Bold Leadership—The Missing Piece in the Fight Against Stigma and Human Rights Violations Against the LGBTIQ Community

January 24, 2020

Prince is a proud and out trans man and human rights activist in Malawi. He is affiliated with LITE (Lesbian Intersex Transgender and other Extensions). Prince advocates for the eradication of stigma and discrimination faced by the LGBTIQ community accessing public services, affecting health, security, justice and economic opportunities. He teaches a class on gender, sexuality, and the acceptance of LGBTI persons at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and is a member of AVAC’s PxROAR Transgender program.

Many LGBTIQ activists are failing to understand the intersectionality of the fight against HIV/AIDS, decriminalization of same-sex marriages and the struggle towards freedom. In October 2019, I had an opportunity to attend the 4th Biannual Trans Conference in South Africa. Here I heard activists decry the link between HIV/AIDS and escalating violence against LGBTIQ persons, a doubling of stigma. As a human rights defender and an activist for biomedical HIV prevention methods, I was dismayed to learn how activists attempt to distance themselves from HIV programming to focus exclusively on human rights issues. But as I sat listening to the discourse and reflecting on my country, Malawi, I couldn’t fault their arguments, derived from concerns about persistent and widespread stigma against LGBTIQ communities.

I have realized that when it comes to HIV programming for key populations, what many stakeholders think of when they hear about LGBTIQ persons are lubricants, condoms and PrEP. If this kind of inventory is unavailable or hard to get for key populations, you can hear voices chime up, demanding access to these life-saving resources. But many of these same voices grow quiet at other times, unwilling to openly denounce inhumanity that happens to LGBTIQ persons.

In Malawi, a lot of violence and brutality is pointed at LGBTIQ persons, but a strong cross-section of allies consistently coming forward to condemn such inhumane acts is missing. They choose to play the background role and face each day as if nothing happened. But who will blame them, when considering the heteronormative and religious bigotry which continues to marginalize LGBTIQ persons all over the world. I remember attending a forum where one member loudly said that training 100,000 healthcare workers on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (SOGIE) would not be enough to overcome the barriers that block access to healthcare for LGBTIQ persons. She went on to say that it’s not a question of knowledge, but one of perception. In her concluding remarks she said, and I quote, “even some of us here, we accept you only in this space but when we are home we sit and say ‘mmmh.’”

I really applaud UNAIDS efforts to fight for equality for LGBTIQ persons, and they do more than merely react when attacks are made against LGBTIQ activists. UNAIDS sets the pace for key population HIV programming in so many countries, including Malawi. Much as I am tempted to call for stakeholders and allies to imitate UNAIDS in the fight for justice for LGBTIQ persons, I also want people to have honest conversations with themselves first. People need to evaluate and analyze their own personal prejudice and values against LGBTIQ persons, and, I hope, come to the realization they can fully commit themselves to the fight for justice. We need allies that are bold, courageous, fearless and honest to stand with us in the fight for justice within programming for HIV key populations and beyond it.