HIV Frontlines: HIV/AIDS and Homophobia in Jamaica
An Interview With Kwame Dawes and Nancy Mahon
February 3, 2010
Bonnie Goldman: Kwame, could you talk a little bit about what it is like to be gay in Jamaica and what it is like to be HIV infected?
Kwame Dawes: I should start off by saying that I grew up in Jamaica. Most of my young adult life was spent in Jamaica. I have family in Jamaica, so I'm in Jamaica five, six times a year. Jamaica is not a place that I jump into and then flee out of. Therefore, I grew up knowing many people who are gay. I also continue to have friends in Jamaica who are gay. During this particular project, I interviewed quite a number of people who are gay who are also living with HIV.
There's no question about the challenges that are there. The challenges are on several fronts.
The first one is the way in which the popular culture and music have repeatedly articulated very disturbing ideas about gays and quite violent lyrics and so on. The violence of the lyrics and the acceptance of it by certain segments of the population leave somebody who is gay with a constant sense of anxiety about the way in which they're viewed and they'll be treated if they come out. So it's a kind of living threat. And there've been so many instances of violence against men who sleep with men.
Yet there's another side of this thing that is worth paying attention to. The gay community has been far more articulate and present, and in many ways, radical in its resistance to the violence that has been perpetrated against them. That presence is part of what I believe to be a cultural shift that is taking place within a very conservative society. There are many gay people who have left Jamaica simply because it was just untenable to continue to live there comfortably and freely.
"There are many gay people who have left Jamaica simply because it was just untenable to continue to live there comfortably and freely."
-- Kwame Dawes
That complicates issues of how we deal with HIV. If being gay becomes something that one does not want to be attached to, then there's a reluctance for those people to come out of the closet, or to even just come out to be tested for HIV/AIDS. It's a hard community to then reach. That creates tremendous problems. The numbers are disturbing. Almost 30% of men who sleep with men in Jamaica are estimated to have HIV.
Bonnie Goldman: Wow. Why do you think that the rate is so high? Is it because there's so much homophobia that gay men don't take care of themselves, or is it that they don't have the information to take care of themselves?
Kwame Dawes: It's a combination of things. The rate is high, because the rate has been high among gay men historically all around the world. We know that. The question is how are we dealing with it and how are they dealing with it as a community.
"The numbers are disturbing. Almost 30% of men who sleep with men in Jamaica are estimated to have HIV."
-- Kwame Dawes
One of the great things that we've seen in other parts of the world is that the gay community has been outspoken and willing to address within itself and, of course, within the larger community, how to contend with HIV/AIDS, how to practice safe sex, how to ensure that one is tested and so on.
In Jamaica, because of homophobia, there's anxiety about declaring oneself to be gay. If one contracts HIV/AIDS, they're suspected of being gay. That complicates the matter. As one person said in one of the documentaries that [writer/producer] Micah Fink did, he's more worried about being killed by a crowd for being gay than he is about dying of AIDS. So there's a way in which that is complicated.
The other thing to remember is that we are talking about a country that is relatively poor. Many of the people that we are dealing with have issues of poverty and a lack of education, and therefore, issues that relate to the lack of knowledge.
The greatest work that is done in countering HIV/AIDS is within the communities at risk. If you can go into those communities and then work with them to practice behaviors and patterns of protection and then, of course, HIV testing and treatment, you will make progress.
If that community is underground, it is increasingly difficult to reach; therefore, that increases the likelihood of these high HIV rates.
Bonnie Goldman: Could you explain the realities of the criminalization of homosexuality? Is there a culture of fear? Do people turn in other people? Is it like prostitution in America, which is prevalent and robust and just a few people get arrested now and again? Or do people get arrested all of the time?
Kwame Dawes: No, no. I should say very quickly that, regarding the criminalization of homosexuality, you're not dealing largely with the state arresting people because they're gay. This is not what is happening. It's on the books. It's on the books in so many countries. It's on the books in the United States of America where there are sodomy laws.
What happens is that, because homosexuality remains criminalized, there is a culture that feels valid in saying that homosexuality is a negative thing, an immoral thing. But there are very few cases -- except cases in which one is trying to persecute somebody on another front and then uses this as the means to persecute them -- that somebody is so-called "turned in" or arrested and so on.
I think a gay person is not worried about being arrested for homosexual practices. The gay person is more worried about not being protected from violence against them by the community because the police may be complicit in the violence that is enacted against them.
So we are not talking about a kind of police state, in which one turns in gay people and so on. That's not what's happening in Jamaica. People who are gay in Jamaica, in many ways, are known to be gay. What they do fear is that in certain volatile situations, or in certain situations of vulnerability, they may be attacked for this.
Nancy Mahon: By way of background, over 80 countries worldwide do have anti-sodomy laws. Overturning the anti-sodomy laws would not cure the problem, but certainly these laws create a perception that governments condone anti-gay violence and, as Kwame said, that there would be no recourse if you were to go to the police. There are many instances where either the police are part of the violence or the police see it and ignore it.
