The discrimination and stigma surrounding gays in Africa may actually hamper their access to HIV/AIDS programs, activists cautioned.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists took centre stage Thursday at the 15th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA), the first ICASA to give such attention to the specific problems of sexual minorities.
"Homophobia fuels the spread of AIDS. In Africa main stream HIV/AIDS and human rights organisations do not want to address the issue mainly because homosexuality is still illegal in most countries," Joel Nana, program associate Southern and West Africa for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), said.
In fact just identifying people as gay or lesbian is very sensitive in Africa and NGO's at ICASA prefer to speak of men who have sex with men (MSM) or women who have sex with women (WSW) to avoid stigmatisation.
"In Africa there are many men here who have sex with men but are married and do not identify as gay," Boris Dittrich, the Human Rights Watch advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender program told AFP.
"There is research that shows that vulnerable groups like men who have sex with men, sex workers and intravenous drug users are not being reached because their behaviour is criminalized," he said.
Nana cited research that showed that in Africa men who have sex with men are nine times more vulnerable to contracting HIV that the general population.
Still the associations all stress that just their being here at the conference is a sign that there is progress, albeit slow.
"This is the first time we are getting such attention," Nana said.
But it will be a long uphill battle, activists warned.
"There is some progress but it is not yet on a large scale," Yves, a spokesman for Africagay, an umbrella organisation of 18 associations in ten African countries, told AFP.
"We set up this network in October 2007 to be stronger and change mentalities because the issue (of gays) is not included in the prevention and treatment," the young man, who did not want to give his last name for fear of reprisals, said.
Senegal, which hosts this ICASA conference, is an example of the ambiguity surrounding gays and HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa.
The West African country is one of only seven which specifically targets men who have sex with men in their national AIDS prevention plans but at the same time there are still laws in place that criminalize homosexual acts with prison sentences of up to five years.
"Regrettably the general tendency in Africa now is towards a more and more strict application of the laws," Cary Alan Johnson, Africa specialist for the South-Africa based IGLHRC, told AFP.
Only last month the parliament of Burundi voted through a law that outlaws homosexuality. And stories of repression persist.
In Cameroon in 2005 11 gay men were arrested and spent nearly a year in jail. Earlier this year in Senegal 11 people were arrested after local media reported they attended a "gay marriage" near Dakar and published pictures of the event. Most of the men fled the country because even after being released by the police they faced violent reprisals from within the community.
It is almost impossible to get figures on AIDS in the gay community in Africa as many countries do not produce such statistics.
Africans often see homosexuality as a Western import, despite activists pointing to evidence that gay practices historically existed in various African tribes.
"The HIV issue has revealed the gay issue (in Africa)," Stephane Simonpietri, of French NGO Aides, said.