My phone rang and my seemingly distraught friend on the other line tearfully told me that our friend, Kofi had died. He hanged up before I could ask for the details of his death. I made a call to Kofi’s closest friend, whom I knew would have been with him in his last hours. He told me that a week ago Kofi was admitted to the hospital for severe dehydration. This was not the first time Kofi had been admitted to the hospital for this condition. In my three months stay in Ghana this past summer, he was admitted on three separate occasions for the same condition as a result of an infection that he was battling. Kofi confided in me that he was infected with HIV. I was honored to be entrusted with his secret but I also felt burdened by the knowledge that my friend was HIV positive. Kofi contracted HIV sexually from a man. Yes! Kofi was gay. Within a year of his diagnosis, he had slid into full-blown AIDS. Despite efforts to keep him alive on this particular hospital visit, he succumbed to complications of AIDS. He died without his family knowing that he was gay or infected with the virus.
Because not much social, medical and political attention is paid to homosexual practice in Ghana, homosexuals are bearing a high burden of HIV/AIDS and the number living with the disease is estimated at 25 percent by the Ghana AIDS Commission.
To understand what is fueling this epidemic, we must try to grasp the complexities surrounding homosexuality and the HIV infection in the country. Homosexuality is considered a taboo and the act is illegal and punishable under the Ghanaian Criminal code and Sodomy laws. The society tends to lean on the notion that homosexuality is a deviant behavior and a condition exhibited by those with internal psychological problems or those who are possessed or cursed. Fatima Khalid, an HIV counselor at Noguchi Memorial Institute of Medical Research at University of Ghana, Legon recalls hearing a nurse make the comment that if her son was to become one of them (gay), she would poison him. My aunt once retorted during a conversation that gays should be rounded up and killed.
Even the media is punished when they are seen as favoring and condoning homosexuality through the airing of certain programs. In the late 1990s, a talk show host, Oboshie Sai-Coffie was alleged to have lost her sponsorships after she interviewed four openly gay men on her syndicated television show. In light of the general homophobic sentiments, leading social scientists and intellectuals have stayed away from discussing or studying this sexual phenomenon. And from the public health perspective, very little information exists to inform targeted programs – programs desperately needed to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic among this vulnerable group. Being gay and HIV positive is isolating, physically and emotionally. HIV/AIDS is believed to be associated with homosexuality, prostitution, promiscuity and injecting drug use – all behaviors seen as deviant. Therefore, among homosexuals who contract the disease, HIV/AIDS is the extra shame and condemnation that they have to bear. In the end, we all suffer! Gay men are our loved ones – brothers, uncles, in-laws, and fathers. They are our friends, co-workers, professors and classmates. They are not invisible; they live among us, in flesh and in commemoration of World AIDS Day, let us commit to protecting their human rights because it is fundamental to the fight against HIV/AIDS.