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"If people find out you're gay, you're next to dead" - Jamaica's gays struggle to get HIV help

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 25 Jul 2014 10:15 GMT
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Thousands of Jamaicans hold a demonstration against the local LGBT community in Half Way Tree, Kingston, June 29, 2014. REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy
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MELBOURNE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - John, a young gay man from Jamaica, was about 13 when school mates locked him in a bus and turned their flick knives on him.

Demanding to know if he was gay, he had to act fast to convince them he was straight.

"In hindsight I feel I could have been killed," he said. "If people find out you're gay in Jamaica, you're next to dead."

Throughout high school, John, who asked for his identity to be protected, was taunted for preferring tennis and netball to football and other rough and rugged male-dominated sports.

"Bullying was a real horrible thing for me when I was going to school because I'm not very masculine at all," he said in an interview on the sidelines of a global conference on AIDS, which ended on Friday in Melbourne.

Jamaica has earned a reputation as one of the most homophobic countries in the world where gays are forced to conduct their relationships in secret and risk abuse, stigma and violence if they come out.

A law dating back to the British colonial era – which makes anal sex a crime, regardless of consent, and prohibits "acts of gross indecency" between men, in public or in private - has fuelled hatred of gays, say activists.

Religion and popular culture on the Caribbean island have also contributed to homophobia with churches denouncing homosexuality as a sin and songs being written that exhort Jamaicans to kill or burn gays.

The prejudice makes it particularly difficult to provide HIV prevention and treatment services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, rights groups say.

"It very difficult for organisations to do work with the population because you're giving people access to condoms and lubricants to engage in anal sex so you're indirectly going against the law when you're doing that," John said.

GOING UNDERGROUND

Now a community worker, John turned to HIV prevention work a few years ago after he thought he had contracted HIV.

"I didn't want to go and get tested because I didn't know where to go and if they were to ask about me about my sexual relations I'd have to lie and tell them it was with a female," he recalled.

"So I started doing a lot of research - started trying to find out what is HIV, what are some of the symptoms. I never used lubricants, I didn't know how to use condoms, I didn't know all of this information."

The latest U.N. figures show that 12 percent of the 250,000 people living with HIV in the Caribbean are in Jamaica, which had a 1.2 HIV prevalence rate in 2012.

As in many countries, the epidemic is concentrated among the most marginalised in Jamaica, with one in three gay men and other men who have sex with men living with HIV.

Groups such as the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), the Jamaican Red Cross and Jamaica AIDS Support for Life provide condoms, counselling and testing to those living with HIV and train health workers to be more sensitive to the needs of the LGBT community.

 But it often involves going underground, John said.

"You can't go out in Jamaica and just find them (men who have sex with men) like that. You have to go now where they hang out which changes very often," he said.

"You have to be on social media. You have to find out where the parties are taking place. Those are the spaces where you can meet these individuals to do your outreach and intervention. You might find someone this week but next week they're in Kingston. They're always nomadic."

Despite the anti-gay climate, there has been some improvement in the push for gays to be protected, John said.

For example, a few weeks ago, a man was cornered by a mob, after he had been seen applying lip balm to his mouth. Bystanders immediately took it to mean he was gay and demanded that he be beaten. The fact the police rescued the man and whisked him away to a police station for his own protection, was cause for hope.

"There have been strides, but Jamaica is a very homophobic space," John concluded.

(Editing by Ros Russell; rosalind.russell@thomsonreutes.com)

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