By: Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of HIV, Health & Development Group, United Nations Development Programme
England’s cricket captain made headlines two weeks ago, with videos of the Yorkshireman’s courage under fire making the rounds on social media. Yet, Joe Root has been getting attention not just for leading his team to victory but for speaking out against homophobia. In an exchange with West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel, microphones recorded Joe Root saying “Don’t use it as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
With Friday marking Zero Discrimination Day, this incident draws attention to the work that is left to do. Root’s presence of mind under pressure speaks to both the progress in challenging stigma and discrimination against LGBT communities as well as the continued prevalence of prejudice.
Stigma doesn’t just hurt individuals; it also harms communities. According to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, discrimination against the most marginalised people in our societies fundamentally undermines the response to the HIV epidemic. Given that marginalised populations – such as men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, sex workers, transgender people and prisoners – accounted for 47 percent of new infections in 2017, turning the tide against HIV requires a truly inclusive approach.
Marginalised groups commonly face stigma, discrimination and violence that stop them getting care and treatment. According to the latest report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, governments in many parts of the world are cracking down on civil society with increasingly repressive laws and policies, stopping organisations from providing services and mobilising for justice and accountability.
The report highlights that a number of governments have prohibited groups working with LGBTIQ people from officially registering as NGOs. Even tolerated organisations have had their operations compromised; several countries are known to block donations to human rights groups working on HIV. The Commission notes that “anti-propaganda” laws, have led to websites with even just basic information about HIV prevention for the LGBT community getting banned. Such obstacles systematically deny whole populations access to healthcare catered to their needs, giving HIV latitude to wreak havoc.
Yet there are also progressive trends worth noting. Many countries are now legislating for greater acceptance of the LGBTI and HIV-positive communities, rather than marginalising them. Since 2012, the United Nations Development Programme has worked with 89 countries to help them revise laws and policies that harm people’s health and rights.
In 2018, the courts proved key to enshrining LGBT rights in a variety of countries. Trinidad and Tobago’s High Court ruled that the criminalisation of consensual same-sex activity between adults was unconstitutional. Last year was also notable for the unanimous decision by India’s supreme court to decriminalise homosexual sex.
Repealing regressive laws is one of the best ways of tackling stigma and discrimination, paving the way for LGBT communities to access health services without fear. In the last two decades, there’s been a pendulum swing in societal attitudes towards sexual diversity, which has helped drive legal progress – and vice versa – but more must be done.
Even though more people than ever have access to antiretroviral treatment and pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs that drastically reduce the risk of getting HIV, global efforts to tackle the HIV epidemic rely on an increase in funding and greater commitment to upholding human rights. This year holds a number of opportunities for change, leaving little room for excuses.
Firstly, in 2015 at the United Nations 193 countries pledged to leave no one behind. The World Health Organization is pushing even harder to make health services accessible to everyone, everywhere, under the banner of Universal Health Coverage. It’s vital that governments heed this call to action and extend the promise of ‘health for all’ to often-marginalised groups, like the LGBTIQ community, as well as refugees and migrants.
Secondly, the global fight against HIV should get fresh impetus this year, as leaders meet in France to ‘replenish’ the Global Fund – a key source of funding in tackling the virus and removing human rights barriers to effective HIV responses. Given the central position HIV holds in the world of global health, it provides a leverage point to champion the right of LGBT people to health more generally.
We must never forget that the global response to HIV is indebted to the LGBT community. Without the courage and sacrifice of the LGBT community, we would not have a global response to one of the deadliest epidemics the world has seen. There is scope here for governments, philanthropists and international organisations to commit to advancing LGBTIQ health and rights.
Finally, HIV and LGBT advocates must continue to take advantage of media moments like Joe Root’s stand against homophobia, which should have no place in sport or society as a whole. To create societies that are just, fair and healthy, we must do more to tackle stigma and discrimination and that starts by consigning bigoted laws and policies to the history books.