Fiona Salter is a writer at International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). The views expressed are her own.
In a week that saw welcome reports of more than a 50 percent drop in new HIV infections, and as the international community marks World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the fight to eliminate violence, stigma and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people continues to be waged by courageous activists around the globe.
It is a fight that has been a consistent feature of HIV’s 30-year history, as advocates battle to defeat discrimination and ensure everyone has the same rights and access to services and treatment.
Marginalisation, stigma, shame and criminalisation all prevent people from getting the help, protection and services they need.
But encouragingly, it is a fight that has seen some progress in the past year. From the lifting of U.S. travel restrictions for people living with HIV who wanted to take part in the International AIDS Conference held in Washington, D.C. in July, to the recent suspension of Malawi’s laws against same-sex relationships pending a decision on whether to repeal the legislation, progress is evident.
To recognise the work of such activists and leaders, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) – the world’s largest sexual and reproductive health and rights organisation – has awarded the 2013 David Kato Vision & Voice Award to Ali Erol who has been challenging stigma and homophobia in Turkey, his home country, for more than 20 years.
The award is inspired by the life of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato, who was murdered for his sexuality, to recognize the leadership of individuals who strive to uphold the human rights and human dignity of LGBTI people around the world.
Ali, is one of the founders of KAOS GL - a support group for gay and lesbian people –has been at the forefront of efforts in Ankara to defend the needs and political hopes of the LGBTI community.
From threats by officials to ban KAOS GL for promoting “immorality”, to fear in the workplace if sexual orientation is discovered, Ali has been determined to challenge institutionalised homophobia and discrimination in his country.
Daily prejudice, lack of anti-discrimination laws and violent crimes based on people’s sexuality are all issues being faced by the LGBTI community in Turkey.
The inaugural David Kato award was given in 2012 to Maurice Tomlinson, a law lecturer and one of the most prominent gay rights activists in the world. Maurice was forced to flee his home country of Jamaica in fear of his life where more than 80 percent of the Jamaican population is homophobic.
Since 1997, at least 35 Jamaicans have been murdered because of their sexuality. Maurice gives the following insight into his year as the David Kato Awardee.
“The Award reminded me that I am not alone in the fight to end stigma and discrimination. I am part of a global movement for social justice and the past year has given me unprecedented opportunities both personally and as an activist on behalf of those who are not heard.
From carrying out LGBT sensitivity training for Caribbean police, to having the privilege of being the Grand Marshall at the 1st Ugandan Pride March in August, it has been a year that I hope David Kato would be proud of as his legacy continues to inspire action.”
As Ali accepts the Award, he faces some often shocking views in Turkey. When the former Minister of Women and Family calls homosexuality a disease, you get a sense of the challenges facing him and other activists.
He said: "I made the choice to commit my life to this struggle, and since then I've remained committed to this choice despite all the threats and difficulties."
“Homophobic hate chokes our voices and blockades our lives on a global scale by imprisoning us in invisibility. Against the policies of denial, which can turn homophobia into violence, we must establish local, regional and global networks and empower each other in the fight against stigma and hatred.
“I am proud to receive the David Kato Vision and Voice Award. It will make me stronger and give me more courage to continue to fight for liberation.”
On World AIDS Day, at a time when scientific advances in treatment and access are being scaled up, we must ensure that fighting stigma is seen as one of the key interventions to tackle the epidemic. Harmful policies that continue to discriminate must be challenged and stigma-free services made available.
Stigma begins and ends with each one of us. The combination of ignorance, prejudice and fear makes fertile ground for HIV transmission to continue. IPPF will continue supporting Ali and the many thousands of activists around the world today to stand up to stigma.