Countdown to Tolerance

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Mon Jul 9, 2012

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: Remarks Delivered at the Release of the Report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law

The following remarks were made by Maurice Tomlinson at the media teleconference on the occasion of the release of the report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, held at the UNDP office in New York on July 9, 2012. Maurice was asked to present on Jamaican homophobia, citing documented and personal experiences, and the impact laws that criminalize male same-gender intimacy have on the country’s HIV response.

Thanks very much.

Yesterday, Assistant Commissioner of Police Les Green was quoted in a Jamaican paper saying: “I am not into gay-bashing, but the problem is cross-dressing.” He thinks gay and trans Jamaicans are responsible for violence perpetrated against them.

Ironically, Green’s presence in Jamaica was facilitated by the British government, which specifically recruited him from Scotland Yard (and paid his salary as a form of development assistance), to help professionalize the notoriously corrupt Jamaican police force.

Cross-dressing is not a crime in Jamaica, but any form of male same-gender intimacy is (whether in private or public). Although there have been few convictions, the country’s British-imposed 19th century “anti-sodomy” law makes gay Jamaicans unapprehended criminals. Police therefore fail to seriously investigate attacks against gays (I have twice reported email death threats to ACP Green to no avail). Police also use the law as a tool for extortion. I have had to intervene when Jamaican men in situations which could be viewed as intimate were discovered by police officers who insisted on being paid bribes not to release the stories to national media. The non-supportive and hostile attitude of police causes gay Jamaicans to fear being out. I have therefore had to purchase condoms and lube for gay friends, and many of my female students indicate that they also buy condoms (but not lube) for gays. In the absence of lubricant, gay Jamaicans use any substitute they can find, including saliva, petroleum jelly and hair spray.

The law also bans the distribution of condoms in prisons, despite an HIV prevalence rate among prisoners several times the national average and reports of multiple partnerships being common among prisoners and released persons. In the 1990s, two Jamaican Commissioners of Corrections tried, on the recommendation of a prison doctor, to provide inmates with condoms, but the condom distribution was halted after a prison riot in which 17 men were killed and the Commissioner was advised that distributing condoms would be “aiding and abetting an illegal activity.” Prisoners now use plastic shopping bags as condoms and just about anything they can get their hands on for lube. Many times, these men simply use nothing at all.

Jamaica’s constitution also bans gay unions. Most gay men therefore cannot form stable same-gender relations, since being seen with a same-gender partner for a sustained period would raise uncomfortable questions in this small, close-knit society. Many gay men, including myself, married women to have “legalized sex” and form families. However, many of us end up having clandestine affairs with men, which increases the likelihood of STIs such as HIV being transmitted to women and children. On July 2, 2012, the Jamaica Observer ran a story with the headline “Closet Gays push up HIV.” This highly stigmatizing headline was clearly designed to feed into the island’s anti-gay animus and fails to acknowledge the role homophobic laws play in forcing gay men to go on the “down-low” away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support interventions. This helps to explain why 32% of Jamaican MSM have HIV, compared to 1.6% of the general population.

Thank you.