Caribbean AIDS Outreach Hampered by Homophobia
Meanwhile, international agencies are investing millions of dollars in the AIDS programs of these same governments, even though the community of men who have sex with men is forced to remain completely underground in many Caribbean nations, excluded from efforts to treat and prevent the disease.
According to the laws of St. Lucia, buggery, or anal sex, between consenting adults whether homosexual or heterosexual, is punishable by 25 years in prison. An adult who has anal sex with a minor could get a life sentence. This has a huge effect on gay men. While 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 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 upper class, educated individuals. Most gay St. Lucians are stuck where they are.
Challenging Health Ministries
In a speech at an AIDS activity I attended in St. Lucia on 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 an essential ingredient in protecting the dignity and rights of persons infected and affected by HIV/AIDS...."
When I called Health Minister Greaves at home on July 23rd, and asked him if his comments applied to the possible decriminalization of homosexual behavior in St. Lucia, he said, "We are reviewing our criminal code within the next two or three months and we want to move in that direction." He added, "Our Ministry will be championing this issue at the Cabinet level." Greaves recognized that it would not be an easy struggle, given the possibility of religious and political opposition to decriminalization in his country. I told Greaves about the gay men I had met, some of whom could be potential leaders in efforts directed at AIDS prevention, if they were not so fearful of coming forward.
Double-Edged British Legacy
The request was not received with widespread enthusiasm. Osborne Fleming, the Chief Minister of Anguilla, still a British colony, told the Trinidad based gay magazine Free Forum, "We cannot simply stand up and propose a law in the assembly to legalize homosexuality." Britain has even less influence over those members of the British Commonwealth which have long been independent, like St. Lucia, Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, and Belize.
The Britain based International AIDS Alliance, which focuses on community activism, has begun a project in several Caribbean nations to help gay men like those in St. Lucia organize support groups focused on AIDS prevention.
Police in Jamaica will frequently refuse to intervene in situations of violence against gays. According to 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 labor."
Thomas Glave, a Professor of English at the State University of New York, who was raised in Kingston, reports that 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. Glave has cited cases of Jamaican gays being attacked with bottles of acid.
In 2002, one Jamaican gay man, David, was granted asylum in Britain because of repeated violent attacks he suffered at the hands of gay bashers in his country. His throat was slashed, once, but he survived; another time his arm was broken.
In Jamaica, a gay/lesbian support group known as J-FLAG was founded in 1998. J-FLAG states on its website that it "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." J-FLAG also says: "Due to the potential for violent retribution, we cannot publish our exact location."
Homophobia Fosters AIDS
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, and 500 in St. Lucia. Epidemiologist Farley Clegghorn, a native of Trinidad who is currently at the University of Maryland, estimates that only about 3% of the 170,000 people in the Caribbean region who need anti-retroviral treatment have access to it. The stigmas of homosexuality and sexual promiscuity attached to AIDS still weigh heavily on those who set public health priorities in the region.
Caribbean Community (CARICOM)
In 1998, the island state of Dominica enacted anti-gay laws which are apparently based on the model CARICOM legislation, providing a five year prison sentence for the "gross indecency" of any homosexual act. Furthermore, anal sex, even between consenting adults, is punished by ten years in prison.
Paradoxically, CARICOM has taken on a meaningful leadership role in regional AIDS prevention and treatment. It recently submitted a multimillion dollar proposal to the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which 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."
However, Dr. Edward Greene, CARICOM's Assistant Secretary General for Human and Social Development, recently stated that CARICOM needs to reevaluate 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 region's gay and bisexual community may be vastly underestimated because men who have sex with men are unwilling to be honest with health care workers about their sexual identity, for fear of a backlash.
Change Is Slow
According to the Guyana Human Rights Association, the Chairperson of the Guyana Council of Churches, Bishop Juan Edghill, said that the new legislation 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.
In Belize, another CARICOM country linked more to the region by language, culture and history, than geography, there is apparently less overt violence against gays, but the gay community still remains completely closeted.
I recently spoke with a former Belizan Minister who said she personally is an advocate of gay rights, but hesitated when I asked if she would be willing to say this publicly in her country. There is a non-governmental organization in Belize that provides support services to gay and lesbian people, but doesn't advertise them. 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 of the Agua Buena Human Rights Association in San José, Costa Rica. He works to improve access to treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS in Central America.