The Prime Minister of the Caribbean nation St Kitts and Nevis has called for more tolerance toward LGBTs so that the nation can tackle its HIV problem, a positive statement in a region where homophobia is still culturally strong.
Prime Minister Dr Denzil Douglas, in a press conference on August 28, told reporters it was time to end stigmatization against homosexuals, that condemning people who are gay decreases their likelihood of them participating in HIV awareness programs, and that this discrimination in turn endangers the wider population.
“If he [the man who has sex with another man] doesn’t get tested and does not get the care and treatment and advice that he should get if he is positive, and he is positive but does not know because he is afraid to go and get tested because of the discrimination, the virus spreads. That’s why we are saying be light on those who may be engaged in such activities.”
PM Douglas went on to say: “Discuss the issue, stop the discrimination, stop the stigmatization and let us therefore discuss this matter in an open, matured and frank way so that we can deal seriously and comprehensively with the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
Douglas went on to call for a softer approach to sex work, reiterating that stigmatization drives sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM) underground and therefore risks worsening the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Finally, Douglas called for broad action not just from his own government but from neighboring administrations: ”We say that that is not good in the management of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and we would wish therefore that governments, including this one and governments around the region, to have a very serious look at the laws which continue to be on our law books that discriminate and stigmatize such persons.”
This statement to the press was reportedly prompted by a letter from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, which in turn wanted to discuss matters that Douglas had raised with previous statements regarding discrimination and same-sex marriage, wherein Douglas had called marriage equality a “fundamental question” that the nation would have to seriously consider.
Currently, Section 56 and 57 of St Kitts and Nevis’ “Offences Against the Person Act” criminalize male homosexuality and MSM, with Section 56 penalizing the “abominable crime of buggery” with up to 10 years in prison while Section 57 is, in effect, a provision that criminalizes any intent or attempt to commit homosexual acts, a misdemeanor worthy of four years in prison. The law does not specifically criminalize female homosexuality.
It should be noted that St Kitts and Nevis, within the context of Caribbean nations and other states that criminalize homosexuality, is among the least stringent in enforcing its laws with no recent attempt to bring criminal charges against MSM under those specific anti-buggery provisions on record. However, homophobia in the nation is still reportedly quite high.
While readers may not be particularly familiar with St Kitts and Nevis, they may remember the international headlines that were made in 2005 when a gay cruise ship carrying 110 predominantly American gay men was prevented from docking at the island of Nevis, with port authorities and immigration officials ordering the Source Events cruise to sail on because, they said, they didn’t welcome homosexuality.
Furthermore, a 2007 country report on HIV/AIDS in Saint Kitts and Nevis by Canada’s Ministry of Health describes it as “rampant” and goes on to say:
The stigma associated with male-to-male [MSM] sex leads some homosexuals to have a female partner as an alibi…. Also, the illegal status of ‘buggery’ drives MSM underground, thus impeding access to health education and STD/HIV treatment.
Cultural taboos around HIV, sex and sexuality are barriers to access sexual health services. (ibid.)
A wide range of evidence supports that criminalizing homosexuality (and sex work) drives STD/HIV rates up because it forces those discriminated against populations into higher risk behaviors while at the same time cutting them off from medical intervention due to fear of stigma and even prosecution. Evidence also shows that wanting to reduce rates without engaging with the MSM population is incredibly difficult.
The prevalence of adult HIV in the Caribbean region is estimated at 1.2% and is second only to the rate in Sub-Sahara Africa. UNAIDS estimates that a total of 250,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean and it is among one of the leading causes of death among adults aged 15-44 years.
St Kitts and Nevis is certainly not alone in its criminalizing homosexuality, with 41 Commonwealth nations alone having some form of anti-homosexuality legislation.
What is encouraging, however, is that, with Prime Minister Douglas’ statements and his wider willingness to engage on this issue, St Kitts and Nevis’ administration appears to be bucking a trend that, in Jamaica for instance, has other nations holding firm or even intensifying their condemnation of gay people.
Douglas is personally quoted as saying that St Kitts and Nevis should repeal its anti-buggery laws as a matter of public health and basic human rights. This is not official policy, but the weight of his statements should not be underestimated either as he serves as a health advocate within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) cabinet, a development group made up of many Caribbean states.
As above, repeal will be needed in order to fully tackle the HIV public health crisis. Legislators rejected proposals to do this in 2011, so Prime Minister Douglas may have his work cut out in that regard, but going by his quite bold statements on the topic it appears it is something he is, at least in principle, ready to put his political power behind.
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