Saturday, March 08, 2008

SASOD's comments on UNGASS Country Progress Report for Guyana

Guyana's UNGASS Country Progress Report is available from Guyana's National AIDS Programme website

Programmatic Response

The approach to health promotion targeting vulnerable sub-populations of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) is still based on narrow, technical public-health strategies of outreach and referral to “friendly” services. The programmatic response needs to be holistic by improving the quality of client services across the board through training to mitigate same-gender and HIV-related stigma by addressing homophobia among health care workers. Once services become and are know to be client-friendly, there will be less need to invest in “targeting MSM” as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) communities in Guyana would gain confidence that the public-health system does not house homophobic prejudices and allow discriminatory practices. Training and sensitization of providers is specifically mentioned as a recommendation in the HIV-AIDS Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) Strategy for Guyana 2006-2010 (see pg. 37).


The fourth aim of the 2006 and 2007 campaigns is stated as “reaching high risk groups,” under which the vulnerable sub-populations of gay, bisexual and other MSM are classified. As stated in the BCC Strategy document as well, it is categorically clear that stigma and discrimination drive MSM away from health care seeking behaviour, which includes testing for HIV. To date there have been no BCC campaigns to address what is probably the gravest barrier to universal access among MSM, that is, mitigating stigma and discouraging societal discrimination which often accompanies these homophobic prejudices. The suggestion that “a focused effort on increasing access to condoms by high-risk groups with the strategic placement of condom vending machines at high traffic locations, for example, bars and clubs” (UNGASS Country Progress Report, pg 22) is an effective BCC strategy in a cultural environment in which stigma against same-sex practices, sex work and sex among youth are widespread is unsatisfactory.

Ironically enough, the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS) is one of the public-health institutions which promote homophobia by stigmatizing ‘men who have sex with men’ and ‘women who have sex with women(WSW)" as prohibited groups for blood donation. The fact that WSW, who are considered at low risk for HIV infection, is listed provides irrefutable evidence that the NBTS policy is rooted in same-gender stigma which was common early in the epidemic (when AIDS was considered the ‘plague’ for homosexuals).

SASOD and the Guyana Rainbow Association (Guybow) have raised these concerns in official correspondence with the Head of NBTS and the Minister of Health (copied to UNAIDS and PAHO/WHO) to which we have received no reply. For good practices in this area, we need not look further than our fellow CARICOM member state, St. Lucia, where potential blood donors are asked about the number of sexual partners in their sexual history, and are not questioned about the gender of their partners.

It is noted that while programmes aimed at benefiting other vulnerable sub-populations have began to take shape only “some work has been done with MSM.” It is also of concern that narrow, public-health approaches of peer education and outreach seem to be the programmatic response to HIV among MSM. SASOD would like to emphatically state that health-promotion programmes which do not address the political, legal, social, economic and cultural factors of marginalization and exclusion that create vulnerability and thereby put MSM at risk will only have minimal impact as the benefits of increased HIV awareness can only be sustained in socio-cultural environments which facilitate behaviour change by supporting same-sex practicing men. It is also noted that there are plans to fully implement the MSM programme in 2008. SASOD anxiously awaits to see the approach of this programme and how it will involve in design and implementation gay, bisexual and other MSM and those who work with GLBT communities.

Major Challenges and Remedial Actions

Despite the horrendous statistic of 21.2% HIV prevalence among MSM from the BSS (2005) and Guyana’s poor-track record of meaningfully responding to the epidemic among MSM, the UNGASS Country Progress Report limits its challenges to “general discrimination against PLHIV” and does not include the real challenge of same-gender stigma as well. As such the recommend remedial actions are technical responses which will only create more programmatic structures, which need coordination and support, and do not reverse the epidemic. SASOD encourages a more holistic approach to responding to the epidemic which addresses the political, legal, social, cultural and economic conditions that allow the epidemic to flourish in Guyana.

