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GRASSROOTS: The GMT Initiative Blog

Grassroots reports on the work of amfAR-supported research teams and advocates responding to the devastating impact of HIV among gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT).

Dr. Paul Semugoma Discusses His Fight for LGBT Rights in Uganda

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Posted by Lucile Scott, July 10, 2014

Dr. Paul Semugoma and Amirah Sequeira from the Student Global AIDS Campaign during amfAR’s “Making AIDS History: From Science to Solutions” event on Capitol Hill

Dr. Paul Semugoma will be honored by amfAR, the International AIDS Society and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation with the 2014 Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, July 20. The award recognizes exemplary efforts to advance human rights in the field of HIV and AIDS.

Dr. Paul, as he is known to patients and friends, was among the first physicians in Uganda to provide HIV care and education for MSM. In 2009, he publicly opposed Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill after it was introduced in Parliament.  The bill, which was signed into law earlier this year, punishes same-sex sexual activity with life in prison and criminalizes the promotion of homosexuality—a category that includes providing HIV services that target LGBT. Due to his work advocating for LGBT rights, Dr. Paul was placed on a Ugandan “wanted list,” and in 2012 fear for his safety caused him to move to South Africa with his partner. This February, shortly after the Anti-Homosexuality Bill became law, he was detained at a Johannesburg airport and nearly deported back to Uganda, prompting an outpouring of support from LGBT advocates worldwide. In April, Dr. Paul spoke on a panel atMaking AIDS History: From Science to Solutions,” an amfAR-sponsored briefing on Capitol Hill. The following is excerpted from that event.

amfAR: Why did you begin addressing HIV among MSM in Uganda at a time when few other advocates or doctors were doing so?

Dr. Paul Semugona: When I started practicing medicine in Uganda, people really didn’t believe that HIV was a problem among MSM, and MSM were told that you get HIV from women, so they thought they were okay. Through a process of self-teaching, I realized that I had a big problem because I identified with a community that had no knowledge of a very big problem—HIV. So I made a program for my people in my country, Uganda.

amfAR: How has the Anti-Homosexuality Law impacted the ability of MSM to access HIV treatment and care in Uganda?

Dr. Paul: My friends are being arrested. The clinics where they go to get drugs are getting raided for promoting homosexuality. The doctors who are supposed to look after them are getting guidelines from the government that they are not supposed to promote homosexuality, so they will not tell MSM that getting HIV is a problem in the community, and they will not give them condoms or lubricant. MSM are being denied knowledge, being denied health, and being denied advocacy. But we can’t stop talking about the link between HIV and gay sexuality. Please don’t keep quiet. Silence is death. We are not promoting homosexuality. We are trying to control a disease, a virus.

amfAR: Could you describe your current work at Anova Health Institute in Johannesburg?

Dr. Paul: In South Africa, there is still a lot of stigma and discrimination towards gay men, but our patients know they can talk to their doctor about their experiences. We are given space where we can access medicines and care and protect our partners. All the advances happening in HIV in the world are accessible here at home. It gives me a belief that something like that can happen even in a country like Uganda. Uganda is not a good place to be as a gay person, but I am a gay African, and I will not let them take that identity away from me.