Several Latin American countries have launched new programs to improve health care for sexual minorities, including homosexuals and transsexuals, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The programs focus on reducing stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities and are part of larger efforts to boost HIV prevention and treatment.

Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Peru are among the countries that in the last year launched policies and programs geared toward reducing homophobia and transphobia. PAHO Director Mirta Roses said these efforts should be recognized as countries prepare to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17. On this date, in 1990, the General Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) approved the 10th Review of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10). The 10th Review recognized that “sexual orientation (heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual) by itself is not to be regarded as a disorder.” In earlier versions of the Classification, homosexuality had been classified as a “sexual disorder.”

Homophobia is prejudice, stigma, or discrimination toward people who engage in sexual relations with people of the same sex, while transphobia is the rejection of transsexuals and transgender people. Public health experts say homophobia and transphobia contribute to the spread of HIV, as the fear of stigma tends to dissuade people from seeking HIV testing and counseling and, when applicable, treatment.

“Stigma and rejection reduce the likelihood that people will protect themselves and others against the virus,” said PAHO Director Roses. “Hatred against people with different sexual identities or orientations is an assault on life itself and a clear violation of basic human rights, which call on us to avoid distinctions between human beings.”

Among the recent initiatives are:

In October 2007, in Argentina, Resolution 2272 was signed in the city of Buenos Aires, establishing that all staff members, nurses, and physicians of the city’s health centers should refer to transsexuals, transvestites, and trans-gender individuals according to their self-assigned gender and name.

Also in October 2007, in Colombia, the Henry Ardila Foundation, the Ministry of Social Protection, and PAHO launched a communication campaign to improve access for homosexual men and sex workers to health services, including HIV testing services. The organizations distributed leaflets instructing health professionals in Colombia to keep the health information and sexual orientation of patients confidential.

In November 2007, in Nicaragua, the National Assembly repealed Article 204 of the Penal Code. The article had penalized sexual relations between people of the same sex.

Also in November 2007, in Peru, a new communication campaign was launched, “We’re Peruvians, We’re Diverse, Let’s Stay that Way Forever.” The campaign seeks to raise awareness among health providers, public servants, and the general public of the need to reduce stigma and discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and sex workers.

Also in November 2007, in Uruguay, the ministers of health of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay signed a declaration rejecting HIV-related stigma and discrimination, including discrimination associated with sexual diversity. They promised to promote the health-related human rights of people with HIV and other vulnerable groups.

In March 2008, in Brazil, the Ministry of Health launched a National Plan to Fight of the AIDS Epidemic among Homosexuals and Transsexuals. The product of a comprehensive participatory process, the plan seeks to improve access to education and health of homosexuals and transsexuals, and includes training for staff of hospitals and health centers. The plan’s goal for 2008 is to form teams to implement the plan in all 27

Also in March 2008, in Costa Rica, president -scar Arias signed executive decree 34399 declaring May 17 as National Day against Homophobia. The decree urges public institutions to “promote and support actions toward the eradication of homophobia.”

In April 2008, in Mexico, authorities began a process to sensitize civil servants in the health sector and other areas of government to the importance of avoiding discrimination based on sex, race, religion, or sexual orientation. The process includes training of health workers who will be on hand to care for participants in the 27th International AIDS Conference, scheduled for August in Mexico City. AIDS 2008 will be the first International AIDS Conference ever held in Latin America and also the first to have a plenary session about men who have sex with men.

“Science still needs to find a cure for HIV. But there is a cure for discrimination, and it can be found in policies and programs like these,” said Roses, adding that these initiatives “are the natural legacy of the effort and dedication of physicians, nurses, laboratory technicians and health teams that have participated in the struggle against the epidemic in its first stages.”

In spite of many positive developments at the global and regional levels, stigma and discrimination against people with different sexual orientation and sexual identities still persist in some cultures and among many individuals. The consequences of these attitudes include criminalization of members of sexual minorities, difficulty getting or keeping a job, and difficulty joining clubs, schools, and religious institutions. Several countries of the PAHO Region now register hate crimes, which range from verbal and physical violence to murder.

The Pan American Health Organization, founded in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of their peoples. It serves as the Regional Office of the World Health Organization (WHO).