HIV Infection on the Rise Among Men Who Have Sex with Men

By Mon Mon Myat

RANGOON, June 3, 2010 (IPS) - The only son in his family, Maung Maung Oo was forced to marry when he was 24 years old. By then he had been carrying on a sexual relationship with a man for four years – which he continued even after his marriage.

For the next 14 years, Oo led a double life. But in 2005, he finally decided to be true to himself: He left his wife and three children for his male partner.

"My wife was so shocked when she learned of my affair with a man," says Oo. "But I can’t change how I feel though I have the body of a man."

Oo, however, is still living a life in the shadows. Although he and his partner are now living together, their relationship remains a secret to most people. "My partner does not want people to know we are living together as a couple," Oo explains. "He wants to pretend that we are brothers."

According to Ko Aye, who conducted a pioneering study on men who have sex with men (MSM) in Burma in 2003, stigma remains against people like Oo in this South-east Asian country of 48 million people. Yet while he says there is "not a very serious or strong reaction" against MSM, many MSM themselves apparently think there is a need to keep their "true identity" secret.

This has complicated efforts to limit, if not stop, the spread of HIV among MSM in the country. According to official data, HIV prevalence among MSM in Burma was 29.3 percent as of 2008, or 42 times higher than the national adult prevalence rate.

Men who have sex with men include both those who may not identify themselves as homosexual, and those who do and include those in sex work as well. Estimates by the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation put the MSM population in Burma, as of 2007, at 280,000.

Aye says that the stigma against MSM in general stems from "religious principle or traditional beliefs." This has led to people like well known make- up artist Soe Soe to believe that having relationships with men could not possibly be called "fortunate."

"We end up in this kind of life because of karma in the past," Soe Soe told IPS. "This is not what we choose to be."

It is a viewpoint that persists despite Aye’s observation of an improvement in the public attitude toward MSM. Thanks to the "development of information technology," Aye says, "people usually accept it" nowadays.

"For example," he says, "students may know a teacher is gay, but they accept him as a teacher."

There are also several prominent members of the entertainment and fashion sectors who are gay, whether they are out in the open or not, but enjoy public acclaim and respect.

Yet, for sure, it has not helped to reassure many that the government continues to portray homosexuality as "evil" or at the very least deserving of public scorn.

Just in February, the prominent ‘Bi-Weekly Eleven Journal’ ran an article quoting supposed medical experts as saying that homosexuality could lead to mental illness and sexual crimes.

Section 377 of the Penal Code also prohibits homosexuality, with penalties ranging from 10 years to life, plus fines. (A travel advisory by the British government says that in June 2007, an "EU national" was sentenced to seven years in prison in Burma for "committing homosexual acts.")

As a result, many MSM would rather keep their sexual preferences – and obviously their sexual lives – tightly under wraps. Chances are, too, they are reticent in seeking treatment even if they suspect that they already have HIV.

Soe Soe, for instance, says that he does not even "dare to join an MSM network."

In truth, despite the official condemnation of homosexuality, there are dozens of local MSM networks in major cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, with local community-based organisations providing these with information and counselling services.

One of these networks is called ‘Golden Queen’, which has as members 45 MSM, including several who are living with HIV.

Unlike Soe Soe, Myo Tun, a sex worker who has an entirely male clientele, apparently thought nothing of becoming one of Golden Queen’s members. He says, "Whether society accepts us or not, we have already ended up in this life."

"We need to raise awareness among our fellow (MSM) as we are at high risk for HIV infection," he adds. "We often face problems of condom tearing. That could spread HIV easily."

Maung Maung Oo now knows this all too well. Two years ago, he discovered that an illness his partner was suffering from was actually one that comes with having AIDS. Not long after, he found out that he himself had it as well.

Unlike many other MSM in Burma, however, Oo and his partner did not hesitate in seeking treatment. They have since been regularly receiving anti- retroviral treatment from an international nongovernment organisation. Every six months, they also have their blood checked to monitor the number of white blood cells that fight infection and that helps indicate the stage of the disease in their system.

Oo says that when he first found out that his lover had HIV, "it was like a flame in my heart."

"If he dies," he says, "I think I’d also die soon after from depression."

And yet Oo says that he has found his life more meaningful than it was when he was still with his wife and children. "I believe there is real love between us," he says of his relationship with his partner. "Without that, how can we keep this relationship for 23 years?"


Source: IPS

0 Response to "HIV Infection on the Rise Among Men Who Have Sex with Men"

Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger