Killer Stigma

Caribbean AIDS activists battling ignorance, fear and rage too often pay with their lives.


Ainsley Reid is the face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. Smiling in a bright yellow shirt under the words "Positive Truly Positive," Reid, 43, is part of a campaign on the island to raise awareness about HIV and fight the stigma and discrimination. On posters, billboards and television ads, he looks strong and healthy and is, as the campaign says— "getting on with life."

But "getting on" has taken some time. Over a decade ago, after he was diagnosed with HIV, he says he felt so ashamed that he wanted to die. Not long after his diagnosis, he lost a job with the government after colleagues found out he was positive. Colleagues actually ran away from him, he says, when they saw him. After he became involved in HIV/AIDS activism and began to speak openly about his status, Reid was harassed by a mob in Kingston, beaten, stabbed and left for dead.

Sadly, the attack against Reid was just one of many in Jamaica in recent years, driven by homophobia and fear of AIDS. In 2004, Brian Williamson, a prominent Jamaican gay rights activist, was murdered with a machete; as he lay bleeding, a crowd celebrated over his body. A year later, Steve Harvey, another well-known gay AIDS advocate, was shot and killed on the eve of World AIDS Day. Last February—on Valentine's Day—Gareth Henry, the head of Jamaica's LGBT organization, was nearly killed by a mob after taking part in a "Call for Love" event. Some of the police officers who arrived on the scene attacked him too, as they shouted "batty man," the Jamaican equivalent of "faggot." Tired of the threats and abuse, Henry fled Jamaica and now lives in Canada.

An estimated 25,000 people in Jamaica are living with HIV. That's just a portion of the estimated 230,000 throughout the Caribbean living with the disease. The Caribbean is the second most heavily affected area of the world, after sub-Saharan Africa. The region's prevalence rate is 1 percent, which means that 1 in every 100 people living in the islands is positive. In some countries, the disease is particularly widespread: Haiti, Guyana and the Bahamas have rates over 2 percent. Cuba has the region's lowest prevalence, of just .2 percent. The prevalence rate in Jamaica is 1.5 percent.

The numbers are driven, activists say, by socially accepted intolerance and ignorance. Reid's activism, which he says he's determined to continue "no matter what they do to me," is part of a larger effort to battle HIV/AIDS and fight against the stigma and discrimination that fuels it. Throughout the Caribbean, HIV is spread primarily through heterosexual sex, and in Jamaica, women make up close to 50 percent of new cases. Sex between men is also an important factor in transmission. No one is sure how many gay men in the Caribbean are HIV positive. Figures are difficult to collect because so many gay and bisexual men are afraid to disclose either their HIV status or sexual orientation.

Similar to the AIDS epidemic among African Americans, both gender inequality and homophobia feed HIV transmission in the Caribbean. Men know that they risk violent attacks just for being gay. Fear drives gay men underground outside of the reach of HIV/AIDS education and services. Many remain "down low," involved in sexual relationships with both men and women who may not suspect they are having sex with anyone else.

"In the Caribbean, it will not be possible to effectively do prevention work against HIV and AIDS until we accept and give due rights to the MSM [men who have sex with men] minority in the same way that white people in the southern United States have had to accept and give rights to the black Americans that live among them," said Mario Kleinmoedig, a prominent Caribbean gay rights activist from Curacao. Last year he was called a "faggot" and knocked unconscious by two men in his front yard.

As Ainsley Reid found out, being proud of who you are can be deadly. The generally upbeat Reid, now a program officer with the Caribbean Conference of Churches, grows somber as he tells the story of his 2001 attack.

It occurred just after he had returned from an international AIDS conference. Reid had stopped in an area called Half Tree in the center of Kingston on his way home. As he walked through the plaza, he says, he was feeling optimistic that meaningful HIV prevention and treatment was possible in Jamaica. Then he spotted a group of men looking at him.

"They didn't look like they were going to attack me," Reid recalls. "But then I heard one of them say, 'Me could kill you mon.' They rushed toward me and stabbed me here, in the neck."