Invisible and vulnerable
It was a wedding that pulled out all the stops, including a party at the Marine Club on the island of Luanda and a five-star nuptial night at the Hotel Presidente Meridien. The ceremony didn't go unnoticed by Angola’s newspapers. “Shameless,” screamed the cover of one of the country’s weekly news magazines. “Abominable,” read the headline of another. Angolan couple, Bruna and Chano paid a high price for making their homosexual relationship public.
The two young men met when they were both living in the Luanda neighbourhood of Bês. After seeing each other for three and a half years, they decided to hold a ceremony to make their relationship feel official, although doing so legally was not an option. On May 6, 2005, 21-year-old Aleksander Gregório (Chano), and 23-year-old Bruno*, better known as Bruna, signed a letter of commitment in the presence of a retired notary. All aspects of the ceremony were discussed in minute detail in newspapers and café conversation: the fact that Bruna wore a wedding dress, the party’s guest list, and, above all, the couple’s sexuality. Newspapers used terms such as “shameless” to describe the young men's relationship. Despite the attacks, Chano and Bruna held out and remain together, five years after beginning their relationship.
The love that dares not say its name
Data from an epidemiological study carried out in 2007 by the National Institute for the Fight Against AIDS (INLS) showed that five percent of all HIV infections in Angola were among men who had sex with men (MSM). These numbers, however, do not make the subject any less taboo. According to Américo Kwanonoka, an anthropologist, "Angolan society is not yet prepared to accept homosexuals.” The local culture, which is influenced by Christianity, calls for the perpetuation and expansion of the family. Homosexuality is therefore viewed as an affront to the laws of nature, said Kwanonoka.
Jane Dias, 35, who was born João Dias, has personally felt the effects of such intolerance. Many of those who cuss and throw stones at us on the street are the same ones who come knocking at our door at night “I’ve had rocks thrown at me in the street. I used to think I was the only transvestite in Viana [a neighborhood of Luanda],” she told IRIN/PlusNews. Edna, 21, who was born Edson*, dropped out of school in 8th grade because she suffered so much persecution from her classmates. Not surprisingly, few individuals in Angola are prepared to risk being open about their homosexuality. “Many of those who cuss and throw stones at us on the street are the same ones who come knocking at our door at night,” revealed Dias.
Social psychologist Carlinhos Zassala explained that many Angolan gays use marriage as a way of avoiding stigma, but once married, continue to have occasional sex with other men. In many cases, the casual sex does not involve the use of condoms. In Angola, a commonly-held assumption that only men with feminine mannerisms are homosexual means that many who have sex with other men do not self-identify as gay, pointed out Roberto Campos, an official with UNAIDS. "If the person fails to recognise himself as such, the message of safe sex doesn’t reach him. The fact is that unprotected anal sex presents a high virus transmission risk.” The men interviewed by IRIN/PlusNews confirmed that they had repeatedly exposed themselves to risk.
Edna said she did not like to use condoms because she was allergic to the lubricating oil. She admitted to having sexual relations without a condom with her boyfriend, who is married and the father of two children. According to Edna, her boyfriend has tested negative for HIV. She herself tested after becoming convinced she was infected. “Four months ago, I was feeling weak and nauseated, so I decided to take the test. The result came back negative, but they asked me to take it again in three months,” she said.
Because they are an invisible population, gays are ignored in government AIDS policies, such as the 2007-2010 National Strategic Plan for the Control of Sexually Transmitted Infections, HIV and AIDS. A 2007 study carried out by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission called "Off the Map: How HIV/AIDS Programming is Failing Same-Sex Practicing People in Africa,” found that gays throughout the continent were excluded from HIV/AIDS programmes. The "silence regarding HIV infection among homosexuals” meant that Messages about safe sex were exclusively tailored to heterosexuals, leaving the gay population neither informed nor protected.
The lack of information also creates problems at health facilities
Esmeralda, 29, who was born Pedro*, said that, when she went to the Military Hospital in Luanda to take an HIV test, the nurse told her she didn’t need to test, because it was certain she was already infected. All of the men interviewed by IRIN/PlusNews expressed their wish to access HIV and AIDS services at a facility tailored to their specific needs. “I would like for us to have special attention. Many organisations have already made promises, but to this day none of them have been put into practice,” Edna said.
In 2006, the non-governmental organisation Acção Humana (Human Action) tried to develop a prevention programme for gay men. The idea was to encourage the use of condoms, combat discrimination and advocate for human rights. “We wanted a project implemented by gays themselves as educating peers who would get in contact with other gay people at night clubs, bars and beaches,” explained Acção Humana Coordinator, Pombal Maria. The organisation managed to recruit 14 men who were given preliminary training, but the initiative lost steam due to a lack of resources. In 2007, when the NGO presented a proposal for a similar programme to donors, they rejected it on the basis that there were not enough homosexuals in Angola to justify the project.
One positive development for Angola's homosexual population has been the launch of a study this month that will be conducted by the INLS, in partnership with the United States Centres for Disease Control. The aim is to identify the habits and behaviours of this group, including their risks and vulnerability with regards to HIV.
“This demonstrates an important political change. Before, gays were not a priority issue. Now they have stopped being invisible and have been included in discussions on public health and the HIV epidemic,” said UNAIDS’ Campos.
*Last name withheld at the request of interviewee
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.