Joel Gustave Nana, a 28-year-old from Cameroon, has risen to international recognition as one of the leading advocates for human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and people living with HIV in Africa. Recently, he was named the executive chair of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), an umbrella organization of 15 different LGBT/HIV organizations across sub-Saharan Africa.
AMSHeR formed in 2008 when a group of HIV advocates from Africa convened at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. After many conversations about the issues LGBT Africans were facing, they decided there needed to be a wide effort to decriminalize homosexuality across the continent; gather HIV prevalence and incidence data on African men who have sex with men (MSM); and obtain significant funding for prevention and treatment.
This coalition could not have come together at a more critical time. Earlier this year, the Ugandan government (in a backlash against a 2009 court decision that sided on behalf of a Ugandan lesbian assaulted by police) embarked on a campaign to make gay sex a crime punishable by death. Through pressure from African and human rights activists around the world, the government backed down, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo recently decided to consider similar measures. Then there was the imprisonment of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, a gay couple in Malawi who got married, were sentenced to 14 years in prison, and then later were pardoned.
Such severe homophobia makes it difficult for HIV/AIDS workers to do outreach, not only due to the stigma and fear of being policed because of it, but also because this hostility toward the LGBT community has forced members of the community to go underground, making it difficult to reach them.
Nana is trying to change that. This year alone, under Nana’s direction, AMSHeR lobbied heavily against the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill, and got 13 high-ranking officials from African governments and 39 civil society organizations to endorse a signed letter denouncing the bill; fought against the imprisonment of Chimbalanga and Monjeza; and began collecting a lot of the new research studies on HIV risk and African MSM from other sources and posting it on its own site to make the information more accessible.
While Nana admits that his work is nowhere near done, he is hopeful about the impact it could potentially have. "Should our voices be heard, and the barriers that stop MSM and transgender people from accessing HIV services addressed, we believe it will contribute immensely to curbing the epidemic not just in Africa but around the world," he says.