The annual International Day Against Homophobia on May 17 offers an opportunity to reflect on the state of the worldwide gay rights movement. Jesus Aguais, an AQ Innovator (Fall 2007) and executive director of New York-based Aid for AIDS International, talks with AQ Online about homophobia’s implications on HIV/AIDS and Latin America’s recent progress in gay rights.
Interview by Ryan Berger
Americas Quarterly Online: How does homophobia affect progress in HIV/AIDS awareness?
Aguais: It is a big issue in not just the Americas, but the United States as well. In terms of HIV, there is a general perception that the virus exclusively affects the gay population who in turn do not take enough precautions to prevent it. This undoubtedly presents challenges in combating such a misperception. I believe homophobia comes from ingrained religious beliefs, but there are strategies that we are exploring to minimize homophobia. The most useful strategies relate to youth. Aid for AIDS has undergone an initiative called ¿Cuánto sabes de VIH/SIDA? (How much do you know about HIV/AIDS?), and has also sponsored programs on sexual and reproductive health.
AQ: What can be done to get policymakers to focus more on the need to promote more attention to AIDS?
Aguais: Regrettably, AIDS is not perceived as a legitimate threat anymore—so lawmakers are no longer aggressively committed to giving it proper attention. It is time for the AIDS community to recalibrate the message. I am pleased that international institutions like the United Nations are taking up the issue. Government and society must stand together.
AQ: What are your thoughts on the recent trend of certain Latin American countries to recognize civil unions or marriages between same-sex couples?
Aguais: This is big progress; New York should be ashamed. Homophobia is perceived as a moral and religious issue. A person is born homosexual or heterosexual and thus does not choose. [New York State Senator and outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage] Rubén Díaz should take note. This type of homophobia attracts followers who do not understand the issue. So far, the overwhelming majority of vocal gay-rights advocates are members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community. I believe that heterosexual individuals also need to get more involved.
In the Americas—specifically in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela—gay and bisexual youth are getting more vocal in expressing support for gay rights. This trend is especially notable in the last 10 years. They understand the power of education.
It is also worth noting is that Latin America is a largely Catholic continent, and the Vatican has made its views of homosexuality no secret. When one considers what Brazil accomplished earlier this month with its legalization of same-sex unions, this should send a powerful message to New York City—a self-proclaimed embracer of liberal values yet a frequent hotbed for gay-bashing.
AQ: What is your assessment of the impact of social media in the gay rights movement?
Aguais: Social media and Web 2.0 tools are certainly making it easier for people to communicate. Information can be disseminated faster. I think that LGBT celebrities being proud of their identity can have a profound impact on the movement. For instance, when [Puerto Rican pop star] Ricky Martin came out, I honestly believe that this statement saved lives. Youth suicides were prevented.
AQ: What do you hope will be achieved in terms of gay rights in Latin America by this time next year?
Aguais: I want more people to be brought together. I am a big promoter of inclusion. Right now, only gay officials speak out against homophobia—but truthfully, all heterosexuals need to get involved. Gay rights needs to be everybody’s issue. Once this happens, I am confident that we will see greater change at not only the grassroots level, but in terms of policy outcomes as well.