Confronted by growing evidence that sex between men is a significant driver of new HIV infections, the Kenyan government has shed a long-time refusal to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality and will launch a survey of gay attitudes and behaviors in its three biggest cities next year.
The project is considered a landmark because the government and the vast majority of Kenyan people have long refused to address homosexuality in the fight against AIDS. Sex between men is illegal in Kenya punishable by up to 14 years in prison and is seen by many as a Western-imported, morally wrong behavior that is limited to areas visited by tourists.
But officials say the country is in the middle of a full-blown HIV/AIDS epidemic, with about 7 percent of the population now infected and only 15 percent of those people even aware that they are HIV positive. While the vast majority of HIV transmissions are through heterosexual sex or intravenous drug use, research conducted in 2007 suggests that the spread of the disease through gay sex is far more common than skeptics believe. Fifteen percent of all new HIV infections each year are thought to be among men who have sex with men. And because some men who engage in gay sex are married and do not identify themselves as gay, it is seen as one way in which the virus crosses from “at-risk” categories to the general population.
“It will be a tricky issue that is likely to polarize everybody,” Dr. Nicholas Muraguri, director of the National AIDS/STI Control Program, tells TIME. “But what we are saying is that we cannot as a country socially exclude these groups and hope that we will win the war against HIV at the same time.”