Julie Davids, Executive Director, CHAMP
DECEMBER 2006 • Issue 2
In November 2004, Human Rights Watch released the report Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic. It begins with an account of the 2004 murder of Brian Williamson, founding member of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) in his home from multiple knife wounds:
Within an hour after his body was discovered, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed a crowd gathered outside the crime scene. A smiling man called out, “Battyman [homosexual] he get killed!” Many others celebrated Williamson’s murder, laughing and calling out, “let’s get them one at a time,” “that’s what you get for sin,” “let’s kill all of them.” Some sang “boom bye bye,” a line from a popular Jamaican song about killing and burning gay men.
Released into an environment of overt stigma and violence against gay people and people with HIV, the report drew criticism and anger from public officials. Jamaica AIDS Support, which had started to use photographs and videotaped testimonies to document violence against their clients, needed to figure out how to not fuel the fires of controversy and instead move to dialogue on the harsh realities faced by their clients and staff. Rather than accepting requests for media interviews that they expected to be inflammatory rather than constructive, they focused on dialogue with key government and religious officials on the link between stigma and violence.
“We identified five people and arranged to have one on one meetings to talk about the reality of what was being described in the report and what we had seen over a decade of working with the communities,” explains Robert Carr, Executive Director of JAS at that time.
These meetings led to transformations. One government official who met one-on-one with a wheelchair-bound violence survivor became very helpful in getting medical records from the hospital and lodging a complaint with the public defender. A high ranking official in a powerful church committed to taking a public stand to defend the rights of lesbian and gay people and to working on his institution’s policies on people with HIV.
Although violence is still a chilling reality for people with HIV and gay men, Carr points to increased sensitivity among police charged with investigating attacks. The international Stop Murder Music coalition drew attention to the homophobia of some Jamaican performers (and while the UK-based coalition declared a truce in 2005, activists in the US have continued to work to block concerts here by performers with homophobic repertoires), and brought resources and international support to J-FLAG. However, a presentation at the MSM pre-conference prior to the International AIDS Conference in Toronto this summer, Carr stressed that the impact of the process of change will unfold over a course of years, requiring clarity about long-term vision that can’t depend on the presence or absence of donor funding.
While anti-gay violence has been its most visible edge, stigma in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean also affects people with HIV, sex workers and other marginalized people. Yet, people from the grassroots working within and across vulnerable groups did not have a forum for collaboration – a problem that hit home for Carr when he found himself to be just one of two grassroots representatives at a high-level meetings with dozens of “technical experts” on stigma and discrimination.
The Caribbean Vulnerable Communities coalition emerged as a new effort this year to link populations that share the common issue of being structurally vulnerable because of the way our societies are constructed, including inmates, sex workers, orphans and other vulnerable children, youth, men who have sex with me, substance users, and undocumented persons and refugees.
People in the United States can play two types of important roles in supporting Caribbean human rights initiatives in HIV/AIDS: taking action in solidarity with Caribbean activists, and holding our own government accountable for policies that impact their work.
“Some of the formal ways [US government policies impact the Caribbean] are issues of migration, visas and travel, as well as attitudes towards drug users,” says Carr. “There’s a lot of money pumped into anti-trafficking work and very little into harm reduction, much more support for motor boats, policemen and helicopters. We’re vulnerable to the issue of the response to sex work being overtaken by ideology that sex work is trafficking and all sex work is wrong. Those larger debates have a very strong impact on us here.”
“When we talk about removing sodomy laws or decriminalizing sex work, we get the ideological backlash from people who have been informed, if not trained, by conservative evangelical pastors and organizations [in the United States] that are feeding information to organizations here,” Carr explains. A recent consideration of a constitutional revision on privacy was attacked by a Christian group asserting that the right to privacy is about condoning homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Carr pointed to their full-page ad in major newspapers as evidence of outside finances and support.
Colin Robinson, author of Psst. Homophobia Causes AIDS. Pass it On, is working as a point person to link others doing work on stigma in Caribbean American communities, and can be contacted at Soucouyant (at) aol.com.
“It’s very helpful and important to us to have an informed grassroots support base in the United States. There are diasporan communities, people applying for asylum, colleagues in different parts of the States trying to do supportive work in the Caribbean – they need support from fellow grassroots workers in US cites,” Carr stresses. “Remember us and do not let us drop off the map.”