Feature story

Homophobia and punitive laws continue to threaten HIV responses and human rights

28 August 2012

Nearly eighty countries have laws that criminalize same-sex sexual relations. UNAIDS Infographic: I am Gay--5 things I fear.

In many regions of the world, punitive laws and practices against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and intersex (LGBTI)[1] individuals continue to block effective responses to HIV. A range of human rights violations have been documented, from denial of health services and freedom of association to harassment, violence and murder.

Last week, a youth organization in Cameroon is reported to have held an anti-LGBT rally; the news followed a series of arrests and detentions in recent years of Cameroonian men who have sex with men based on their sexual orientation.

In Zimbabwe, where sex between men is illegal, police officers arrested and later released 44 members of the organization Gays and Lesbians Zimbabwe (GALZ) on 11 August 2012 following the launch of a GALZ report documenting human rights violations of LGBT individuals.

In Europe, a report on the human rights situation of LGBTI people—published in May 2012 by the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe)—documented many cases of violence, hatred and discrimination against LGBTI people.

Human rights violations based on people's real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression sanction the climate of hate and fear that keeps LGBTI people further in the closets. Such violations discourage health-seeking behaviour, deny access to key health services and sustain the increasing incidence of HIV infection among men who have sex with men and transgender people.

Human rights advocate Joel Nana, Executive Director of the non-profit organization African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR)

Studies in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia have documented high levels of homophobic bullying in schools and lack of support from school authorities. A recent study conducted in the United States, for example, found that more than 84% of young LGBT learners had been called names or threatened, 40% had been pushed or shoved, and 18% had been physically assaulted at school.

Several cities in the Russian Federation recently passed laws prohibiting public information on sexual orientation and gender identity. Similar legislation is pending before the Ukrainian parliament. UNAIDS believes such laws discriminate against LGBT people by curtailing their freedoms of assembly and speech, threaten HIV outreach organizations supporting them, and may be used to justify homophobic bullying and violence.

A ‘climate of hate and fear’

Evidence and experience have shown that punitive laws and practices drive sexual minorities away from HIV services. A study conducted in Senegal, for example, found that prosecutions and harassment of LGBT individuals in 2008 led to “pervasive fear and hiding” among members of these groups. According to the study, some health providers suspended their HIV prevention work with men who have sex with men out of fear for their own safety; those who continued to provide health services noted a sharp decline in participation by men who have sex with men.

"Human rights violations based on people's real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression sanction the climate of hate and fear that keeps LGBTI people further in the closets,” said human rights advocate Joel Nana, Executive Director of the non-profit organization African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR). “Such violations discourage health-seeking behaviour, deny access to key health services and sustain the increasing incidence of HIV infection among men who have sex with men and transgender people," he added.

High HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men, transgender people

In many regions of the world, men who have sex with men and transgender people experience high HIV prevalence and low coverage of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services.

Recent studies from sub-Saharan Africa show that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men ranges from 6% to 31%. In Asia, the odds of men who have sex with men becoming infected with HIV are nearly 19 times higher than in the general population. In Latin America, an estimated half of all HIV infections in the region have resulted from unprotected sex between men.

Studies among transgender people have shown disproportionately high HIV prevalence ranging from 8% to 68%. Without access to HIV information and services free of fear, criminal sanction and homophobia, these trends cannot be addressed.

“World leaders are increasingly speaking out against discrimination and criminalization on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Susan Timberlake, Chief of the Human Rights and Law Division at the UNAIDS Secretariat. “In launching its report in July, for example, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law issued a strong call for decriminalization of LGBT people and their protection in the context of the AIDS response.”

Some positive developments

Despite setbacks, there are some encouraging developments in favour of equality, non-discrimination and access to health services for sexual minorities.

On 12 July 2012, the President of Chile signed into law an anti-discrimination law that punishes hate crimes, including against LGBT people. Introduced some seven years ago, the adoption of the anti-discrimination law gained momentum following the brutal murder of Daniel Zamudio, a 24-year-old homosexual man.

On the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, 17 May 2012, the European Region of Education International, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and ILGA-Europe committed to strengthen their collaboration to prevent and combat homophobia and transphobia at national and European levels in school, the workplace and society.

In February 2010, the Government of Fiji became the first Pacific Island nation to formally decriminalize sex between men. Fiji’s new Crimes Decree removes previous references to “sodomy” and “unnatural acts” and uses gender neutral language when referring to sexual offences.

In 2009, the High Court of Delhi held that criminalization of same-sex relations is unconstitutional and that it “pushes gays and men who have sex with men underground,” leaving them vulnerable to police harassment and impeding access to HIV services.

UN advocacy and action

In March 2012, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a report at the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against LGBT individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The report called on all countries to decriminalize consensual same-sex relations and to ensure that individuals can exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in safety and without discrimination.

At last year’s UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS, UN Member States committed to reviewing laws and policies that adversely affect the “successful, effective and equitable delivery of HIV services.” UNAIDS encourages all countries to translate this commitment into action to protect the human rights and health needs of LGBT people.


[1] The acronym “LGBTI” is used as an umbrella short-hand for groups and/or individuals whose sexual orientation or gender identity differ from heterosexuality and who may be subject to discrimination, violence and other human rights violations on that basis. Information and data presented in this article may not apply equally to all the groups represented by this acronym. [Back to top]