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Caribbean AIDS Efforts Hampered by Homophobia, Violence
by Richard Stern
2003-09-01

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Gay tourists from the U.S. and Europe flood Caribbean beaches in island 'paradises' such as Montego Bay Jamaica, as well as many smaller Caribbean islands including St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, and Antigua, but they are almost certainly unaware that they are supporting an economy controlled by governments that maintain or support repressive and even violent policies against the local communities of gays and lesbians.

Meanwhile, International Agencies are investing millions of dollars supporting these same governments in dealing with the AIDS epidemic, while the community of men who have sex with men is forced to remain completely underground in many Caribbean nations.

On June 12, in the tiny Eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia (population 160,000), I met clandestinely with a group of gay men in one of their apartments. These men, who I will call Frederick, William and Paul, all in their early 30s, live a closeted double life, which is reinforced by their fear of being discovered at work. They have no bars to go to and it would be totally impossible for them to form an association or meet openly. Gay life in St. Lucia revolves around private parties and a several networks of gay men who maintain contact with each other. The International AIDS Alliance, based in Great Britain, has begun a project in various Caribbean nations to support gay men in organizing support groups focused on AIDS prevention.

According the laws of St Lucia 'A person who commits buggery is guilty of an offense and liable on a conviction on indictment to imprisonment for—(a) Life, if committed by an adult on a minor (b) Twenty five years, if committed by an adult on another adult; (3) In this section 'buggery' means sexual intercourse per anus by a male person with a male or by a male person with a female person.'

This means that consenting homosexual acts between adults in St. Lucia are penalized by 25 years in prison. Whereas the government does not go around arresting people who are suspected to be gay, a climate of fear and intolerance is the rule.

William, one of the St Lucian gays I met with, summarized his own situation eloquently:

'As a gay St. Lucian, I have always been aware of the fact that, in my homeland, I am legally defenseless against discrimination, harassment and violence. Neither my government, nor my church, nor any other social welfare organization is even willing to acknowledge my natural existence, far less support my right to live a safe, healthy and fulfilling life. I am disappointed in my country and, like so many of my other gay countrymen and women, will probably end up making my 'real' home somewhere else.'

However, all St. Lucians interviewed agreed that emigration is only an option for the upper class, educated individuals. Most gay St. Lucians are stuck where they are.

Reaching out to do AIDS prevention in the gay community is a daunting task when virtually no one is willing to admit that they are gay or bisexual. This is the challenge facing the St. Lucian Health Ministry which claims that it wants to scale up its actions relating to the AIDS epidemic. In a speech I attended at an AIDS activity in St. Lucia June 9, Health Minister Damian Greaves stated that 'Discrimination jeopardizes equitable access to prevention, treatment and care, products and services. The appreciation of human rights is essential ingredient in protecting the dignity and rights of persons infected and affected by HIV/AIDS....'

Reached at home on July 23, Health Minister Greaves was asked by this writer if his comments applied to the possible de-criminalization of homosexual behavior in St. Lucia. 'We are reviewing our criminal code within the next two or three months and we want to move in that direction,' he said, adding that 'Our Ministry will be championing this issue at the Cabinet level.' Greaves recognized that, given the possibility of religious and political opposition in his country to de-criminalization, that this will not be an easy struggle. I told Greaves about the gay men I had met within his country, some who could be potential leaders in efforts directed at AIDS prevention, if they were not so fearful of coming forward.

Several years ago, the British government requested that its territories and colonies in the region repeal their laws punishing consenting adult same-sex activity, but they have no jurisdiction over those members of the British Commonwealth which are now independent countries. (Such independent nations include St. Lucia, Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, and Belize, among others.) Britain's government has said that anti-gay laws in colonies and territories violate international human-rights agreements it has signed. But, according to the Chief Minister of Anguilla (still a colony), Osborne Fleming (quoted in the Trinidad-based gay magazine Free Forum) 'we cannot simply stand up and propose a law in the assembly to legalise homosexuality.'

According to sociologist Robert Carr, Executive Director of the Non-governmental organization called 'Jamaica AIDS Support' (JAS), gay men in Jamaica face significant threats of violence. Carr quotes an article from the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica's largest daily newspaper, reported April 24, 2000, that 'Among the victims was a man cornered in a Baptist Church hall ... in Kingston about 3:30 on Saturday afternoon and shot dead as he begged for his life. Sources say his killers jeered him before pumping several bullets into his body. The man ... was accused of being a homosexual.'

Police in Jamaica will frequently refuse to intervene in situations of violence against gays. According to Carr, quoting from a report by Amnesty International, 'the gay and lesbian community in Jamaica face extreme prejudice. Sexual acts in private between consenting male adults remain criminalized and punishable by imprisonment and hard labour.'

Carr has also commented that 'Most gay men are afraid to congregate with other gay men because of the stigma associated with homosexuality. This has a direct impact on the ability of organizations like JAS to reach the community, although in response we have developed a number of informal routes of communication.'

With respect to the impact of stigma against gays on AIDS prevention and outreach efforts, Carr says that 'Gay men who admit their sexual identity to public healthcare workers do so at their own peril, as it will become part of their medical record and so become the property of the clinic, available to all healthcare workers with access to their files. There have been complaints of abuse of access to files, including and especially files that disclose clients serostatus. This means that gay men who come forward for testing run the risk of being doubly stigmatized and discriminated against. This clearly promotes fear of being tested, as well as misrepresentation of their sexual orientation to health authorities. In a context in which healthcare workers are part of communities, there is also the danger that the healthcare worker will disclose the person's sexual orientation and/or serostatus to community members.'

