Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Photo taken at a meeting of Jamaica's underground gay church, known as the Sunshine Cathedral, which holds clandestine meetings several times a month.
How AIDS became a Caribbean Crisis
Widespread homophobia has intensified the epidemic in Jamaica, where the HIV infection rate is an astounding 32 percent among gay men.
by Micah Fink
We may be accustomed to thinking of AIDS as most rampant in distant parts of the world like Africa, India, and South Asia. But these days the epidemic is flaring up a bit closer to home, in the Caribbean. Indeed, AIDS is now the leading cause of death among adults there, and the Caribbean’s rate of new infections is the second highest in the world, following just behind Sub-Saharan Africa.
A major factor in the region’s susceptibility to the epidemic is its pervasive atmosphere of homophobia, which makes education and outreach efforts nearly impossible. Jamaica, which lies near the middle of the Caribbean and, as of last year, was found to have an astounding 32 percent HIV infection rate among gay men, offers a case study in how anti-gay attitudes have helped spread and intensify the epidemic’s impact.
In Jamaica, homophobic attitudes are reflected in everything from laws that criminalize anal sex, to the lyrics of popular dancehall music that celebrates the murder of gay men, to widespread acts of anti-gay violence, and a gay culture of sexual secrecy and high-risk behavior. Each of these factors is intensified by a religious context that defines homosexuality as a mortal sin and points to the Bible for moral justification in violently rejecting the concerns of the gay community.
According to Dr. Robert Carr, widely recognized as one of the world’s leading researchers on cultural forces and the unfolding of the AIDS pandemic, local awareness of the disease was initially shaped by the international media: “AIDS was seen as a disease of gay, White, North American men. And people were really afraid of it.”
“There were no treatments available in the Caribbean at the time,” he says, “so AIDS really was a death sentence. You had people with Kaposi's sarcoma, people with violent diarrhea, who were just wasting away and then dying in really horrible and traumatic ways.” The terror induced by these deaths, combined with an already intense local culture of homophobia to produce a violent backlash. “To call what was going on here ‘stigma and discrimination’ was really an understatement,” he says. “In the ghettos they were putting tires around people who had AIDS and lighting the tires on fire. They were killing gay people because they thought AIDS was contagious. It was a very extreme environment, and really horrible things were happening.”
Jamaican male sexual identity, and Caribbean male identity more broadly, has long been defined in opposition to homosexuality. “A lot of Jamaican men, if you call them a homosexual, the term is “battyman,” will immediately get violent,” says Dr. Kingsley Ragashanti Stewart, a professor of anthropology at the University of the West Indies. “It’s the worst insult you could give to a Jamaican man.”
Dr. Stewart, who works with young men from the ghettos and himself grew up in a poor inner-city community, says that homophobia influences almost every aspect of life. It has even come to shape the everyday language of ghetto youth. “It’s like if you say, ‘Come back here,’ they will say, ‘No, no, no don’t say ‘come back’.’ You have to say ‘come forward,’ because come back is implying that you’re ‘coming in the back,’ which is how gay men have sex.”
Dr. Stewart says that the word “fish,” the current slang for “gay,” has become so sexually charged that many young people say “sea-creature” to avoid any compromising linguistic associations. And young men from the ghettos will go to great lengths to avoid saying the number “two.” “It’s become associated with going to the toilet (as opposed to ‘number one’),” and hence, by an almost magical association, with homosexuality. The principal of a large public school in Kingston confirmed this phenomenon, noting that teaching mathematics is particularly problematic when the majority of students refuse to use one of the cardinal numbers.
Then there is the criminalization of the “abominable act of buggery,” as anal sex is defined in Jamaican Law, and which is punishable with up to ten years hard labor. “The reality in Jamaica is that men who have sex with men, for fear of being prosecuted and being found guilty under the sodomy law, pretend that they’re not gay,” says Miriam Maluwa, the UNAIDS country representative for Jamaica, explaining how what she calls “legalized discrimination” has driven the HIV epidemic underground. “[Gay men] marry fairly rapidly, they have children fairly rapidly to regularize themselves, and that is really a ticking bomb. So we are really talking about this targeted group, having quite high levels of infections, which is interacting sexually with the general population.”
