Interview: Securing gay rights in Jamaica is vital to AIDS struggle

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

By an stretch of the imagination, the treatment of lesbian and gay people in Jamaica is disgrace, says minister Gareth Thomas.

The Church condemns them as sinful and the Prime Minister is unashamed to say he would not have a gay person in his Cabinet.

The wildly-popular dancehall culture is viciously homophobic, with many lyrics calling for lesbians and gays to be burned, beaten and shot. Reggae is little better. has reported many incidents of homophobic violence in the former colony over the last three years.

In February an attack on a group of men alleged to be homosexual left one man seriously injured and another missing feared dead.

On Valentine’s Day last year three gay men were stoned by a huge mob in a homophobic attack.

Police eventually escorted the men from a pharmacy where an angry crowd had gathered, hurling insults and threatening to kill the men. Officers dispersed the crowd with tear gas. As many as 2,000 people were involved in the attack.

Everyday life for gay men and lesbians in Jamaica, which has been dubbed “by far the most dangerous place for sexual minorities” in the Caribbean.

Gay rights activists have sought asylum, notably in Canada.

A member of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), Gareth Henry, said in a recent interview with Canadian paper Globe and Mail that 13 of his friends in Jamaica had been murdered.

Sex between men is illegal, and punishable with up to ten years in jail, usually with hard labour. The Queen is head of state and Jamaica is an active member of the Commonwealth.

Since 1997 the UK has given £80.5 million in bilateral aid and debt relief to Jamaica, according to the Department for International Development.

In addition to the debt relief, in 2007/08 DFID gave £2.5 million in aid to Jamaica and a further £2.5 million is expected to be disbursed in 2008/09.

Much of this money goes towards fighting HIV and AIDS.

Gareth Thomas has been a minister at DFID since 2003 and last month was promoted to minister of state, as well as holding the same role at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

During the summer, he made a return visit to the Caribbean and spoke to the Prime Minister of Jamaica about the fight against HIV.

As many as 39,000 Jamaicans may have the virus, according to UNICEF figures, out of a population of 2.8m.

Mr Thomas has visited the Caribbean “four or five times” as DFID minister with responsibility for HIV policy.

“During those visits I have been struck by the extent to which homophobia and the anti-gay legislation impact the effort to fight the surge of HIV infections,” he told

“The perception is that it is a gay disease is leading to a series of horrific unintended consequences,” over and above the “human rights dimension.”

“My worry, frankly, is that things are not getting better on either front and more change is necessary. I made representations to the governments in Barbados and Jamaica.

“We helped back in 2004 to organise a Champions for Change event that brought together people from music, politics, sport and business in the Caribbean to make the case for change, around its stigma. You cant tackle AIDS stigma without tackling gay rights.”

Mr Thomas has raised the issue in public in Jamaica before. Speaking in Kingston in April 2006 he said:

“Within the Jamaican gay community homophobia is a key part of the spread of HIV/AIDS, as the added discrimination against homosexuals discourages many from seeking advice about prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. There are also particular problems with some rap and reggae music which includes lyrics inciting violence against gays.”

He “welcomed the stronger line being taken by the Jamaica Constabulary Force against those who incite violence through music lyrics and called on musicians to distance themselves from hate-filled songs.”

DFID has been saying for some time that “stigma and discrimination is the driving force behind the spread of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.”

On his most recent visit Mr Thomas took his concerns about the lack of progress to the country’s leaders.

“I met with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Trade Minister in Jamaica this year. I also met with a group of gay activists in Jamaica.

“We had an acknowledgment there was an issue. There was not a conversation about immediate next steps.

“In Barbados we did a round-table on AIDS stigma with the Minister for Health and AIDS specialists. We fund a unit that targets stigma in the Caribbean.

“We need to make sure that people from all walks of life – the church, sport popular culture and politics – are genuinely looking at what can be done.

“My own view is that one of the areas where we need to see change in attitude is from the church. Now is the time for church leaders to speak out on the issue of discrimination.

“I deliberately raised in the speech that I gave about our future strategy on AIDS the need for action to tackle homophobia.”

Mr Thomas said he was shocked by the testimonies of the gay activists he met, in a hotel in Kingston.

They were clearly nervous and fearful they were being watched, and the minister said “for obvious reasons” he did not want to name them.

“Some of their stories are horrific – people who have been forced out of churches, out of their jobs and on occasion, violence.

“By any stretch of the imagination it is a disgrace and we need the state to take action in those circumstances.”

Given the controversy in the UK over recent deportations of gay and lesbian asylum seekers, surely these first hand testimonies of homophobia will lead the government to open its doors to Jamaican gays?

“Every case has to be looked at on its own merits. You need to unpick the details of what was alleged to have happened,” Mr Thomas replied.

Asylum of course is a Home Office matter – DFID’s work tends on the whole to be more positive.

“We do make a difference for some of the poorest people in the world,” Mr Thomas pointed out.

“We have a rising aid budget and we work in 40 countries. We want to improve health, AIDS, child and adult mortality and we want to get more children in school.

“We have had success in Africa in health but also education.”

Mr Thomas is In charge of trade policy, such as big international negotiations on trade, as part of his joint role with BERR and he is also tasked to promote British business.

Gay activist Peter Tatchell recently called for all international aid to be stopped for, “viciously homophobic countries like Jamaica, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Iraq and Nigeria.”

Mr Thomas does not think that is the way forward.

“I do not think you should penalise the people of a country for policies that are not appropriate. We need to continue to engage with countries and be willing to raise difficult issues with them.

“The Caribbean is a region that is facing huge economic issues with regards to the sugar and banana industries.

“We have to help them with those issues, as well as being blunt on occasion about issues around AIDS.”