Men who have sex with men (MSM) do not make headlines in South African media and HIV experts have warned that a lack of accurate coverage prevents targeted HIV prevention and care for these men.
Oscar Radebe is a doctor specializing in HIV care and treatment at the Simon Nkoli Men’s Health Centre - named for one of the country’s first openly gay, HIV-positive human rights activists - in Johannesburg’s largest township, Soweto. Radebe spoke at a recent roundtable discussion about the South African media’s tendency to divide men into two groups, heterosexual or homosexual.
"MSM doesn't mean that you're gay – it just [means] a man who sleeps with other men ... but as soon as you say that a man sleeps with another man, people think that's 'gay'," Radebe told IRIN/PlusNews. "We have to get away from boxing people and come to an understanding."
Reinforcing stereotypes that all MSM are gay – or that they have the same HIV prevention needs as gay men – may alienate this vulnerable group, which does not usually self-identify as being gay. It may also deter them from accessing target HIV services for fear of being labelled “gay”, he added.
"This is what media has to understand before they can actually put a story out there about homosexuality or MSM," he said.
About 6 percent of lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) and MSM surveyed have reported being turned away from government clinics, government reports have estimated.
According to the national strategic plan (NSP), at least 70 percent of MSM should have been reached with a comprehensive, customized HIV prevention package by 2011.
But the country is unlikely to meet this target. According to a recently released government review of NSP progress, nobody is systematically collecting data on HIV prevention among MSM. This review also noted that its researchers could find no national initiatives aimed at preventing HIV transmission in MSM.
The results of three 2009 studies conducted in Johannesburg and Durban found that HIV prevalence rates among MSM were as high as about 38 percent - or double that found among South Africa’s general population.
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Raising MSM profile
Sindi Van Zyl, with the Anova Health Institute, is a doctor at an ARV clinic. She thought better reporting on HIV – including MSM – would boost her patients’ HIV knowledge as it was mostly gleaned from tabloid newspapers.
But same-sex relationships remain difficult terrain for media in South Africa. One of the most popular television soap operas, Generations, recently broke new ground with a gay kiss – and lost a substantial number of viewers in the process, according to Melissa Meyer, a project coordinator with the HIV/AIDS and the Media Project at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand.
Even health communication powerhouses such as LoveLife and Soul City, whose programming regularly focuses on HIV, have not touched MSM, leaving that awareness-raising to smaller NGOs.
According to Meyer, it is hard to determine which came first: a lack of coverage of MSM issues in the media or society’s continued marginalization of MSM and their HIV prevention needs.
“The way we treat these issues in the media and the way society treats them – it’s a bit of a two-way road. Media presents issues the way society tends to treat them,” Meyer said. “We don’t read about men who have sex with men at all, we often read about gays and homosexuals who are on the fringes of society – and that is probably quite dangerous.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions