March 9, 2009—“Recently, a member of Parliament stated that homosexuals are known to be violent and should not be allowed to bear arms, that the security forces have been infiltrated by homosexuals….and therefore that the laws against buggery should be made harsher,” said Jamaican social justice leader Dr. Robert Carr in a recent interview with amfAR. “At the time, this was applauded by his fellow Parliamentarians.”
Several years ago, when he was executive director of Jamaica AIDS Support for Life, Dr. Carr witnessed a constant assault on the humanity of gay and bisexual people from elected officials, homophobic dance hall artists, and religious leaders who believe that gay rights are against God’s will. All too often, said Dr. Carr, this animosity “played itself out in physical violence—people end up being beaten or set on fire.”
For the past three years, Dr. Carr has worked tirelessly to address the human rights of these vulnerable populations as volunteer executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition. An amfAR MSM Initiative Community Award has allowed him to build leadership among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movements in a region known for its virulent anti-gay biases.
“When I discovered how badly people living with HIV/AIDS were treated without a second thought, I was shocked,” recalls Dr. Carr of his start in AIDS advocacy. “The idea that people could be physically brutalized like that not only with impunity, but with the overt support of these sectors of society just shocked me. I became an advocate at a time when almost no one was talking about stigma and discrimination in the region and there was a lot of work to be done.”
The biggest issue now, said Dr. Carr, is entrenched homophobia, which is defended loudly in the classroom, in the boardroom, on the streets, in the pulpit, in the media, and in Parliament. To speak up is to risk bodily harm.
“That said, we have also seen significant progress,” he continued. Key institutions such as the police, the national HIV control program, and the media have become more responsive to the issues faced by MSM, said Dr. Carr. He explained that police, concerned about extreme violence, have begun to monitor officers’ responses, and have even put themselves in the line of fire against mobs attacking men who appear effeminate, or who “look funny,” to use the island parlance.
Across the Caribbean, leaders have emerged who are willing to further this progress, said Dr. Carr, noting nascent efforts in Grenada, Antigua, Guyana, and Dominica. “The change has to come from within; it really has to be Caribbean people taking a stand against this kind of violence and abuse, and against…misinformed, emotionally based, irresponsible attempts at policy making,” he added.
Among those Caribbean countries with fledgling MSM organizations, most are unable to accomplish little more than condom distribution. In this region, MSM tend to be segregated by class, and meet others via Internet-based social and sexual networks. To reach those in need, programmers have to tap into these same networks.
The amfAR community award provided an opportunity to begin that dialogue via a three-day consultation and training for community leaders on how to undertake HIV prevention, community mobilization, and human rights advocacy despite the homophobia and hostility facing LGBTs in the Caribbean.
“The fact that the conversation is even happening is a major milestone,” said Dr. Carr. “I think there’s a lot to be hopeful for, and I think Jamaica will find its way. It’s just going to take the time, commitment, and determination…of people who have the strength and courage to differ from the majority, to stay their ground, and to do their best to make a difference.”
The work of amfAR’s MSM Initiative in the Caribbean is supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation.