/ 17 May 2024

Ubuntu is for all people including the LGBTQ+ community

Safrica Lgbt Gay Pride
The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual people are recognised by many nations including South Africa, but a rise in homophobia is challenging these rights. (RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images)

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia is on 17 May — a date that holds profound significance for me as a gay man, particularly as a gay man living with HIV. 

Intersecting aspects of my identity often expose me to various forms of discrimination. Even in my professional life, where I work closely with LGBTQ+ communities, I am constantly made aware of the profound forms of physical and verbal abuse that we face, including the denial of health and social protection services. 

Therefore, when 17 May rolls around annually, I inevitably reflect on the progress that has been made in support of LGBTQ+ communities over the years and the challenges that persist. While the challenges may seem at times overwhelming, I am constantly reminded of the resilience of my community who continue to thrive, with dignity, despite the barrage of hate and intolerance they continue to face. Days like the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia are opportunities to celebrate the strength of my community.

I have more to say about celebration, but first some reflections:

South Africa has been a leader in protecting the human rights of LGBTQ+ people. When the freedom struggle defeated apartheid, the leaders were clear that the end of discrimination meant the end of all discrimination. The Constitution prohibits unfair discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Since 2006 same sex marriage has been legal in the country and I am fortunate to be living freely with my partner in Johannesburg.

While South Africa was the first in Africa, more than two-thirds of the countries around the world do not criminalise LGBTQ+ people. In the past couple of years alone, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis, Singapore, Mauritius, Cook Islands and Dominica have all moved in this direction. 

In East and Southern Africa, where I work, in addition to South Africa and Mauritius, we have Angola, Botswana, Madagascar, Mozambique and Rwanda that do not criminalise same sex sexual relationships.

But we are seeing a rise in homophobia around the world, which is taking many forms. In Eastern and Southern Africa we are seeing new criminalising laws (or harsher laws where they already existed), public statements of hatred against LGBTQ+ people, arbitrary arrests, physical assaults, evictions and many other forms of exclusion and marginalisation. 

Last year, Uganda enacted a new, harsher anti-homosexuality Act which comes on top of criminalisation laws the country already has.

In Malawi, two members of the LGBTQ+ have a case before the constitutional court for what they perceive as their unlawful incarceration. Religious groups have staged public demonstrations against LGBTQ+ communities as a result. This has instilled fear for the security and safety of the LGBTQ+ community members and reinforced stigma and discrimination.

In Kenya in 2023, a supreme court ruling allowed LGBTQ+ to the rights of association. There has been a backlash against this and there is now a proposed draft Family Protection Bill which, if it progresses and becomes law, will put the LGBTQ+ community at great risk.  

These are just some examples.

All these actions that culminate in discriminatory policies and laws are done in the name of preserving culture and values. To me, what is un-African is not homosexuality, what is un-African is homophobia. My experience is that the region where I work is filled with cultures of inclusivity and tolerance.  

I have been working on the global HIV response since I was diagnosed with HIV some 20 years ago. We have seen that progress in advancing human rights has been critical to advancing progress in our efforts to end Aids. But, I have seen how harmful social norms and attitudes, as well as stigma and discrimination and discriminatory laws, can quickly reverse the gains we have made in preventing new HIV infections and averting Aids related deaths. 

If I didn’t live in South Africa, where I can enjoy the same rights as everyone else, but in a country that criminalises me for who I am, this is what would happen to me:

  • I may not be able to have a job and therefore I would have limited resources to access health services;
  • I may have to hide who I am and therefore put my sexual health at risk; 
  • I may face the constant judgmental attitudes whenever I need to get my HIV medication and therefore be forced to interrupt my life-saving treatment;
  • I may have to always live in fear of being reported as gay and therefore face criminal charges; and
  •  I may live in constant terror of the security forces and therefore be forced to leave, seeking refuge in a safer country.

It is important to remember that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, is entitled to their human rights, including the right to be treated as an equal, the right to health and the right to protection from discrimination. We really need to uphold these rights for everyone if we are to end Aids as a public health threat by 2030.

So, when International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia comes around, these are the things that I reflect on. But I also celebrate. 

I celebrate that I am free to live freely as I am. 

I celebrate the resilience of my community that I am fortunate enough to work with, who are fighting for our rights despite the difficult contexts that they live in.

Chris Mallouris is the UNAids regional adviser, equality and rights for all.