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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gay Armenians March to Raise HIV Awareness

By Kilian Melloy -

As HIV rates skyrocket in Armenia, GLBT advocates and activists staged a march there to raise awareness on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

The groups in attendance at the march included Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK), Women’s Resource Center, and Real World Real People, reported IanyanMag on Dec. 2.

The article noted that the march took place against a backdrop in which HIV cases had soared by 25% over the last ten years, while in more than 50 other nations worldwide transmission rates had flattened or even decreased.

HIV/AIDS activists have long argued for decriminalization of homosexuality in countries where gays are still legally persecuted, saying that social and legal proscriptions drive gays underground--and the epidemic along with it. Gays, bisexuals, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) tend to avoid testing in anti-gay societies, with the result being that they do not get treatment or counseling. The lack of resources and education, combined with the furtive nature of same-sex contacts in such cultures, drives increases in HIV rates, health authorities and GLBT advocates say.

But the cycle also operates the other way; when HIV rates climb, anti-gay fear and persecution can also intensify. Armenian group We For Civil Society NGO asserted that this was the case in Armenia, posting on its website text reading, "With the increase of HIV infected people, there is an increase in the violation of their rights and freedoms and a tendency of isolation from the [larger] society."

Armenia has had a law on the books, an amended version of the Law on Preventing the Disease Caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, since April of last year designed to "strengthen... protection against stigma and discrimination, and provide... for measures aimed at health education and HIV awareness," the article said, quoting from a Canadian publication that referenced the legislation. But the social and political climate in Armenia remains difficult for GLBTs; a Wikipedia article notes that although legal punishments against gays were removed from the country’s penal code in 2003, the social stigma has not as yet diminished, and many GLBT Armenians remain in the closet out of fear of violence at the hands of others, including their own families.

The country was, until two decades ago, part of the Soviet Union, and while some former Soviet nations have adopted friendlier laws and attitudes toward gays, many--including Russia, Slovakia, and Poland--have remained largely homophobic.

IanyanMag reported that the marchers in Armenia distributed "printed booklets with stories about people living with HIV that were infected due to lack of knowledge as well those who experienced discrimination that prevented them from received adequate medical care, according to Mamikon Hovsepyan, head of PINK."

"We Armenians don’t talk about HIV, human rights violations and discrimination, we don’t see what is going on," Hovsepyan told the press. "We think if we keep silent, time will go on and everything will be ok. But in fact, we need to speak, inform and be informed because silence is not a solution." To underscore this, Hovsepyan said, the event also featured mirrors that invited passersby to look at them in order to "see who can be affected by AIDS."

"Usually people say: ’Oh AIDS is not our problem, let drug users, bad women or gays think of it,’" Hovsepyan explained. "We wanted to show that there are no risky people, but there is risky behavior that any of us can have."

The article said that the deputy director of policy at HIV/AIDS organization amFar, Jirair Ratevosian, posted a letter on Facebook to communicate about HIV/AIDS to Armenians globally. "In our motherland, the epidemic is concentrated primarily among people who inject drugs, sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men," Ratevosian noted. "It is no coincidence the epidemic is spreading in populations that are socially marginalized and politically irrelevant. Stigma, discrimination and violence against LGBT Armenian and other vulnerable groups fuel the spread of HIV and AIDS."

Ratevosian encouraged Armenians the world over to "raise awareness in our homes and in our communities--in schools, with lawmakers, community leaders, the media and the church. Above all, we must support our courageous brothers and sisters working in our homeland each and every day for equality and social justice."
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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