Heads in the sand

December 05, 2004

A PROMINENT JAMAICAN gay rights activist is brutally murdered one June morning, and a crowd gathers to rejoice and sing "Boom Bye Bye," a popular reggae song about killing gay men. Nine days later, another gay man is "chopped, stabbed and stoned to death" by an angry mob egged on by police officers who, according to a witness, told them to "beat him because him a battyman," local slang for homosexual. Days later, six men are driven from their home and beaten by a group of angry men. When they report the crime to police, officers nearly laugh them out of the station.

These were among the most graphic examples of ongoing hostility toward homosexuals in Jamaica, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. The organization also found an increasing permissiveness by government and law enforcement officials that has created a deadly environment not only for gay men and women, but also for people perceived as gay, prostitutes, those with HIV and health workers who pass out condoms.

The report, "Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica's HIV/AIDS Epidemic," asserts that discrimination against these groups is undermining government efforts to combat the disease. After local human rights organizations joined Human Rights Watch in issuing the report, the Jamaican Police Federation, a union group, called for arrests of the organizations' members and formal charges of sedition. Government officials insist that ongoing investigations have not conclusively proved the attacks were motivated by homophobia. They say Human Rights Watch should mind its own business.

The government's stance is wrongheaded.

The spread and treatment of AIDS is everyone's business considering the global implications of this epidemic. Jamaica has the third-highest AIDS rate in the Caribbean after Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Jamaica's own health ministry has said that "stigma, fear, and denial create ideal conditions for the epidemic to flourish." Just last month, the agency noted a 12 percent increase in new cases in the first six months of 2004 compared with the same period last year.

So why the misplaced defensiveness? The rash of attacks on gay men hardly seems coincidental. The government should step up arrests of those who attack based on sexual orientation. Beyond that, it should embark on a public information campaign to blunt perceptions that homophobia is state-sanctioned. Thus far, its attempts at damage control have only damaged its credibility.

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