We are humbled by the community of HIV health and immigration activists that we have been blessed to work with since our founding. Together, they are working to end both HIV and the stigma attached to it. Today on World AIDS Day, we welcome Maurice Tomlinson, who explores the connection between homophobia and the spread of HIV.
Coming from a country with possibly the highest HIV prevalence rate among men who have sex with men (MSM) (32.9%) and which some consider to be the most homophobic place on earth (in one survey 85% of the population self-identified as homophobic) I am hardly surprised that homophobia contributes to HIV.
My own personal experience as a law lecturer and a human rights advocate engaging in documenting the abuses against Jamaican LGBT has confirmed this clear nexus. My female students at the University of Technology, Jamaica readily told me that they purchase condoms for their male gender non-conforming friends who are afraid to do so themselves. In Jamaica, condoms are sold behind the counter and one has to ask a pharmacist or cashier to hand it over. Looking too “gay” will raise the inevitable suspicion that you MUST be purchasing the condoms for sex with a man, as “no self-respecting woman” would be willing to have sex with you.
Though my female students are clearly well-intentioned, they refuse to purchase lubricant, as that would be seen to be admitting a deficiency on their part. The MSM therefore resort to the use of products such as hairspray, saliva and petroleum jelly which all destroy the condom. I have, on occasion, procured condoms and lubricants for scared MSM since my relatively privileged position affords me a fair degree of insulation from the worst homophobic attacks. Instead of walking through a homophobic mob to the nearest bus stop, I could always drive away in my car. In 2008, an angry mob converged on a group of MSM at a pharmacy in the capital, Kingston.
Tragically, it was a woman who incited the attack.
I say tragically, because women are being directly impacted by homophobia and its link to HIV. Jamaican homophobia drives men to form relationships with women as a cover or “cure” for their sexuality. I married a woman thinking that would cure me. It didn’t and the marriage failed with painful emotional (but thankfully, no physical) consequences for both my ex-wife and me as well as our son. One married MSM we know of keeps the condoms he uses with his boyfriend in the trunk of his car so that his wife (who is on the pill) will not find them. It is easy to imagine what Jamaica’s relentless heat does to the integrity of these condoms. So, even though homophobia serves as an effective bridge for HIV to travel between the MSM and general populations, there is insufficient recognition by women of the immediate benefit to them — and their children — of supporting the rights of MSM to form their own relationships.
Finally, and most tragically, homophobia prevents effective HIV prevention, treatment and care messaging to MSM. In Jamaica’s prisons, where HIV is several times the national average, the availability of condoms and lubricants has to be done clandestinely as to advertise this fact would lead to a riot, which has happened with tragic consequences. In the absence of readily available condoms and lubricants, prisoners use plastic shopping bags and axel grease. Upon their release, these men are pressured to prove their heterosexuality and so they usually have multiple female sexual partners. Many children of these fathers are born within a very short time span.
When my own son was being born, a young man (only 23) was running ragged as 2 of his “baby mothers” were delivering at that hospital on the same day. He kept shuttling between the two 2 birthing rooms as neither woman knew of the other’s existence. This tragically funny story was made even more disconcerting by the fact that this youngster was expecting his thirteenth child.
As an organization committed to removing all barriers to an effective HIV response, AIDS-Free World has been working assiduously to tackle homophobia in the Caribbean. We have therefore launched the first ever legal challenge to Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law; sponsored research into the level and drivers of Jamaican homophobia; successfully challenged the sponsorship of homophobic “murder music”; conducted LGBT sensitization training with police on how to respond to victims of homophobic attacks; met with, and when necessary, publicly challenged politicians, policymakers and UN officials about showing leadership on the issue of tolerance for LGBT; developed media products to promote tolerance; trained LGBT groups on how to document and respond to LGBT human rights abuses; and initiated legal action against Jamaican TV stations who have refused to air our tolerance ads as well as against the homophobic immigration law of Trinidad and Tobago that bans the entry of marginalized groups such as homosexuals.
While our work is a long-term one, we know we are making headway, as seen from the tremendous increase in the level of public discourse around the repeal of the Jamaican anti-buggery law; the surprising statement by the new Jamaican Prime Minister during an election campaign that she will support a Parliamentary conscience vote on the review of the anti-buggery law; and the measured reduction in national homophobia.
The reduction in homophobia is not proceeding quickly. Neither is it expected to. This is because there are many structural barriers to tolerance messaging and these barriers have largely been erected and sustained by powerful bigoted religious fundamentalists that have infected all levels of Caribbean society. Over the past 30 years, these churches, with tremendous financial and technical assistance from North American groups, have been working assiduously to subvert the national ethos of tolerance for diversity, as found in Jamaica’s motto “Out of Many, One People.” Breaking the logjam of religiously inspired homophobia will require bold advocacy. We are up to this David and Goliath battle. The stakes are too high for us to fail.
Legal Advisor, Marginalized Groups
Maurice has been involved in HIV/AIDS and LGBTI activism in Jamaica for over 12 years. He is an Attorney-at-Law and law lecturer with current research interests in sexual rights and HIV/AIDS advocacy. He regularly writes on gay rights in Jamaican newspapers is leading an initiative of the major Jamaican NGOs (J-FLAG, JASL and CVC) working in the area of HIV/AIDS and LGBTI rights to have the country’s anti-buggery law repealed. He is also seeking to have the legal prohibition against sex-work modified to allow for consensual adult sex work. Maurice regularly attends local and international conferences where he presents on the state of Jamaica’s law and homophobia. He also conducts human rights and advocacy training sessions for Jamaican LGBTI and conceptualized Jamaica’s first ‘Walk for Tolerance’ for April 7, 2010.