Time to Stop Homophobic Crimes
in Latin America and the Caribbean

Dra. Mirta Roses

Dr. Mirta Roses Periago.
Director, Pan American Health Organization.

Publication. The Agua Buena Human Rights Association.
Costa Rica, March 2006.


The observance of World AIDS Day on December 1 last year was, as usual, more an act of solemnity than one of celebration. Once again, another year had passed with millions of lives lost to this unrelenting epidemic.

But last year there was an additional cause for sadness: the murder-on the eve of World AIDS Day-of Jamaican HIV activist Steve Harvey.

Harvey was a leading player in the response to HIV and in support of human rights for more than a decade. His death came as a profound shock and was a loss not only to the HIV movement in Jamaica and the Caribbean but to the whole world. Harvey worked for Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), a nongovernmental organization that provides counseling and assistance to homosexual men and sex workers in Kingston.

Unfortunately, Harvey's murder may not been an isolated event. In 2004 the founder of the homosexual rights movement in Jamaica also was murdered. In June 2005, Octavio Acuña Rubio, a psychologist and well-known human rights and gay activist, was stabbed to death in his office in Queretaro, Mexico. According to an NGO report disseminated by the government of Brazil, 2092 homosexual men and women were murdered in that country between 1963 and 2001.

The investigations of these murders do not provide evidence that they were all hate crimes. It is possible that some of these activists were victims of the pervasive, untargeted violence that affects many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. But we know that homophobia is widespread in the region, and that not enough has been done to address it.

Why should the Pan American Health Organization care about these crimes? Because during our 102 years of existence, we have raised our voice whenever there was a threat to the region. We have helped the countries of the Americas eliminate smallpox, polio, and measles; fight malaria, cholera, and HIV/AIDS; and-most recently-prepare for a potential influenza pandemic.

Today, hatred against homosexual men is not only a threat to human rights (the right to the sexual orientation of one's choice), but to life itself. We know that homophobia contributes to the spread of HIV. Fear of being stigmatized often prevents homosexual men from seeking HIV testing, counseling, and treatment, with the result that they are less likely to adopt measures to protect themselves and others from the virus. This situation was precisely what these murdered activists were trying to change.

There is, however, some good news. The governments of Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia recently launched mass media campaigns against homophobia. In Argentina and Chile, this theme has been featured in poster campaigns and on television. The messages were well received, suggesting that Latin machismo may now be more a stereotype than an irreversible mindset.

Yet the murders of HIV activists move us to reflect that much remains to be done. Governments need to thoroughly investigate the motives for these crimes and deal with their perpetrators, just as Jamaican authorities are doing right now. Countries need to adopt or enforce legal and policy reforms to ensure respect for basic human rights as mandated by their commitments to international treaties and agreements.

All of us have a role to play in support of these and similar efforts. Let us make sure that every day-not just on World AIDS Day-we follow the example of, and honor the memory of those who dedicated their lives to building a supportive, nondiscriminatory environment for all the people of the Americas.


Contact:

Paulo Lyra
Communication Advisor
HIV/AIDS
Pan American Health Organization
Phone: +1 202 974 3937
lyrapaul@paho.org
http://www1.paho.org/AIDS