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Jamaica’s Anti-Gay Laws Lead to Increased HIV

Timothy Kincaid

March 20th, 2009

Jamaica, perhaps the most homophobic spot in the Americas, still retains anti-”buggery” laws. And, unlike some countries who have laws that are more for message than for punishment, Jamaican society enforces these prescriptions by means of mob violence and murder.

Needless to say, fear of exposure is not conducive to steady, monogamous, mutually-supportive relationships. Instead, those societies that threaten the lives and freedoms of gay persons lead to hidden individuals furtively seeking sexual release and then fleeing into the shadows. Many seek to hide behind a public heterosexual front and live a double life.

This is healthy for neither the individuals nor the society. And Jamaica is a prime illustration. According to a 2008 study by the Caribbean HIV & AIDS Alliance (CHAA) (Jamaica Gleaner):

31.8 per cent of gay men in Jamaica are living with HIV. Another 8.5 per cent were found with chlamidia, 2.5 per cent had gonorrhoea and 5.5 per cent had syphilis.

These are shocking rates of infection. And the reason for them does not lie solely in the secret, furtive, shameful nature of the brief liasons. Rather, they are compounded by a society in which seeking medical care in an honest fashion can gat you killed. As a UNICEF worker reported in 2007,

Beaten, stoned, thrown out and even killed are the prices some people face just for being HIV positive in Jamaica.

CHAA lays the blame for the shocking rates of HIV and other infectious disease at the feet of homophobia and mistreatment. Not only are MSM frightened to seek medical care, they are fearful of HIV/AIDS groups that seek to help them. This leaves gay men, in particular, at great risk for transmission of a potentially life threatening disease (MedicalNewsToday).

Devon Cammock, the targeted intervention coordinator at the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life, said that MSM tend to hide their sexuality even from other members of the MSM community, which makes it difficult to conduct programs that are needed in the community.

Should there be among you some so callous as to think that this is just a “gay disease” and that they are just getting what they deserve (an attitude that is not limited to places like Jamaica), you may wish to consider that homophobic laws and culture are a danger to everyone.

In Jamaica, only those who are most brave (or most suicidal) dare identify as gay. So to track health issues they use the term “men who have sex with men (MSM)”. And CHAA has found that MSM are indeed living a double life – and a dangerous one :

Some 27.7 per cent [of MSM] reported having two or more sexual partners in the last four weeks; 25.9 per cent had a new partner in the past four weeks; 28.8 per cent had a female partner in the past four weeks; 15.9 per cent live with a female partner; and 33.8 per cent had two or more female partners in the past 12 months.

But Jamaica’s culture of violence and hatred is not softened by unknowing victims. Rather, their homophobia is so strong it spreads to non-gay persons who have become HIV infected. Take the story of 20 year old Katie.

In the year and a half she has known she’s infected, Katie has struggled through a lot. When she discovered her status, the boyfriend she was living with threw her out along with her daughter, who is currently four and whose father tragically died the same year she was born.

After being thrown out by a boyfriend she went to live with her father, where the situation got worse. There, her step-mum spread rumours that she had AIDS and would point her out on the streets, a very dangerous act considering the destructive discrimination she could face.

Although it’s still a mystery how she got infected, it’s one Katie is in no hurry to solve, “it really doesn’t matter to me anymore because I have my daughter and it would really hurt me and her if I started searching for who I got infected by”.

Katie gets little sympathy in Jamaica. Those persons who are gay and invested with HIV get none.

Unless the Jamaican leaders – be they civil, religious, cultural, or community – become willing to let go of their own fear and hatred and say, “enough is enough”, this nation will continue to wallow in crime and disease, clinging only to its animus and self-righteousness, until the freedom-loving nations of the world want nothing to do with her.

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