KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 1 – HIV groups today criticised the use of discriminatory language against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community at the 2022 National World AIDS Day Celebration organised by the Ministry of Health (MOH).
The Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) and Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) slammed Prof Madya Mohd Izhar Ariff Mohd Kashim from the Faculty of Religious Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) for making “disparaging and hurtful remarks” towards people living with HIV (PLHIV), the LGBTQI+ community, and other key populations at the World AIDS Day event.
“This was even more inappropriate given that this was a World AIDS Day celebration,” MAC and MAF said in a joint statement.
“MAC had raised their concerns before the meeting and was reassured that the speaker had been briefed and that no discriminatory remarks would be made. MAC will officially write a letter of complaint to MOH and the State Health Department of Negeri Sembilan to respond to this recent incident.”
At today’s event in Seremban organised by the Negeri Sembilan state health department, in collaboration with MAC and MAF, Mohd Izhar Ariff spoke about the role of society in combating HIV & AIDS.
MAC and MAF accused the associate senior fellow at UKM – who has Shariah law qualifications, but not medicine – of using discriminatory language, particularly portrayals of LGBTQI+ and key populations, at the World AIDS Day event that reinforced homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbate stigma.
“Lessons from the HIV response show that stigma and blame directed at populations at risk of HIV can rapidly undermine the HIV response,” they said.
According to the UNAIDS’ “In Danger” 2022 report released last July, HIV infections have now increased since 2015 in 38 countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines, the only two Asean nations listed.
The report cited Malaysia and the Philippines as being among the countries with rising HIV epidemics among “key populations”, defined by UNAIDS as gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers, transgender people, people who inject drugs, and prisoners and other incarcerated people as the five main key population groups that are particularly vulnerable to HIV and frequently lack adequate access to services.
A message shared with MAF chairwoman Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman by attendees at MOH’s World AIDS Day event in Seremban, which was not broadcast on MOH’s Facebook page, said Mohd Izhar Ariff’s talk was “all about discriminating against the community”.
“Below are some of the critical statement shared during his talk – calling out the transgender women as ‘pondan’, instead of Mak Nyah. Transgender community needs to ‘insaf’ (regret) and ‘bertaubat’ (repent) from being a Mak Nyah.
“Being an LGBTQI+ person is a mental disorder and root cause of HIV infection. A ‘halal’ relationship (that includes a man marries 4 times) will not contract HIV,” read the message, as sighted by CodeBlue.
Former Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said last March in a written parliamentary reply that HIV infection via sexual transmission can occur through unprotected sex with an infected person, such as not wearing a condom, irrespective of a person’s sexuality. As such, MOH’s HIV data is based on risk factors rather than sexual orientations like LGBTQ.
Dr Adeeba, in several tweets, told Mohd Izhar Ariff: “Ok Prof if you can’t be compassionate, at the very least you can try and not be so bigoted and hurtful at a World AIDS Day event! And as if that’s not enough, you are also spreading wrong information about how the disease can be transmitted.”
The HIV expert told MOH to commit to working with the community in key population-led programmes, as has been successfully shown in Thailand and Vietnam, and “not give a platform to misguided and bigoted academics/ Ustazs”.
“Honestly, JKNS and AIDS-STI Unit KKM, you can do and be better than this,” Dr Adeeba tweeted.
MOH’s corporate communications department told CodeBlue that MOH would check on the incident, when asked for comment.
Ironically, Mohd Izhar Ariff’s alleged transphobic and discriminatory remarks occurred when this year’s World AIDS Day theme is “Equalise”, a call for action to address the inequalities which are holding back progress in ending the AIDS epidemic.
In an op-ed, Dr Adeeba called for reform to laws, policies, and practices to tackle the stigma and exclusion faced by PLHIV and the marginalised segments of the population.
“This includes men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people, people who use drugs, sex workers, and their partners.”