HIV Frontlines: HIV/AIDS and Homophobia in Jamaica
An Interview With Kwame Dawes and Nancy Mahon
February 3, 2010
Bonnie Goldman: Nancy, could you tell us how the MAC AIDS Fund got involved in Jamaica?
Nancy Mahon: Sure. We are a global funder of AIDS. We're actually, interestingly, the second largest corporate funder to AIDS worldwide, even though we're a cosmetic company. It's been something that MAC has been committed to since the founding of the company. Internationally, we wanted to focus on the two areas that had the highest HIV rates. Those areas are South Africa and, unbeknownst to many people, the second area is the Caribbean. We feel very strongly that the Caribbean is an area of the world where there's been a lack of focus and lack of funding to help those who really combat the epidemic.
What are some of the initiatives that MAC AIDS Fund has been involved with?
Nancy Mahon: We have funded about $7 million in a wide range of initiatives over the last couple of years. Everything from HIV testing, treatment and care in the Dominican Republic, as well as in Jamaica, to advocacy around some of the issues, including the shame and stigma issues that prevent people from accessing HIV care.
For instance, in Jamaica, we see homophobia, which is keeping people away from HIV testing and driving high-risk sex underground. As a result, men who have sex with men in Jamaica have an HIV rate that is double the amount in the Dominican Republic, where we see less of that.
We've also funded a group called the Pulitzer Center, to bring media and news attention to the Caribbean, and begin to take a look at what the issues are surrounding HIV in the Caribbean. The general state of journalism, unfortunately, as well as the lack of resources in the Caribbean, has meant that there's very little reporting on health issues in the Caribbean, particularly with respect to HIV.
Bonnie Goldman: I noticed that there's a new site called the Glass Closet, which went up a few months ago. Can you tell me a little bit about that initiative?
Nancy Mahon: We funded a portion of it. Basically, the Pulitzer Center, which is a non-profit news organization, created a portal on the Web that combines information on homophobia within the Caribbean and some of the other projects they've been doing. Our funding is HIV specific. Although, in order to really tackle that issue, you have to take on issues around the shame and stigma in homophobia.
Bonnie Goldman: Kwame, let's turn to how you got involved. How did a poet get involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy? How did it come to be that you created this beautiful site with poetry and photographs of people living with HIV?
Kwame Dawes: I've always written about HIV/AIDS, as a writer. I remember, in about 1989, I was fascinated, needless to say, by where HIV/AIDS was in the world at that time.
I think it was '88 or '89 when I saw an issue of TIME magazine with a picture of a woman sitting on a suitcase in the middle of this veld in Kenya. The caption said that she was the sole survivor of her village. AIDS had wiped out her entire village. I was riveted and mesmerized by this woman and by this picture.
I eventually wrote a play, and then a series of plays, on HIV/AIDS, particularly in developing countries. I've also written poetry about it. So this was part of my engagement with what I think of the human realities that surround us. But I probably would not have thought to do a project like this one. This is a full-blown journalistic exercise, going and interviewing many people and so on. I was approached by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to do the piece. I felt that I would do it because it was about Jamaica, and Jamaica is dear and close to me.
I felt that I would have access to stories that other people would not have. I also felt that it was important for a Jamaican to tell that story because I think too often stories are ignored or stories are not told with a kind of intimacy and knowledge of the space. Sometimes I exploited this, and I wanted to make sure that the story was told honestly but told with a genuine appreciation of the human realities of that country.
To do it became a challenge but also a very exciting opportunity. Working with what I think are the triumphs and tragedies of human life, and finding art in the midst of it is part of my work. I've always been doing that kind of work, whether it's HIV/AIDS, whether it's Jim Crow laws in South Carolina. Whatever it is I'm going to explore it and try and find the truth in it.
