Wednesday, November 30, 2005

AIDS, and Homophobia, in Jamaica

New York Times

November 30, 2005

Jamaica took a tentative step in the right direction recently when two government officials suggested that the country actually debate longstanding laws that criminalize gay sex among consenting adults. The suggestion, by Health Minister John Junor and Deputy Education Minister Donald Rhodd, may seem no big deal to those who live in Europe or North America. But it was revolutionary for Jamaica, where homophobic behavior is pervasive in just about every aspect of public life.

This distressing picture was documented just a year ago in a report from Human Rights Watch called "Hated to Death." The report recounted hair-raising stories of anti-gay bigotry in Jamaican popular culture as well as in the law enforcement and medical systems. Most distressingly, it recounted the experiences of gay Jamaicans who had been forced to flee their homes under threats of death.

The recent call for a national debate on the country's attitude toward gay people represents a belated realization by some in government that homophobia promotes the spread of AIDS by discouraging infected people from seeking counseling or treatment. But the angry reaction suggests that the political leadership will have a difficult time weaning the country away from the anti-gay attitudes that are pervasive throughout the society.

The Jamaican public health system has made progress in the year since Human Rights Watch issued its report. But the government will have to redouble its efforts to stem the tide of an epidemic that is clearly getting worse. For starters, this will mean expanding efforts to reach same-sex partners who are justifiably terrified of seeking medical help.

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