Kwame Dawes: Exactly.
Bonnie Goldman: Are there then no people in jail for being gay?
Kwame Dawes: No, none that I know of. The state is fully aware that doing that would be deeply problematic, but there have been people who have been charged with sodomy. In those instances, it is seen as being used as a part of it. But -- and I could be wrong on this -- I'm almost quite certain that persecution to the full force of the law has not taken place in Jamaica.
"The violence, the murders and so on that are going on are real issues and they're about a culture in which people enact that violence against gay people. Gay people do not feel that they have and have been shown not to have the protection of the police at all times on these issues."
-- Kwame Dawes
Again, I must reiterate that that is not the fundamental anxiety. The violence, the murders and so on that are going on are real issues and they're about a culture in which people enact that violence against gay people. Gay people do not feel that they have and have been shown not to have the protection of the police at all times on these issues.
Bonnie Goldman: Do we know how many gay people have been killed?
Nancy Mahon: No, although we might. There's a group called J-FLAG [Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays], which we also fund in Jamaica. It offers hotline intervention services for people who are threatened and has been working on an advocacy level to try and reverse the anti-sodomy laws, or what are called "buggery laws."
Bonnie Goldman: Do a lot of people in Jamaica have Internet access?
Kwame Dawes: Yes, the Internet is quite present in Jamaica, so a lot of people do have access, a lot of poor people don't.
Bonnie Goldman: But the Internet must help the gay population in Jamaica feel less isolated and let them know that there's freedom out there. They could also get information about HIV/AIDS via the Internet.
Kwame Dawes: Yes. What I want to reiterate is that ... I know it's difficult to grasp that when you go to a place like Jamaica, you're in a very contemporary world, in which there are classes in society. There are economic levels and people live at different levels of that society. When we speak of violence in Jamaica, it's really important to understand that there's an epidemic of violence in Jamaica, with almost 2,000 people murdered a year in a population of only 2.5 million. There's a serious epidemic of violence. It is in that context that we see the violence against gays. But if we did the percentages on those, they'd be really, really small.
"When we speak of violence in Jamaica, it's really important to understand that there's an epidemic of violence in Jamaica, with almost 2,000 people murdered a year."
-- Kwame Dawes
In addition, women have tremendous anxiety about violence against them. There's violence from the police against poor people and so on. So there's a larger context of that kind of struggle that people are having.
The violence that is related to homophobia is part of that larger picture. It's really necessary for that to be understood -- to have a broader sense of it. There is a tremendous amount of information out there, but the work is to try and make sure that people are tested and it has to be one on one.
People know about HIV. In the same way that we work with young people who may be heterosexual, until you can work directly with them, until you can work with the sex workers, until you can work with those who work in the tourist industry, and know them, identify them, and talk to them, and take them through the process, and they're willing to do that, then that information doesn't have the kind of impact that it needs to have.
It's not a question of the information not being available. It's a question of having a closer contact and creating a culture within itself that is open to the kind of work that is needed to ensure adherence and protected [sexual] activities.
Nancy Mahon: This issue of violence and HIV is a worldwide problem. In fact, many of the big funders, such as PEPFAR [U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], are really beginning to look at how we can look at HIV through a violence lens and understand that if people fear for their safety, their ability to engage in any kind of open, honest and equal-playing-field discussion around safer practices is just nonexistent, whether it be women or whether it be people living with HIV.
Kwame Dawes: That's very true.
Bonnie Goldman: To be quite blunt, it sounds like the heart of the problem with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica is the heterosexual male who is perpetrating violence against both women and men who have sex with men [MSM].
Kwame Dawes: There are multiple problems that we're dealing with. The heart of the problem of homophobia and the impact that it has on the lives of gay people are certainly part of a kind of heterosexual, patriarchal notion of sexuality that has its roots in cultures that go way back. In many ways, part of the work has to be to work through those and to get people to think beyond those constrictions and those constraints.
I think when we say that the heart of the problem is the heterosexual male, the truth is that many of the people who I worked with -- and you'll see on the site -- are straight men and they're dying of AIDS.
Their narrative is as tragic. In fact, many of these straight men, who are living with HIV, are not coming out because of an anxiety about being stigmatized as gay.
I don't know if we can do a great job of identifying who is the problem.
Nancy Mahon: I don't know if we can say they're the problem. I think the issue is that they're critical partners.
Just to add to what Kwame is saying, I think behaviorally we put people into certain boxes that actually they don't stay in. In particular, what we're seeing with straight men is that sometimes they are having sex with men. What we refer to as men who have sex with men, as opposed to [men who have] a gay identity.
The other thing is that particularly in the Caribbean, and elsewhere as well, there is such an enormous amount of sex tourism and commercial sex that there's this sort of big mixing pot. It is critical that we include straight men as partners and really better understand what it is about their sense of masculinity, their sense of utility and their sense of being in relationships with people that is causing this amount of violence.
This article was provided by TheBodyPRO.
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