A reader tells his story about being an HIV-positive gay man in Bulawayo and Soweto, and his battle against discrimination.
In 1998, Adam (not his real name) attended his first safer sex workshop in Bulawayo. Many of these kinds of workshops, where people get to know how to use condoms, are readily available to men who have sex with men (MSM) in Zimbabwe.
Two years later, an ex-partner accused Adam of infecting him with HIV. He went to Adam’s employers and told them that he had infected him with HIV. Adam was forced to go for an HIV test by his employers which came back showing that he was HIV positive. Adam remembers: “I felt kind of betrayed that my employers were falling for the blackmail. I had broken up with this person – and so he said I infected him with HIV because he wanted me to give him money and food, because I had a job. He wanted support from me.”
Today Adam (38), living in Soweto, considers himself as a self-identified black gay man and explains: “I always believed that when a person is born they are born for a reason, and they are born with different sexual orientations. There are straight people and there are gay people. Especially amongst the gay population in the black community people will say it is a foreign thing to be gay. They will say it is a white man’s disease, and as our Zimbabwean President will say, they are ‘worse than pigs and dogs’. But I believe each person has to follow their own feelings and sexual orientation, because in most cases people have opted for suicide because of the stress, when they can’t live two lives at the same time. I have adopted – accepted – that I am gay. I have told my family that I am gay and that I will never marry. And they are OK with it.”
Not always ‘gay’
But Adam was not always “gay”. When he was younger he had quite a number of girlfriends, dating mostly girls he met at church - all at the same time. “At school people would call me ‘moffie’ and ‘stabane’ and ‘homosexual’ and stuff like that, maybe because of the way that I presented myself, and the way that I spoke at such a tender age. However, I decided to embrace my sexuality and I became gay. And I even revealed that I’m gay to my last girlfriend - and she was OK with it.”
When he first tested positive for HIV in Zimbabwe, Adam received excellent health care, and his employers had a scheme whereby all the HIV-positive staff could access HIV treatment.
Many gays and lesbians face discrimination from doctors and nurses when undergoing voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) for HIV. In Adam’s case the nurses at the clinic in Harare asked many questions and they understood that he was a gay man. He adds: “they did not discriminate against me because I was gay and they did not stigmatise me in any way, they were quite good. They really were quite friendly to me, referring me to a particular doctor at a particular clinic who had friends who brought medication from overseas to help men in my situation. The doctor helped quite a number of people in our community to access treatment, and most of them survived during this time in the township. They also did three types of testing – I don’t remember all the types of testing – and the results all came back positive.”
After moving to Johannesburg, Adam was getting three months’ supply of ARV medication sent from home by his family. “The medicine was sponsored by an organisation in the United States, and then going to my personal GP who gave it to my parents to send over to me in South Africa.” Adam now has access to a clinic where he can get his ARV medicine, as well as regularly checking his CD4 count and viral load, free of charge. He proudly adds: “I am 100% adherent and in perfect health!”
High HIV prevalence
Adam is well aware that the HIV prevalence amongst men who have sex with men in Soweto is very high – estimated by some expert researchers to be in the region of 30 to 50%. Despite a desperate lack of awareness and support amongst black gay men, especially for those living with HIV, he was able to access a support group for gay and lesbian people through his church.
HIV remains a thorny topic amongst black gay men in Gauteng townships for a variety of reasons, and he adds: “Sometimes they do talk about it – in one-on-one discussions. But basically in the course of a meeting they don’t talk about it because of the stigma – some people still have the stigma attached to HIV. But I am open about my HIV status – even to the group. And in the group we discuss quite a number of issues that pertain to Christianity and being gay. We also talk about being HIV positive, being a Christian and being gay. And there is good support from the group and priests themselves. I think the church is doing a good job having this particular group.”
Some black gay men don’t self-identify as “homosexual”, but they do have sex with other men that includes high risk-taking behaviours and unsafe sexual practices.
Adam explains: “I think it is because - in the townships – they have stereotypes. They have this kind of saying that ‘I am a man so I should be married’. Most of the men will do that: say they are not gay and sleep with other men. And they are married to women and are living two lives. They do not want to identify themselves as bisexual or gay – they just want to identify themselves as men who sleep with men (MSM). Not exactly gay or bisexual. This is because of the stigma attached to the words bisexual and gay. Because some people think that gay is un-African and that it is not an African practice.”
Black gay men face many challenges - especially when they are a Christian – based on the things that are said in the Bible about homosexuality. Due to the oppressive laws in various African countries where homosexuality is punishable with the death penalty, labour camps, imprisonment and other harsh punishments, many of these men go underground to express their true sexuality.
Adam is determined to make a change and sees a way forward for his peers: “I think people should embrace who they are. I personally feel that their conscience should guide them. If we look at culture, culture has its own imbalances, and as a gay and a Christian man I believe God created everybody differently, for a purpose. God did not make a mistake creating me as a gay person. And I don’t believe it is the work of the devil that somebody sleeps with the same sex. God created it that way. And he made me that – he is the one that created me as a man and gave me the feelings to be gay and have feelings for other men.”
Many people today still believe that being gay and contracting HIV is a “punishment from God”, but Adam explains that it is actually more a case of being lucky or unlucky. “I personally believe HIV has exposed me to so many things – I was lucky to get HIV. And because I have had bad publicity about me which I would not like to discuss. You get HIV for a variety of reasons. It is not a punishment. It is just like another disease, like you can get cancer. Some people don’t even go around saying ‘I want cancer’ or ‘I want sugar diabetes.’ It is unfortunate that HIV is stigmatised to sex and people will think that a person has to be a pervert to have sex to get HIV. But it is just unfortunate.”
(Yngve Sjolund, March 2011)
Yngve Sjolund is a consultant for various HIV/AIDS NGO’s in research, writing and editing - around HIV, sexual and reproductive rights, gender-based violence and sexual minorities.
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This article was made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation of South Africa’s Media Fellowship Programme.