals in East Timor and the exposure of homosexual citizens to hate crimes.

But worst of all, it constitutes a guranteed failure of the policy and the Red Cross program. The central message of the HIV-AIDS programs must prioritise – not moral lectures on sexuality – but the primacy of the deployment of condoms, proper public information campaigns and the protection of HIV-AIDS-vulnerable population’s civil rights as the most effective holistic strategy for the reduction of HIV-AIDS transmission. And the primary “target populations” must include the gay community. But this appalling program does neither of these things!

The Center for HIV Law and Policy concludes that it is homophobia that is a significant barrier to HIV diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, and a critical public health issue.

Homophobia and heterosexism interfere with appropriate health care access and services for homosexuals, feed support for counterproductive abstinence-until-marriage programming, fuel antigay social policies and other violence, and otherwise marginalize gay people of all ages.

Studies consistently demonstrate that homophobia contributes to the spread of HIV and that internalized homophobia increases HIV risk.

The Red Cross program should, at the very least, be providing access to information on issues related to homophobia and HIV, including discrimination, stigma, sexuality education, and access to care. Instead, it violates the required public health objectives by entirely omitting homosexuality from the program parameters.

A recent study found that homophobia creates a significant health hazard and directly undermines important public health initiatives. One impact of homophobia is that many men who have sex with men, particularly young men, do not disclose their sexual orientation in order to avoid social isolation, discrimination, abuse, and violence. Young gay and bisexual men may be at higher risk for HIV infection as a consequence of low self-esteem, depression, and lack of peer support and related services available to those who are more open about their sexual orientation and identity.

But only the most courageous homosexuals in East Timor will stand up and demand that the state protect their legitimate interests. (see further HIV/STD Risks in Young Men Who Have Sex with Men Who Do Not Disclose Their Sexual Orientation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

by Warren L. Wright BA LLB
Source – Timor Leste Gay