By Hans Billimoria
As I write this, friends and people I have worked with, are living in fear.
In truth, since 10 September when Rivira published their exposé on condoms and lubricating gels being distributed to men who have sex with men, and the community based organization involved in the process, tensions have been high for the gay community. In the 10 September article, the organization was identified by name, their detailed address was also offered up with the sensational declaration that both offices of this organization (project and head office) were in close proximity to a primary and secondary school respectively. Of course parents were warned to protect their sons, based on the infantile notion that if a man is gay, he must necessarily be a pedophile too.
In addition to targeting the community organization, Rivira also raised questions about the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) who have provided funds to the community organization to implement their HIV prevention programming. The not very veiled assumption was that ‘foreign’ funds were somehow forcing us to violate the norms and mores of our culturally conservative nation was predictably poor journalism. As were the uninformed accusations directed at the National STD/AIDS Control Programme (NSACP), part of the Ministry of Health; and Sarvodaya, who together with NSACP are the primary recipients of this US$ 12 Million grant to prevent the spread of HIV in Sri Lanka by working with populations that are most at risk from the virus.
Responsible journalism that searches for the facts as opposed to sensationalist fiction that sells newspapers would identify that neither the NSACP, nor Sarvodaya, nor the ‘dreaded foreign hand’ of the Global Fund have any insidious agenda of promoting homosexuality on our island. Let’s be clear, the community based organization has no agenda of promoting homosexuality either, despite the scathing report of the investigative journalist that masqueraded as a gay man seeking services.
According to his allegations, some workers within the organization were trying to set him up with another gay man. Perhaps he looked lonely, and sad, and miserable and they were trying to cheer him up with the knowledge that there are other gay men out there in Sri Lanka who also suffer in silence due to the general negative perceptions of homosexuality that exist in our country. This said, his investigative adventure has made it clear that community based organizations such as these need to have clear protocols in place on how to manage new members professionally and sensitively.
What is also clear is that investigative journalism needs to make sure they investigate; this would reduce the opportunity for incredulous statements which included confusion around the use of water-based lubricant (gel). At one point, the investigator asks (and he will now no doubt claim irony) if these gels are to be consumed orally.
Ever heard of KY Jelly? It has been around since 1904 or so, as it says on the box it is used for all our general lubricating needs. Most crucially, as KY is a water-based lubricant as opposed to a oil based lubricant like baby oil, it does not react with latex condoms.
Oil-based lubricants thin out the latex resulting in a broken or split condom. A simple experiment of blowing up two condoms and rubbing baby oil in a gentle circular motion on one ballooned surface and KY on the other ballooned surface will have immediate results. The condom that you’re rubbing oil on will burst. Now imagine a tight anus and a condom-ed penis; common sense tells us a lubricant is necessary and household lubricants are often used including ubiquitous baby oil – based on the assumption that if it’s alright for babies it’s alright for the anus – and of course yummy olive oil (perhaps extra virgin). A condom will tear as the friction builds up. With KY or any other water-based lube you remain protected. Here then is the rationale for distributing water-based lubricating gel with condoms to gay men in Sri Lanka. The condom remains intact and protects a gay couple from HIV which can be present in semen and blood.
Simple HIV prevention science really, except that it may fuel alarmists, for it is based on the premise that people have anal sex; and to distribute condoms and water-based gel means that we’re encouraging gay men to have more anal sex, and how could this be the most logical way of preventing HIV. Surely what we need to do is prevent anal sex! Perhaps another premise floating on the periphery is that only gay men have anal sex, and that heterosexual couples exclusively engage in vaginal sex, with perhaps a little bit of Fellatio and Cunnilingus (my two favourite Roman Generals) thrown in for variety.
Sexual behavior needs to be addressed if HIV is to be prevented. We’ve known this for almost as long as we’ve known HIV. Remember the old names for the condition which included GRID – Gay Related Immunity Deficiency. Why did we think it was only gay people that contracted it? Was it to do with floppy wrists and a penchant for musicals (or any other reductive stereotypically gay behavior), or was it the way that gay men enjoyed having sex?
But it’s illegal! Penal code 365A! How dare gay men have sex in a country where it is illegal!? The NSACP and Sarvodaya, along with Global Fund are breaking the law.
After the 10 September article those involved in the Global Fund Round 9 proposal conducted a press meet to respond to the allegations. The value of the intervention was argued from a public health perspective, and it was underscored that this community that is criminalized has to be included if we are to be successful as a country in maintaining a low level epidemic.
The next weekend Rivira responded. So 17 October another series of articles was published furthering the argument that NSACP, Sarvodaya, and the Global Fund were breaking the law; that Western ideals were being imposed upon us; and that the current approach to HIV prevention with this community was flawed! Counseling, not condom and lubricant distribution, is the answer if HIV is to be prevented and gay men are to stop being gay. Yes, being gay is apparently a choice; all you need to do is chose not be gay… or its some kind of affliction where one must pray the gay away (as also advocated by US presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann).
The views in the Rivira included the musings of Buddhist and Christian clergy, law makers and even medical professionals who claim to understand the HIV industry. In addition, the Rivira newspaper last weekend carried a report stating that the president has asked for an investigation into the irresponsible distribution of condoms and lubricants. Rivira clearly feel that their piece of investigative journalism has had its desired effect.
What this relatively obscure newspaper has succeeded in doing is strike fear into the hearts of a community that was trying its best to ensure that they stayed safe from HIV. They understood what it meant to work in society that ridiculed and criminalized them, but had regrouped to answer the call of multilateral agencies, government (NSACP) and civil society to fight for their health and wellbeing. Due to the exposé and continued press coverage last weekend, some smaller groups have closed down. Others have pulled their websites, shut down their facebook, and even cleared their work and living spaces of anything that could be considered incriminating.
Overkill… or is it?
We welcome the president’s investigation into the current HIV prevention strategies employed by his government and civil society. Clearly there appears to be a lack of effort in terms of engaging key policy makers in the decisions around HIV prevention strategies, and this investigation maybe the beginning of something positive, for the public health approach has had successful results in countries with supposedly conservative cultural norms and mores; Indian and Malaysia are examples in this region, the former overturning punitive colonial laws that we still embrace.
If there is no policy framework, or even the beginnings of a discussion or debate, then it could be argued that it is irresponsible of the government and civil society and the donor community to push for US$12 Million project for HIV prevention which include the establishment of (the now much dreaded and maligned) support centres for this vulnerable community. Why irresponsible? It is the community that suffers. It is the community that is criminalized. It is the community that is now living in fear.