Countdown to Tolerance

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Thu Nov 17, 2011

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: Setting the Stage

By Maurice Tomlinson

There is unquestionable evidence that homophobia negatively impacts the global HIV response. Whether it is subtle acts of discrimination or intimidation which discourage men who have sex with men (MSM) from accessing effective prevention, treatment, care and support interventions, or more egregious policies such as the non-distribution of condoms to male inmates, the results are the same: countries where there is a high level of hostility towards the recognition of the human rights of homosexuals bear some of the world’s highest HIV burdens.

The foregoing is palpably demonstrated in Jamaica, where the country’s notorious homophobia contributes to an HIV prevalence rate of 32% among MSM against 1.6% in the general population. Since 2010 I have been working with AIDS-Free World and local partners in Jamaica to document, report on, and respond to human rights violations against homosexuals in an effort to remove the impediment that homophobic intolerance poses to an effective HIV response. As a proud Jamaican, I believe that we can reform the way this country views homosexuals by encouraging dialogue and presenting hard evidence that will drive legislation, policy and behavior change toward tolerance.

This work comes at a very opportune time, as the movement for global LGBT liberation has never been greater, even as the funding for the global HIV and AIDS response is being imperiled by the world financial crisis. I am therefore excited to be able to contribute to this process within my country and region and am very proud of the remarkable successes AIDS-Free World has achieved and contributed to in the area of LGBT human rights recognition in the space of less than two years. At the supranational level, not only have we launched, in August 2011, the first legal challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), but we have also been able to record the first Precautionary Measures issued by the IACHR against a state on behalf of an LGBT human rights defender (yours truly) as well as members of a gay community (the two petitioners in our matter before the IACHR). Further, in 2010, I, along with regional partners, presented a thematic report to the IACHR that outlined the human rights situation for Caribbean LGBT individuals. These initiatives, no doubt, contributed to the IACHR inaugurating, in October at its 143rd sitting, the first unit on LGBT human rights, and there are plans for the IACHR to establish a Special Rapporteurship on LGBT rights in the near future.

At the regional level, I scripted a pro-tolerance public service announcement currently being aired in Barbados and trained LGBT groups in Dominica, Belize and Guyana on our successful model for documenting and reporting LGBT human rights violations, which was pioneered in Jamaica. AIDS-Free World is also financially supporting the first legal challenge to the anti-sodomy law in Belize.

In Jamaica, along with Betsy Apple, AIDS-Free World’s Legal Director and General Counsel, I developed a model for documenting and reporting on LGBT human rights abuses, which is now being exported around the Caribbean. I also scripted the first tolerance-themed PSA aired on Jamaican radio and television and led over a dozen incident-free tolerance-themed public events. The work we have been doing has definitely borne fruit, as the dialogue in support of LGBT human rights has never been richer in Jamaica. From extremely positive newspaper editorials to statements of tolerance made in Parliament by the President of the Senate and the Police Commissioner, I don’t think it is hubris to say that Jamaica has never seen this level of public discourse in favor of tolerance for homosexuals.

Much further afield, I have presented our work using the Inter-American system to advance LGBT human rights to students as part of an innovative HIV and Human Rights Master of Laws program at the University of Pretoria, and I am working on “Envisioning Global LGBT Rights,” an ambitious project based at York University in Canada that is seeking to document the global LGBT liberation movement. I have also been speaking to Jamaican Diaspora groups and organizations that work with them to provide insight into the level and drivers of Jamaican homophobia.

Thinking globally and acting locally is a cliché but as an island nation, it works!

We are certainly not immune to the waves and currents of LGBT liberation washing over the region and the world and so I am ecstatic about the impact of our work. While I keep a watching brief on the international LGBT movement, I am very conscious of how it impacts the Caribbean struggle for gay liberation.
So as I begin this “Countdown to Tolerance,” I will be joining the many regional and global voices already addressing the issue of tolerance for homosexuals. My perspective, however, will be heavily influenced by the impact of tolerance on the HIV epidemic within the Caribbean context.