Peter Tatchell: The government’s HIV strategy is failing gay and bisexual men

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Human rights activist Peter Tatchell says that the British Government’s strategy for HIV is failing men who have sex with men, the group seeing the fastest growth in HIV transmission rates.

The UK government’s HIV strategy is failing gay and bisexual men. Ministers have dropped the ball. They’re complacent.

Many gay and bisexual are not taking HIV seriously. They’re not practising safer sex and not getting regular check-ups. As well as a stronger, sharper government strategy on HIV, we need gay and bisexual men to take greater personal responsibility for themselves and their partners. We can’t simply blame the government and homophobia.

In 2011, there were 6,280 new HIV diagnoses in the UK – just under half acquired heterosexually and just over half contracted homosexually.

Despite this shocking scale of new infections, there are no major public HIV awareness and prevention campaigns – let alone any that target gay and bisexual men. Where are the safer sex TV and billboard adverts?

Each new generation needs educating about risky behaviour, and older generations need reminding and encouraging, so they sustain safer sex.

HIV education is woefully inadequate in most schools. Teaching pupils how to roll a condom on a banana is not good enough. Very few students learn what to do if a partner refuses to wear a condom ie. how to negotiate safer sex. There is no popularisation of less risky alternatives to intercourse, such as body rubbing, oral sex and mutual masturbation. These safer alternatives should be explained, glamorised and encouraged, in all secondary schools.

In addition, the safer sex information taught in schools is mostly oriented to heterosexual sex. Gay and bisexual students, and the many straight kids who experiment with homosexuality, get no specific advice on how to have gay sex safely.

Age-appropriate frank and detailed HIV awareness and prevention education should be mandatory in all schools from primary level onwards, before pupils become sexually active and adopt unsafe sexual habits. If safer sex is imbibed at an early age, it is more likely to be practised when a person is older.

The needs of gay and bisexual men continue to be under-resourced, with funding being cut to agencies, such as Gay Men Fighting AIDS, that specialise in safer sex education for men who have sex with men.

Moreover, the limited gay-focussed HIV prevention campaigns that continue to be funded don’t seem to be working, as evidenced by the number of new HIV infections. An estimated one in 20 gay men nationwide have HIV, and one in 11 in London have the virus. Among men who regularly go to gay bars, clubs and saunas, the rate of infection is estimated to be one in 8.

Having won so many gains in terms of legal rights and social acceptance, I want my gay and bisexual brothers to remain safe and healthy, so they can enjoy the benefits of equality.

Peter Tatchell is director of the London-based human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign.