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In a climate of homophobia, Caribbean opens path for gays

HIV, economics are key in move toward tolerance

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- A call by Deputy Education Minister Donald Rhodd to discuss the possible repeal of Victorian-era laws criminalizing homosexuality has provoked outrage among conservative Jamaicans. But gays and lesbians here see the debate as a glimmer of hope that they may one day move out from the shadows.

Criticized by Human Rights Watch a year ago for fostering a climate of violent homophobia, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries are acknowledging that discrimination and denial have proved counterproductive in curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Still, many in the devoutly religious Caribbean region reject the notion that gays and lesbians should be granted equal protection under the law, including the rights to associate openly and receive public services, let alone marry.

At least eight current or former British colonies in the Caribbean Sea retain antisodomy laws, including Barbados, St. Lucia, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Jamaica.

But economic realities and the outside world's scorn of antigay violence have begun making inroads into the climate of intolerance.

Rhodd's suggestion of a parliamentary debate on whether to decriminalize antisodomy laws caused a stir but remains on the agenda. Although it was just one of 31 topics proposed for debate this session, the subject has dominated radio talk shows and newspaper front pages.

''The reaction, in my opinion, was emotional, based on a high degree of homophobia in the society and also based on the strong condemnation by members of the religious community," Rhodd said of the mostly negative reaction to his proposal.

The most homophobic of the islands, based on Human Rights Watch's assessment of violence against gays, Jamaica suffers one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS, with 1.2 percent of the population infected. Government efforts to halt its spread have failed -- due, many believe, to the consequences of publicly admitting one is gay.

Those leading the fight against HIV/AIDS applaud the government's push to discuss decriminalization, but they concede that the effort must be undertaken slowly to avoid alienating a public still deeply opposed to any notion of gay rights.

''The risk in an initiative like this is that the general public can get left behind," said Robert Carr, a former director of Jamaica AIDS Support now working as an independent consultant. ''There's still much to be done in preparing the public for this dialogue."

While fundamentalist Christians in the Caribbean say Scripture teaches that homosexuality is an abomination, the islands' exotic hybrid culture of African and European spirituality leads others to conclude that same-sex attraction is a consequence of witchcraft, voodoo curse, or demonic possession, says Steve Lyston, a Christian fundamentalist and founder of Jamaica's Miracle Prophetic Ministries International. His new counseling center in Kingston seeks to rescue those he sees as ''afflicted" through rituals aimed at their deliverance from evil spirits.

The enduring stigma attached to homosexuality results in some gays avoiding testing, treatment, and support, said Sheryl O'Neil of the Caribbean Epidemiology Center on the island of Anguilla.

That compounds the risk of the disease spreading because governments are unable to assess the problem and allocate money for prevention and treatment, she noted.

Pushed by courts, international rights groups, and AIDS fears, attitudes toward gays and their legal rights seem to be changing in some venues.

Last month, the Jamaican government announced it would hold a trial for popular reggae artist Buju Banton for his alleged role in the beating of six gay men in June 2004. Banton's 1994 recording ''Boom Bye Bye," which talks of shooting gays, has been an anthem for violently homophobic Jamaicans for a decade, but authorities had previously refused to confront him or other artists promoting violence against gays.

In Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela, the government has been preparing to register its first same-sex marriage following a Dutch court ruling that the Amsterdam wedding of Charlene and Esther Oduber-Lamers in The Netherlands was legal and the island territory must respect it, said Aruba government spokesman Ruben Trapenberg.

He noted the now-routine gay cruise ship visits as evidence that Arubans have integrated same-sex couples into the tourism-dependent milieu, but said he doubted Aruba's tourism industry leaders would openly pursue the gay travel market. ''It's not part of our culture to recognize gay marriage, and I don't think we want to change that," he said.

The most striking shift in attitudes is being made by a St. Lucia hotelier to interpret the island's marriage law as permitting same-sex unions and attract the Western Hemisphere's gay marriage and honeymoon market.

Allen Chastanet, vice president of the island's Hotel and Tourism Association, owner of Coco Resorts, and a former Air Jamaica executive, notes the prospects for drawing well-heeled gay couples to a supportive and celebratory environment.

A recent study by Canada's tourism industry estimated at least $1 billion could be expected in travel spending in the Caribbean by underserved gay couples from throughout the hemisphere, he said.

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