Fighting HIV in Court
Guyanese Rights Group Challenges Discriminatory Laws
October 22, 2010—Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), a grassroots human rights organization based in Georgetown, Guyana, received support from amfAR’s MSM Initiative in 2009 and 2010. SASOD’s founder and co-chair, Joel Simpson, spoke with amfAR about his organization’s efforts to address HIV among the LGBT community, including advocacy to strike down discriminatory laws that place transgender people at greater risk for HIV.
Much of your recent work has been aimed at legal reform. Why is this necessary?
In February 2009, there was a series of crackdowns by local police against male-to-female transgender people in downtown Georgetown. A year later, we launched a constitutional challenge to those discriminatory laws, hoping that the courts will declare them invalid and unconstitutional.
What’s the connection between these human rights violations and the HIV/AIDS epidemic among the transgender population?
Transphobia and discrimination against transgender people lock them into lower socioeconomic conditions than the average person. For example, if you start to express your transgender identity in high school, you’ll get taunted and teased, and may not finish school. This in turn affects your employment prospects. Many transgender people in Guyana have turned to sex work because they have no other viable choices. Because the sex trade is unregulated in Guyana and there are no protections for sex workers, transgender sex workers, in particular, are exposed to abuse by police and clients, and have less access to non-discriminatory HIV services.
Currently there is also a law on the books prohibiting same-sex sexual behavior. What impact has that had on HIV prevention in Guyana, where HIV prevalence among MSM is estimated at more than 21 percent?
These punitive laws play a role in reinforcing social stigma. Knowing that expressing their sexual orientation in an intimate way, in private, is criminalized has an impact on how MSM feel about themselves, and whether they are willing to take the necessary precautions to ensure good sexual health. This stigma will not change unless we begin to change those laws, and re-educate people so that future generations grow up with more inclusive and appreciative attitudes toward sexual and gender minorities.
amfAR supports your work in three areas. Can you describe these projects?
The amfAR MSM Initiative supports a broad range of work, which many other donors are unwilling to support. The grant supports prevention, policy work aimed at social and structural change, and research. There are other organizations already doing HIV prevention and outreach and service provision work, but there are no organizations working on structural issues like law reform and policy change related to sexual orientation and gender identity. So amfAR is one of the very few donors supporting that kind of work in the region.
The first project amfAR is supporting this cycle is our sign language community learning session. There’s a huge communication gap that marginalizes deaf LGBT people. Therefore they socialize and try to find relationships and sexual partnerships outside the community, in ways that are often risky. Many of them have been subjected to sexual violence, which puts them at greater risk for HIV. So the first approach for us is to bridge the communication gap, by bringing deaf and hearing LGBT people together in one space to learn how to communicate with each other in sign language.
The second area of activity is called the TransJustice Advocacy Project. We hope to bring together the transgender community in a safe space to talk about their issues and design a public education campaign around law reform, particularly the criminalization of cross-dressing.
The third project area is the MSM Prevention with Positives Initiative. It will be a support group for HIV-positive gay and bisexual men to talk about their issues around sexual relationships and staying healthy.