In 2005, Jamaica – a country notorious for homophobia predominantly channeled through musical lyrics – received global attention for the killing of Lenford “Steve” Harvey, a gay man and an AIDS activist.
Harvey’s murder was blamed on stigma and discrimination against gays, and led to a huge outcry within the AIDS community.
The witch hunt against homosexuals in the country is regarded as a factor contributing to the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
According UNAIDS, the national HIV infection rate in Jamaica is 1.5 percent among an estimated 2,700,000 people, and AIDS is the leading cause of death among 15- to 44-year-olds. Predominant modes of HIV transmission include multiple sex partners, history of sexually transmitted infections, drug use, and unprotected sex among men who have sex with men.
It is estimated that 33 percent of gay men in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, are HIV positive, but many of them opt to stay underground, away from public health services due to fear of stigma and discrimination.
“The fear drives gay men underground,” said Anthony Hron of the Jamaican Network of Seropositives (JNPlus) in an interview with POZ magazine, an HIV and AIDS publication.
In Jamaica, as in many parts of the world, HIV and AIDS create a specter of fear, hopelessness, and persecution, which in turn, leads to stigma and discrimination. Paradoxically, the categorization of social groups perceived to be at risk of HIV infection fuels discrimination yet creates a false sense of protection. In Jamaica, gay men are heavily vilified in popular musical lyrics.
In many parts of the world, the social stigma towards marginalized groups, such as sex workers, drug users, women, men who have sex with men, and migrants acts as a barrier to HIV testing or accessing health services.
Like gay men in Jamaica, many people are unwilling to get an HIV test due to fear of stigma and discrimination. Statistics show that of the 25,000 HIV infected people in Jamaica, approximately two thirds don’t know their status.
According to Brendan Bain, director of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Network, heterosexual men in Jamaica are also reluctant to come forward because it may be assumed they are gay.
It is freedom from fear and discrimination that will finally empower individuals and communities to act, to mobilize their resources, and to respond collectively and positively to the AIDS epidemic, says UNAIDS.
Across the globe, the image of HIV and AIDS ingrained in the popular consciousness is not founded on bio-medical facts that the disease is manageable with anteritroviral drugs.
Instead, social and mental constructions based on myth, misinformation, fear and ignorance fuel HIV stigma, and inevitably influence discriminatory action against people with the disease or perceived to be at risk. Equally true is the fact that stigma is founded on some real life experiences of the disease, especially in places like Jamaica where ante-retroviral treatment does not reach many people.
Being HIV positive is seen as a sign of promiscuity, immorality or divine punishment and in such a context naturally carries shame with it. Religious and traditional beliefs, as well as legislation that perpetuates discrimination, is often the root of such social attitudes.
In spite of the bio-medical and social work that has been done to fight HIV, stigma and discrimination remain like two towers blocking progress to effectively respond to the AIDS epidemic.
In places where AIDS is the leading cause of death, people inevitably associate the disease with death. Many people turn their fear into disdain and discrimination of anything associated with HIV and AIDS, including people living with the disease.
In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where public health services are dilapidated and access to treatment is non-existent, people’s experiential knowledge of HIV and AIDS often consists of seeing loved ones dying painfully of the disease.
This undoubtedly influences the common attitudes of fear and discriminatory behavior unlike in the developed countries where availability of AIDS drugs has resulted in people with HIV leading normal lives.
Thus, in Jamaica, like in many parts highly affected by the epidemic, people prefer to live without knowing their HIV status. Stigma and discrimination therefore conceal HIV, and facilitate the transmission of the virus within the population.