Experts are increasingly convinced that getting AIDS under control here will require putting out not just general public health messages to the whole population, but targeted ones, directed at those most at risk. “A good starting point,” Maluwa suggests, “would be to openly design programs [for the gay population], just like we have programs to address the general population, to address children.” And these programs, she contends, should come complete with “adequate commodities, such as lubricants and condoms.”
But the social and political environment makes such targeted public health assistance nearly impossible—in part because the gay community is afraid to come forward to receive it, and in part because the (frequently violent) intolerance gays face makes AIDS a relatively less pressing concern.
At AIDS Support For Life, a not-for-profit health and advocacy group based in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, I spoke with staff and patients, including one handsome young gay Jamaican man in his early twenties who told me how his boyfriend was stabbed to death on the street for being gay – and how another close friend was locked inside his parents house by a crowed of homophobic neighbors and burned alive.
“If it were AIDS that were killing us,” he said, “I would use a condom. But it’s people, not AIDS, that is killing us. AIDS has nothing to do with it.”
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Thanks for your Donations
thank you for your donations via Paypal in helping to keep this blog going and related costs. Please continue to support me and my allies in this venure that has now become a full time activity. When I first started blogging in late 2007 it was just as a pass time to highlight GLBTQ issues in Jamaica under then JFLAG's blogspot page but now clearly there is a need for more forumatic activity which I want to continue to play my part.
Activities & Plans: ongoing and future
- To continue this venture towards website development with an E-zine focus
- Work with other Non Governmental organizations old and new towards similar focus and objectives
- To find common ground on issues affecting GLBTQ and straight friendly persons in Jamaica towards tolerance and harmony
- Exposing homophobic activities and suggesting corrective solutions
- To formalise GLBTQ Jamaica's activities in the long term
- Continuing discussion on issues affecting GLBTQ people in Jamaica and elsewhere
- Welcoming, examining and implemeting suggestions and ideas from you the viewing public
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Information & Disclaimer
Individuals who are mentioned or whose photographs appear on this site are not necessarily Homosexual, HIV positive or have AIDS.
This blog contains pictures that may be disturbing. We have taken the liberty to present these images as evidence of the numerous accounts of homophobic violence meted out to alledged gays in Jamaica.
Faces and names witheld for the victims' protection.
This blog not only watches and covers LGBTQ issues in Jamaica and elsewhere but also general human rights and current affairs where applicable.
This blog contains HIV prevention messages that may not be appropriate for all audiences.
If you are not seeking such information or may be offended by such materials, please view labels, post list or exit.
Since HIV infection is spread primarily through sexual practices or by sharing needles, prevention messages and programs may address these topics.
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Recent Homophobic Incidents
CLICK HERE for related posts/labels and HERE from the gayjamaicawatch's BLOG containing information I am aware of. If you know of any such reports or incidents please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Steps to Take When Contronted or Arrested by Police
b) Only give name and address and no other information until a lawyer is present to assist
c) Try to be polite even if the scenario is tensed) Don’t do anything to aggravate the situation
e) Every complaint lodged at a police station should be filed and a receipt produced, this is not a legal requirement but an administrative one for the police to track reports
f) Never sign to a statement other than the one produced by you in the presence of the officer(s)
g) Try to capture a recording of the exchange or incident or call someone so they can hear what occurs, place on speed dial important numbers or text someone as soon as possible
h) File a civil suit if you feel your rights have been violatedi) When making a statement to the police have all or most of the facts and details together for e.g. "a car" vs. "the car" represents two different descriptions
j) Avoid having the police writing the statement on your behalf except incases of injuries, make sure what you want to say is recorded carefully, ask for a copy if it means that you have to return for it