Countdown to Tolerance

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Mon Nov 28, 2011

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: What are Jamaican MSM Complaining About?

By Maurice Tomlinson

It’s the week leading up to World AIDS Day, and in Jamaica a popular morning drive-time radio program has decided to focus on the connection between HIV and the country’s anti-sodomy law. I was interviewed this morning and welcome such opportunities. While we wait on UNAIDS to get their act together and clarify which statistics to use regarding the impact of the 1991 decriminalization of sodomy in The Bahamas on the rate of HIV among MSM and the general population in that country, it is important to continue educating Jamaicans about the public health implications of homophobia supported by legislation, which drives MSM underground, away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support interventions.

Supporters of the anti-sodomy law have been, in recent times, relying on the potential impact of decriminalization on the spread of HIV, while subjective moral arguments have rarely featured in the debate. This is a positive development.

This morning I was able to share some of the realities associated with being homosexual in Jamaica. These include incidents of police extortion and non-responsiveness to human rights abuses against homosexuals, which have led to serious distrust of the police and under-reporting of violations by members of this vulnerable population. What I found surprising is that the interviewers felt Jamaican homosexuals really had no right to complain because the Jamaican police extort just about everyone and there is general public mistrust of the police. I have heard this argument before and used the opportunity to emphasize a fact that is sadly ignored: Jamaican homosexuals are regularly abused by state and non-state actors simply due to their actual or perceived orientation and rarely if ever because of anything they have done. Two men found parked and chatting in a secluded spot at night can and have been attacked simply because they are perceived to be gay. One gay couple that was discovered by police had to drive to an ATM (with the police trailing behind) to pay a bribe or face being arrested for “gross indecency.” Thugs also invaded the home of 16-year-old Oshane Gordon on October 18, 2011, and chopped him to death because of his “questionable relations” with another man.

We also know that Jamaican MSM (biologically more vulnerable to HIV because of their sexual practice of anal intercourse) sometime engage in “down-low” relationships with women in order to mask their sexual orientation. This represents a serious public health risk as it creates space for the HIV epidemic to enter the general population. There is a large—some estimates say 20%—of “unknown” sources of HIV infections in Jamaica; it is strongly suspected that many gay men are unwilling to divulge their sexual orientation to their doctors. Such reticence skews the data and makes it very challenging to design and implement an effective response to the virus.

It is unquestionably an opportune time for Jamaicans to be having this important debate (the cancellation of Round 11 of the Global Fund will invariably mean less resources to fight the HIV epidemic). I only hope that good sense and good science will prevail over superstition and prejudice. Happily, I received a friend request on Facebook from a total stranger who said they listened to this morning's interview and found it "enlightening and informative." I hope the rest of the radio interviews on this critical topic scheduled for this week will result in many more "aha" moments for the Jamaican public.