"Walk for Tolerance" Calls for End to Bigotry in Jamaica

IGLHRC believes that a vital part of our mission is supporting the work of activist organizations and allies by disseminating important information on human rights issues affecting LGBT communities worldwide. To this end we are posting this statement from our partner, AIDS-Free World.

Press Release
For Immediate Release

(New York, USA – April 8, 2010) Yesterday in Montego Bay, over a hundred people carrying signs with messages from "My Bedroom My Business" to "Sex Work is My Choice" called for tolerance. Sexual minorities, sex workers and people with AIDS in Jamaica held a public event together for the first time. AIDS-Free World applauds the bravery of those who participated in the "Walk for Tolerance."

We are delighted at this important statement of solidarity from Jamaica AIDS Support For Life (JASL), the Sex Workers Association of Jamaica (SWAJ), and other local and international groups who walked proudly on the streets of Montego Bay. We endorse their demands, which include repealing the country's repressive sodomy laws.

"Today marked a change in Jamaica and the country will never be the same," said Maurice Tomlinson, AIDS-Free World's consultant in Jamaica.

"Lesbian, gay, transgendered people and sex workers boldly declared their right to be treated as equal citizens and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. There will be no turning back. Despite initial fears about security, once the walk started, even the timid were caught up in the event. When we were greeted with the very few derogatory comments, we answered boldly and proudly. And the people quickly backed down."

The event highlighted the effects of intolerance on people who are particularly vulnerable to HIV. In Jamaica, HIV prevalence is 1.3% in the general adult population, 9% among sex workers and between 25% and 30% among men who have sex with men (MSM).

People who belong to these groups tend to be at the receiving end of many human rights violations. Fear and stigma keep them from reaching suitable HIV prevention, treatment and care. MSM are not to blame for their high prevalence rate; the bigots and homophobes who drive them underground are. Those who walked yesterday know this and were calling for it to stop.

If anyone is in doubt about the significance of this event, we would like to point out that it is the first of its kind in Jamaica, a country internationally notorious for its vicious homophobia. If anyone is in doubt about the courage of the people who participated, we would like to point to Jamaica’s abysmal human rights record with sexual minorities. Five years ago, Steve Harvey, a senior JASL employee, was murdered for being gay. Jamaica is one of the 79 countries with homophobic laws, and public figures spew hateful anti-gay diatribes with impunity. Just last year the Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, made disparaging remarks about gay people and announced that he has no intention of repealing the country's sodomy laws.

"As long as Jamaican society and law continues to drive sexual minorities underground, and focuses on the victims rather than the perpetrators of the injustices that help spread both human rights abuses and HIV, no prevention programs will stop the disease," said Paula Donovan, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World.

Sex work is also illegal in Jamaica, leaving sex workers with no recourse when they are exploited. Princess Brown of SWAJ said, "This was an important step in confronting the bigotry that has for a long while been meted out to sex workers." Society, including the church, is not known for its tolerance of sex work, although clearly if nobody bought sex, nobody would sell it. SWAJ believes that sex workers can play a lead role in preventing the further spread of the virus on the island if given the skills and power to encourage condom use and sexual health in their community.

We agree with those who walked peacefully and bravely on Montego Beach that until all people can be sure of their basic freedoms to live unmolested and unafraid, the pandemic will continue, and we will all be poorer for it. To quote a flyer being handed out on the beaches of Montego Bay today, as a rainbow flag flew overhead, "To Tolerate is Great!"

For further information, please contact:

Christina Magill
Executive Assistant to Stephen Lewis
TEL: +1 416-657-4458

In Jamaica, please contact:

Maurice Tomlinson
TEL: +1 876-784-0908