Published: July 25th, 2003
AIDS Outreach Efforts Hampered by Homophobia, Violence
tourists from the US 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.
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.
June 12th, 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 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.
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, is 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.
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.
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."
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.
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 bi-sexual.
This is the challenge facing the St. Lucian Health Ministry which
claims that its wants to scale up its actions relating to the AIDS
epidemic. In a speech I attended at an AIDS activity in St. Lucia
June 9th, 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...."
at home on July 23rd, 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 with in his country, some of who could be potential leaders
in efforts directed at AIDS prevention, if they were not so fearful
of coming forward.
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
to sociologist Robert Carr, Director of the Non-governmental organization
called "Jamaica AIDS Support," gay men in Jamaica face
significant threats of violence. Carr quotes an article from the
Daily Gleaner, Jamaica's largest daily newspaper reported on April
24th 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."
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
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.
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.
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 website
it also indicates that: "Due to the potential for violent retribution,
we cannot publish our exact location."
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/bi-sexual 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.
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 4000 people are currently in need of treatment
in Jamaica while 500 currently need it in St. Lucia. 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 organization responsible for coordination of Health Care 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 website, 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 engage individuals 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
CARICOM has taken on a meaningful leadership role in the region
in terms of AIDS prevention and attention, and has recently 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
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 bi-sexual community in the region may be
vastly underestimated because men who have sex with men are unwilling
to be honest with health care workers about their sexual identity
because of fears related to stigma.
English speaking Guyana, a country of 700,000 geographically 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.
(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.
Agua Buena Human Rights Association
San José, Costa Rica