Last edited: November 02, 2003

Caribbean AIDS Outreach Efforts Hampered by Homophobic Violence

St. Lucia Star, July 30, 2003
P.O. Box 1146 Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies
Fax: 758-450 8690

By Richard Stern

Gay tourists from the US and Europe flood Caribbean beaches in island paradises such as Montego Bay, Jamaica as well as many smaller 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. And even as international agencies are investing millions in support of these same governments in dealing with the AIDS epidemic, the community of men who have sex with men is forced to remain completely underground in many Caribbean nations.

On June 12 I met clandestinely with a group of gay men in an apartment in St Lucia. 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 is totally impossible for them to form an association or meet openly. Gay life in St Lucia revolves around private parties and 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 to the laws of St Lucia, “a person who commits buggery is guilty of an offense and liable on conviction 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; (c) 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 a consensual homosexual act between adults in St Lucia is penalized with imprisonment. While the government does not go around arresting people who are suspected to be gay, a climate of fear and intolerance prevails.

William summarized his situation: “As a gay St Lucian I have always been aware that 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.

As a result, reaching 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 Lucia’s health ministry which claims that it wants to scale up its actions relating to the AIDS epidemic. During a speech at an AIDS related event held in St Lucia on 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 an essential ingredient in protecting the dignity and rights of persons infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.”

Contacted on July 23, Greaves was asked by this writer if his comments applied to the possible decriminalization 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. “Our Ministry will championing this issue at the Cabinet level.” Greaves recognized that given the possibility of religious and political opposition to decriminalization, that this will not be an easy struggle. However, that move may be worth while as there are a number of young St Lucian men who could be potential leaders in efforts directed at AIDS prevention if the atmosphere of fear did not exist.

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 counties. Britain’s government has said that anti-gay laws in colonies and territories violate international human rights agreements it has signed. But chief minister Osborne Fleming of Anguilla, one of the few remaining colonies, was quoted in the Trinidad-based gay magazine Free Forum saying “we cannot simply stand up and propose a law in the assembly to legalize homosexuality.”

According 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, on April 24, 2000, that “among the victims was a man cornered in a Baptist Church hall . . . in Kingston about 3:30pm on Saturday 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 a situation of violence against gays. According to Carr, quoting from a report by Amnesty International, “the gay and lesbian community in Jamaica faces extreme prejudice. Sexual acts in private between consenting male adults remain criminalized and punishable by imprisonment and hard labor.”

Thomas Glave is a professor of English at the State University of New York, who was born in NY but raised in Jamaica. According to him, when gays are arrested under Jamaica 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 the UK because of repeated attacks he suffered at the hands of gay bashers in Jamaica. His throat was slashed once, 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 “made written submission 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.”

AIDS experts agree that 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 the stigma and discrimination attached to being gay and a significant percentage of dollars flowing into 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 4000 people are currently in need of treatment in Jamaica while 500 currently need it in St Lucia. Epidemiologist Farley Clegghorn, currently at the University of Maryland, but originally from Trinidad has estimated that only about 3 percent of the 170,000 people in the Caribbean 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 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 such acts between two persons of the same sex. In 1998, Dominica enacted anti-gay laws which are apparently based on the Caricom legislation providing a five-year prison term 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 has recently submitted a multi-million dollar 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.”

In Guyana, a country of 700,000, 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 Edghilt, was recently quoted as saying 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 of 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.

Recently I spoke with a former Belizean Minister who said she is an advocate of gay rights but when 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 support services to gay and lesbian people, but this is not openly stated. Gays and lesbians are everywhere in Belize and even occupy important positions in government, but they remain psychologically oppressed by their culture.

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