Finally Carr mentions that Jamaica AIDS Support is 'gravely concerned' that 'violent attacks on gay men, (whose privacy may have been betrayed by healthcare workers) are becoming ubiquitous in Jamaica. Particularly in urban centres such as Kingston and Montego Bay.'

Thomas Glave is a Professor of English at the State University of New York, who was born in N.Y. but raised in Kingston, Jamaica's capital. According to Glave, when gays are arrested under Jamaican sodomy laws, their names and addresses are published in the local press and it is common for neighbors to attack them violently. Glave has cited cases of Jamaican gays being attacked with bottles of acid.

According to Free Forum, a Jamaican gay man, David, was recently granted asylum in Great Britain because of repeated violent attacks he suffered at the hands gay bashers in Jamaica. Once his throat was slashed, but he survived, and another time his arm was broken.

In Jamaica, a gay/lesbian support group known as J-FLAG was founded in 1998. J-FLAG indicates that it has 'has made written submissions to the Joint Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament for the inclusion of 'Sexual Orientation' as a basis on which the Constitution of Jamaica prohibits discrimination.' However on its Web site it also indicates that: 'Due to the potential for violent retribution, we cannot publish our exact location.'

AIDS experts agree the prevention efforts are virtually impossible when high-risk communities are forced to remain invisible because of prejudice. 'The situation in the Caribbean would make reaching out to the gay/bisexual communities virtually impossible. People will not identify themselves and participate in workshops or educational activities if they know that they face serious consequences. The AIDS leadership in the Caribbean community has not done enough to reduce stigma and discrimination and a significant percentage of dollars flowing in to the region for prevention are being wasted,' said Costa Rican activist Guillermo Murillo.

Neither St. Lucia nor Jamaica, nor the majority of other small Caribbean states, provide anti-retroviral access to People Living with HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that over 4,000 people are currently in need of treatment in Jamaica while 500 currently need it in St. Lucia, although in St. Lucia approximately 20 people receive anti-retrovirals which are provided the AIDS Action Foundation, a Non-governmental organization.

Epidemiologist Farley Clegghorn, who is currently at the University of Maryland, but originally from Trinidad, has estimated that only about 3% of the 170,000 People in the Caribbean region who are currently in need of anti-retroviral treatment actually have access to it. Stigma which links AIDS to homosexuality as well as to sexual promiscuity still impact heavily on those who set public health priorities in the region.

CARICOM, the organization responsible for coordination of healthcare issues in the Caribbean region, recently published its 'model legislation for sexual offenses,' but, astonishingly, continues to endorse the criminalization of same-sex consenting adult sexual behavior. According to the CARICOM Web site, the legislation 'defines as 'gross indecency' ... an act other than sexual intercourse by a person involving the use of genital organ for the purpose of gratifying sexual desire.' It specifies a penalty of up to five years in prison for the commission of such acts between two persons of the same sex. In 1998, the island state of Dominica enacted anti-gay laws which are apparently based on the CARICOM legislation, providing a 5-year prison sentence for 'gross indecency' if two same-sex individuals engage in any form of sexual conduct. The law clearly states that heterosexual couples are exempted. However buggery (anal sex) is punished by 10 years in prison, even between consenting adults.

Paradoxically, CARICOM has taken on a meaningful leadership role in the region in terms of AIDS prevention and attention, and has submitted a multi-million proposal to the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In the same breath as it published the model legislation, CARICOM acknowledges that 'heavy stigma surrounding same-sex relationships means both individual and societal denial of actual risk, many men who have sex with men also have sexual relationships with women, thereby increasing the risk of transmission to women and children.'

On a positive note, Dr. Edward Greene, CARICOM's Assistant Secretary General for Human and Social Development, acknowledged that CARICOM needs to re-evaluate the 'model legislation' in terms of its impact on the AIDS epidemic. According to Greene, 'The Pan Caribbean Partnership (a branch of CARICOM which focuses on AIDS in the region) is planning a full review of legal and social issues related to men who have sex with men and their impact on AIDS prevention in the region. We know that we need to reduce stigma and discrimination.'

Greene also acknowledged that the incidence of AIDS in the gay and bisexual community in the region may be vastly underestimated because men who have sex with men are unwilling to be honest with healthcare workers about their sexual identity because of fears related to stigma.

In English-speaking Guyana, a country of 700,000 located in South America, but closely tied to the Caribbean region because of language and cultural issues, Parliament approved a Constitutional reform in 2000 that would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but the law was vetoed by Guyana's President because of religious opposition.

According to the Guyana Human Rights Association, the Chairperson of the Guyana Council of Churches, Bishop Juan Edghill, was recently quoted as stating that the new law would 'open the door to homosexuality, bestiality, child abuse and every form of sexual perversion being enshrined in the highest law of this land.' The constitutional amendment is about to be reconsidered by the Guyanese Parliament, but opposition to it has apparently grown since 2000.

Belize (population 250,000) is another CARICOM country linked to the region by language, culture and history, although it is geographically on the Northern edge of Central America. Tourism is one its main industries. I have visited Belize several times in the past few years. There is apparently less overt violence against gays there, but the gay community still remains completely in the closet. I recently spoke with a former Belizan Minister who said she personally is an advocate of gay rights, but when I asked if she would be willing to say this publicly in her country, she was hesitant. There is a Non-governmental Organization in Belize that provides supportive services to gay and lesbian people, but this cannot be openly stated. Gays and lesbians are 'everywhere' in Belize, and even occupy important governmental positions, but they remain psychologically oppressed within their culture.

Richard Stern is Director, Agua Buena Human Rights Association, San José, Costa Rica, www.aguabuena.org .


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