Guest Post: Homophobia and HIV, Where do we go from here? The Caribbean story

Published: December 1, 2012

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.

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