We find it astonishing that he does not look around and see what those laws have wrought. Criminalizing homosexuality plays a major role in the AIDS epidemic. He knows this, but continues undeterred, harming Jamaica’s citizens and besmirching its international reputation. This is reprehensible behaviour for a head of government.
Two of us from AIDS-Free World visited the Caribbean, including Jamaica, in February. Here are some of the stories we heard.
A gay man and his lesbian sister are shot in the chest in front of their families, in their home. A pastor praying at the funeral of a gay man is confronted by an angry mob. Someone chases a lesbian down a Kingston street, catches her, slits her throat, and leaves her to die in a bloody puddle.
She didn’t die, and she and other victims of vicious homophobia told us their stories. We came away appalled, although homophobia is very familiar in all the countries in which we work. Appalled because homophobia, sexism and bigotry are rolling out the welcome carpet for HIV/AIDS, and we feel more strongly than ever that unless homosexuality is decriminalized, the pandemic will not stop killing.
“Know your epidemic” has long been a mantra of international AIDS organizations. It makes sense. We know, from UN data, that in certain countries in the Caribbean, prevalence rates among men who have sex with men (MSM) are as much as 20 times higher than in the general population. Jamaica’s and Trinidad’s adult HIV prevalence rates are 1.6% and 1.5% respectively, compared to 31.8% and 20% among MSM.
Combine these figures with the fact that in the Dominican Republic, for example, 78% of MSM report having sex with women, and what do we know about the epidemic? We know that gay men fear for their safety and lives, and that they enter heterosexual relationships in order to stay safe. So the virus spreads to women.
We believe “know your epidemic” means not just knowing (and often blaming) the epidemic’s victims. We believe it means knowing what makes populations such as sexual minorities and women so vulnerable to the virus. MSM are not to blame for the high prevalence rates in their communities: the bigotry and legalized homophobia that drive them underground are.
The world has always blamed the oppressed for their own problems. MSM certainly don’t want to contract HIV, but their communities drive them underground and prevent them from seeking out prevention. Research data shows that when stigma is lowered, so are infection rates.
We simply cannot contain the epidemic – in Jamaica or anywhere else – if we don’t acknowledge the barriers facing those in high-risk groups. Those barriers include bigotry, fear, hatred and legalized discrimination.
Mr. Michel Sidibé, the new Executive Director of UNAIDS, recently gave strong support to this analysis in a number of principled speeches and statements. He has come out swinging against the consequences of sodomy laws and the criminalization of homosexuality. We would suggest that Mr. Sidibé and the UNAIDS Regional Director in the Caribbean send a dignified letter to Prime Minister Golding to protest that he is sparking the fire of the epidemic. Institutionalized discrimination puts Jamaica at risk of the further spread of HIV/AIDS, and it puts Jamaica on the wrong side of history.
Twenty-six years into the pandemic, with so much known about prevention and treatment, we at AIDS-Free World find it horrifying that HIV continues to keep its vicious grip on the nations of the Caribbean. Until human rights violations against vulnerable groups cease, this will not change. We call upon governments to end repression by repealing sodomy laws, and we call upon citizens to let go of hatred, fear and prejudice that diminishes and endangers us all.
(Stephen Lewis, Co-Director, and Julia Greenberg, Associate Director, of AIDS-Free World, traveled to the Caribbean in February.)