Submitted to the Guyana National AIDS Committee
March 2008
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Monday, March 03, 2008

Leadership is Needed to Denounce Homophobic Violence in Jamaica

(Photographs of event held outside the office of the Jamaican Consul in Barbados on 14 Feb, 2008)

Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) – Guyana is deeply concerned over the continuous acts of violence towards Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) persons in Jamaica. The recent mob attack on January 29 in Mandeville by some 20 persons against 4 young men they believed to be gay is the latest of a repeated pattern of vigilantism towards men and women in Jamaica motivated by a disapproval of their sexual identity or gender expression. It reaffirms the perilous climate towards life and liberty that violence is creating across the Caribbean region. It also calls profoundly into question our transformation as a region, with independence, into modern, inclusive democracies, and our success in moving ourselves beyond the violence and vicious inequities of slavery, indentureship and colonialism.

The lack of response and official silence by state institutions and authorities has significantly contributed to this ongoing problem. Governments have a moral responsibility to ensure all are protected by law and none are excluded from equal protection. The absence of public policy and law reform to deal with hate crimes rooted in homophobia and to prevent all forms of violence and discrimination serves to breed these rampant homophobic attacks.

As Guyanese we know too well the ruinousness of mob violence that targets people based on diversity and the social disintegration such violence sows for everyone. It is especially heartbreaking to our vision of post-independence Caribbean democracy when such violence targets those already hated, excluded and marginalised by stigma and prejudice.

What good are our own governments if they fail repeatedly to protect citizens from mob lynching and slaughter? What good are religious leaders if they struggle to condemn killing and maiming others? The silence of both political and religious leaders in both word and action sends signals to the masses that they can be judge, jury and executioner in attacking, persecuting and lynching individuals whether perceived or known to be gay. This has fermented an unstable environment of rabid homophobia and virulent intolerance in Jamaica reflected and amplified in the lyrics of some dancehall performers who glorify the lynching and killing of homosexuals in their music.

Why does the Caribbean cling tenaciously to slavery-era laws written from the same pens as the ones that institutionalized ownership and trade in human beings? Why does a country where female sexuality is ruthlessly glorified in public imagery feel such a compelling need to police consensual sex between adult men? People use the existence of these laws to justify personal and group lynchings of those who offend their sense of appropriate sexual or gender-based conduct, and pretend this is the exercise of some moral authority.

It is past time for the Jamaican government to act like one. SASOD calls on Prime Minister Bruce Golding, all of Jamaica’s state institutions and authorities, who have by word and inaction significantly contributed to this ongoing problem, to intervene aggressively to protect all Jamaicans from violence and discrimination, particularly on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is time for Jamaica’s political parties to stop electioneering over who can be more backward in promising to preserve institutional homophobia.

Violence in Jamaica is an enormous problem with the island nation stained with the highest per capita murder rate in the Americas. This epidemic of violence is certainly not limited to those perceived to be gay, and is not an easy problem for the best of governments to address. But simple acts of political will and voices of leadership can go far in reversing the neglect of the government in allowing a climate of violent intolerance towards homosexuality to persist. Send a clear message that violence against people whose sexual behaviour or gender expression you don’t like is criminal and prosecute it as vigorously as any other crime, instead of advising that they should ‘hold their corners.’ Embrace efforts to decriminalize sexual behaviours that have no victims. Even if these efforts would yield little result, a responsible and unbiased government would at least try them.

Jamaica’s people are brilliant, resourceful and play a unique role in the region’s history, politics and sports. But any claim she has to leadership of the Caribbean is excised by her growing regional and international reputation as a symbol of anti-gay violence ignored. Jamaica must reverse this disturbing trend if she is to re-gain her place as an island paradise in the Caribbean.

Signatories on behalf of SASOD:

Joel Simpson, Stacey Gomes, Vidyaratha Kissoon, Namela Henry, Jermaine Grant, Dion Small, Kelvin Broughton, Reyana Mc Kenzie, Keimo Benjamin, Kesaundra Alves and Anton Rocke.