Jamaica, to me, is a land of deep contradictions.
On one hand, it's a lovely, lush tropical country, blessed with sandy beaches, fantastic flowering shrubs, ripe mango and coconut trees, and inhabited by a strong, proud people who clearly share a basic sense of personal dignity and a deep-seated hospitality towards strangers. I found this to be true regardless of whom I was speaking with, be they rich or poor, educated or illiterate, straight or gay.
At the same time, I also encountered an intensity of violence and hatred lurking close to the social surface that shocked me. I was amazed at how easily people expressed their disregard for the human rights of gay people. Or how the same individual could argue that most violence against gays is carried out by other homosexuals while also acknowledging how "understandable" it is that gay people would be beaten by a mob, perhaps even killed, if they "flaunt" their sexual identity in a public space.
I was also surprised by the homophobic venom expressed, openly and on-camera, by the political leaders we met. Perhaps it was to be expected from Representative Ernest Smith, an outspoken opponent of gay rights, but I felt side-swiped to hear similar views expressed by the Reverend Bishop Herro Blair, who is Jamaica's Political Ombudsman and widely credited with reducing political violence in Jamaica's inner cities. And I was stunned when their most inflammatory remarks were repeated by leading public health officials, teen-aged school children, and, sometimes, even by members of Jamaica's gay community.
The ideology of homophobia is as deep as it is pernicious in Jamaica. It is widely held that homosexuality is a mortal sin, which the Bible (and by extension God) has ruled should be punished by death. And if that wasn't inflammatory enough, there is a wide-spread perception that gayness is transmitted by homosexual contact (gays are made, not born) and that gay men and women are out actively raping young Jamaican children to "recruit" them into a new generation of homosexuals. Many people also seem to believe in the existence of an "international gay lobby" that is conspiring to undermine and destroy the nation's moral values and political sovereignty.
In the context of HIV and AIDS, of course, these attitudes are deadly. So it wasn't surprising for me to meet a young gay man who rejected every safe sex message ever created. "It's not AIDS that is killing us," he told me. "If it were, I would use a condom. But it's people, not AIDS, that is killing us. AIDS has nothing to do with it."
Jamaica, it seems, needs to be reminded of another old biblical adage, expressed succinctly in Galatians: "You shall reap what you sow."
This reporting project is part of a global conversation about stigma, homophobia, and HIV/AIDS.