Mexico tackles discrimination to fight AIDS

The government has launched an ad campaign against homophobia, but some critics oppose using tax dollars.

The Mexican government has launched its first ever antihomophobia campaign to encourage people to get tested for the AIDS virus.

In one radio ad, a mother preparing dinner for her son and his date, whom he is bringing home for the first time, says: "You look so in love, my son. So what's your date's name?"

"Oscar," her son says.

The narrator then conveys that equality begins with accepting people's differences.

The campaign, currently airing in 19 cities and set to go nationwide this month, is ruffling feathers in this Catholic country, with much of the criticism focused on using public funds to pay for the ads. But AIDS continues to spread here, and the government hopes that destigmatizing homosexuality will enable more people to come forward and get help.

The commercials stem from a 2001 constitutional amendment signed by President Vicente Fox, which outlawed discrimination, including bias based on sexuality. In 2003, federal agencies were required to fund tolerance campaigns. After Brazil, Mexico is the second Latin American country to use federal funds to tackle homophobia. Health workers and AIDS activists applaud Mr. Fox for greenlighting the effort.

"Fox gave this campaign some legs, despite his government's ultraconservative image," says Alejandro Brito, a long-time AIDS activist and director of Letra S, a newspaper supplement here that focuses on sexual diversity. "It's a positive step. For the first time, the government is recognizing that religious concerns should not interfere with a public-health problem."

Conservative Catholic groups like the National Unity of Parents and Pro-Life, a politically connected antiabortion organization, oppose the antihomophobia campaign. "We are not saying homosexuals should be discriminated against," says Guillermo Bustamante, the head of National Unity, in an interview. "But this is work for nongovernmental groups, not something our taxes should pay for. Why should we fund a mainstream media campaign that validates wayward tendencies and sexual activity that puts people most at risk of getting AIDS?"

National Unity has produced its own radio spots. One ad features a daughter telling her mother she is attracted to women. The mother says she appreciates her daughter's openness and pledges to help her from acting out "tendencies that could affect her gravely."

So far, the government has decided not to run the National Unity ads.

Mexico's AIDS numbers are not growing at the same rate as other parts of Latin America, namely in Central America and the Caribbean. But not unlike the situation in the United States, Mexican health officials are struggling to control the spread of AIDS among the country's most vulnerable group: men, generally between 25 and 40 years old.

At the end of 2004, the government reported 93,979 Mexicans as HIV-positive, out of a population of 106 million. The UN estimates the number infected at 160,000, counting both reported and unreported cases. Although HIV rates among women is rising, men still account for more than 80 percent of the 4,000 new AIDS cases reported every year, says Jorge Saavedra, head of Mexico's national AIDS program.

Dr. Saavedra says it's time to target the core dilemmas facing those most at risk. "How can we start effective prevention campaigns, programs that get information out there about how people can protect themselves, if society rejects those most vulnerable to AIDS? Taking on homophobia is a first step," he says.

"We've got to brush aside our puritanical tendencies and talk openly," says Arturo Diaz, spokesman for the anti-homophobia campaign. "If we build tolerance, then perhaps more people will become empowered and get tested. And the more people who know their status, the better our chances of reducing AIDS."

Last month, the government released Mexico's first nationwide survey on discrimination. Although most Mexicans said they disagreed with singling people out because of their sexual preferences, 44 percent of those surveyed said they would not share a house with an HIV- positive person, and 42 percent said they would not seek government intervention if their town banned homosexuals.

Hopefully, says Ricardo Hernández of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, the antihomophobia campaign will improve both doctors' treatment of AIDS patients and the health system's image. In January, the Mexican government's human rights commission reported that nine of every 10 complaints it received from people diagnosed with HIV were directed toward the health sector. Also, activists say businesses still discriminate against homosexuals, though they say concrete numbers are lacking.

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