Nancy Mahon: I think if you've seen the piece [Live Hope Love], you'll witness Kwame's ability to put a human face on the epidemic. The poetry, really, is very effective in, I think, both internally educating about HIV and also externally. That's, again, why we funded the Pulitzer Center, because that's the type of work that's not getting out there. The Pulitzer Center, as I understand it, asked who the best storyteller would be here. In terms of Jamaica, the best storyteller is this very gifted poet.
Bonnie Goldman: It's really moving.
Nancy Mahon: As you saw, they brought a photojournalist in who took some really stunning images. It's very profound in terms of the level of desperation, and the level of need.
Bonnie Goldman: When I looked at Live Hope Love, I was shocked at how much death there was in Jamaica in 2007. It was so tragic in many, many areas. Have things changed in the last two years at all? Would it be a more hopeful situation if you went back and did the same thing?
Kwame Dawes: It's an interesting question to ask. On one level, it cannot be more hopeful because the numbers are still what they are. Especially for men who sleep with men, there's just no way I can say it's more hopeful.
What I can say is that I'm in touch with most of the people I interviewed and they're still alive. I'm in touch with those who were working in the field and they are all still working hard in the field.
I've taken this project back to Jamaica. Just in the summer, we did a presentation of it, and we had all the people who did the interviews come out. We had a panel discussion. It was wonderful to see the openness and the willingness to talk about these issues and to see the tremendous concern that is still there. There's more interest and care in Jamaica. It's not a callous attitude. It's something that I connect with and I understand. But there's a tremendous amount of work still to be done.
We're still getting instances and stories of people who have been brutalized because of being gay. People continue to file to leave Jamaica and to have refugee status here in the United States, because of homophobia in Jamaica.
Bonnie Goldman: Is that common? Can a Jamaican get refugee status because of homophobia?
Kwame Dawes: You can and people have. From my understanding, many of the requests on that front [homophobia] have come from Jamaica. Absolutely. I mean the threat of death is not a casual thing. There's still a tremendous amount of legal work that is being done to ensure that America recognizes that in many more instances as cases in point. But the U.S. State Department has recognized that in the past and continues to do so.
Bonnie Goldman: Thank you. Nancy. Before we go, could you share with us what your next steps will be? I noticed there was a presentation and panel at the CUNY [City University of New York] Graduate Center of Journalism at the end of September. Are you doing other kinds of panel discussions? What other initiatives are you planning to do in the next year?
Nancy Mahon: We hosted a panel at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. What we're trying to do is get the word out to donors as well as international advocates. So basically, trying to attract talent and dollars to the Caribbean. What we're thinking about doing is hosting another event with the Pulitzer Center with donors, again, to not only advocate funding alternative media, but looking at the issues within the Caribbean around HIV.
These are tough times. The vast majority of us have decreased portfolios. Grants or free money is hard to come by. But we really believe, and I think have shown, through the grant making that we've done, that with a relatively small amount, you can make an enormous difference within the Caribbean, as well as really make the Caribbean part of the international dialogue on HIV. And again, Africa is an extraordinarily important place. We've done an enormous amount of funding in Africa, but it's sort of ironic, as you would say, that because the Caribbean is in our backyard, because people often associate it with beautiful beaches -- and there are in fact beautiful beaches and great resorts -- that this really horrible issue around health care has been overlooked.
If you look historically, many years ago Jamaica had a very tough problem with sickle cell anemia, which was effectively addressed by the local community, with help from the international community. We're trying to use that as a model and would issue a call to action to all of your readers and listeners to go to the Web site of these various groups to get involved, to write letters to the local Jamaican politicians and, if they can, to send dollars. The Clinton Global Foundation is working in the Caribbean and you can always direct dollars towards them. This group, Jamaican PFLAG [J-FLAG], is also doing work there, as is the Pulitzer Center. So there's lots of good work to do. Every dollar makes a difference.
People's attention and concern makes a big difference. I also want to congratulate both the Pulitzer Center and Kwame for a terrific piece of work. I don't know if we've mentioned it, but it actually won an Emmy for the Web site and the work that has been done. So it's created a lot of attention around an area and an issue that's been ignored.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
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