KINGSTON, Sep 26 (IPS) – When Jamaica’s Health Ministry recently launched an anti-HIV stigma campaign titled “Getting on with Life” prominently featuring two HIV-positive Jamaicans speaking publicly about their experiences living with the disease, it was something of a watershed moment for groups like Jamaica AIDS Support, formed in 1991 to combat the spread of AIDS and HIV.
“There is a general acceptance now that HIV affects everybody,” said Anne Marie Dobson, the organisation’s public education coordinator “The government has enormously supported HIV programmes… And overall, there has been improvement in the way people think and feel about HIV.”
For those among the 25,000 Jamaicans that the Ministry of Health estimates are living with HIV, an estimated 15,000 persons are unaware that they are infected with the virus. For those who do know their status, however, difficult decisions remain about how to handle their knowledge of the disease.
“I live in a community where they don’t know that I am positive, and I can’t tell them,” said John Turner (not his real name), a 55 year-old labourer who hails from a lower-middle class suburb of Kingston. “I just can’t tell them because of the stigma that is attached to it. I don’t know what the reaction would be. “
“It’s a common perception that HIV affects largely the gay population, [and] we can’t say that that sort of perception has been totally wiped out,” said Daniel Townsend, Jamaica AIDS Support’s advocacy and research coordinator. “But to a large extent people are now getting the message that everyone is at risk for contracting this disease, and that is a huge and great help for AIDS service organisations in this country.”
Indeed, one of the greatest hurdles to effective HIV and AIDS education, experts say, is Jamaican attitudes towards homosexuality, an issue that remains highly controversial. Steve Harvey, Jamaica AIDS Support’s leader of targeted interventions for reaching out to gays and lesbians, sex workers and other minority groups, was kidnapped and killed in November 2005 by burglars who noticed a picture of him with his boyfriend on a laptop computer while robbing his home.
While many argue there have been great strides towards acceptance for gays and lesbians in the country, others charge that a kernel of violent bigotry remains, making the work of educators all the more difficult.
“I don’t think (Jamaica’s reputation for anti-gay violence) is overstated at all,” Nancy Anderson, chief legal officer with the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights (IJCHR), an organisation formed upon the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1968, and counting as the oldest human rights NGO in the Caribbean.
“You are in a very dangerous situation if you say that you are openly gay in Jamaica,” she said.
Like many other countries in the world, Jamaica has laws criminalising sexual relations between men. Article 76 of the Jamaica’s Offences Against the Person Act makes the “abominable crime of buggery” a criminal offence carrying a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment, and Article 79 of the same act punishes physical intimacy between men with up to two years in jail.
“Gays and lesbians in Jamaica exist with the possibility that you might be chased, you might be run down, you might be killed because of your sexual orientation, and when a day ends when that does not happen, we give thanks,” said Gareth Williams, one the leaders of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (JFLAG), an organisation formed in 1998 to eliminate discrimination against members of the community. “But when you wake up the next day, you still get up with that on your mind.”
The group’s offices, a modest collection of rooms in a middle-class business district of Kingston, are unmarked by any sign on the door. In addition to providing counseling and support, JFLAG also works to end what it says is harassment by police against the community and to stem anti-gay violence.
Williams himself said that after he identified Harvey’s body, police showed up at his home for several days in a row shouting that “Battymen (a Jamaican term for homosexuals) must be killed.”
One of Jamaica’s leading singers, Buju Banton, who first came to prominence with a song, “Boom Bye Bye,” which advocated shooting gay men, was acquitted in a highly controversial trial in January of charges that he and several other men assaulted a group of gay men who lived near his home in June 2004. JFLAG says that a gay man who went by the moniker Kitty was murdered during a 2000 street dance in Kingston while “Boom Bye Bye” was playing.
In one of the most notorious incidents, in June 2004, a mob reportedly acting in collusion with local police chased, beat and stabbed to death a Jamaican man perceived to be gay in the tourist mecca of Montego Bay, an attack documented in a Human Rights Watch report titled “Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic.”
“In many countries, there are many hate crimes, either because of sexual orientation or because of race, and what we have to do, is acknowledge that happens in Jamaica and where possible, police it vigorously,” says Mark Shields, a 30 year-veteran of police forces in Britain who has served as deputy commissioner for crime in the Jamaica Constabulary Force since 2005.
“There are allegations that some of our officers are homophobic, and I think that’s true, but equally I could tell you that in London there are some officers that are homophobic, so this isn’t something whereby we should see Jamaica in isolation from the rest of the world,” he said.
Another area where activists say that a more aggressive approach is needed is confronting the feminisation of the disease, and the dangers that infection brings to women. A 2005 Ministry of Health report attributed high-risk behaviour among Jamaican women to, among other factors, higher unemployment unemployment and what it termed female subservience in the sexual decision-making process.
“We now need to focus our energies on women, who are one of the most vulnerable groups in our population,” said Daniel Townsend. “While we’ve achieved a lot, there’s still work to be done.”
Jamaica’s AIDS activists have many accomplishments to be proud of, bringing the struggle against the disease from a misunderstood plague to the nation’s television screens, but they are under no illusions that tough struggles lie ahead.
“While Jamaica can boast that we’ve done a lot of work in the area of AIDS and HIV,” said Anne Marie Dobson. “We cannot sit around and believe that the virus is over.” (END/2006)