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Out but Not Down: The Ongoing Consequences of Criminalising Identity in Jamaica

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As World AIDS Day approaches with the ongoing commitment to zero transmission, it is impossible not to reflect upon the obstacles to preventing HIV transmission. A key risk factor are laws that prevent effective health education. The reality of the impact of such laws was thrown into sharp relief during my recent trip to Jamaica. I spent U.S. election day with homeless gay kids who had been forced into sex work in Kingston. These were life changing moments. I didn't give them any money though, that wasn't the point; but should I have?

They were all homeless because their families had found out that they were gay and had kicked them out. The kicking should be read literally. One was a trans woman, although she was little more than a girl. They were all about 17 when their new world order began. One kid, now 18, has been sleeping rough since January. He didn't look 18, he could have passed for 14.

Their stoicism is what really struck me about them. The transactional sex can get you a bed for the night, a meal even and the prospect of a shower. Money, always welcome, can be exchanged but their priority was the possibility of a good night's sleep. Each of them had experienced occasions where they had not eaten for three days. One of the guys assumed a leadership role amongst our little group. He was now 20 and was upbeat. Living on the streets had shown him that his "passion is people". He now wants to be a social worker. He is lucky. He has a place in a hostel. There is nothing permanent about it, he may have to leave in two days or two weeks, he doesn't know; but it gives him a bit of security. From here he can apply for jobs, and for him, as importantly, because he has a base, he can now help other gay homeless kids. He has set up a forum and he is lending a hand in job hunting and drafting resumes.

In the hostel, as long as nobody finds out he's gay he is not overly concerned about violence. The only moment that his sheen of bravado cracked was when he described how he'd been sexually assaulted when he was sleeping rough. He'd told the police. They had opened a file but nothing came of it. It was clear this experience will always haunt him. The enduring violence, including from family members, that they had all been subjected to was described as if it were normal. One of the real problems of sleeping rough, they said, is that you don't really get any sleep; you always have one eye open just in case you are attacked or robbed.

The notion that the police or the authorities might be there to protect them was, in their view, laughable. There is one blessing, nobody described violence by the police.

I asked them about their futures. One still believed he would be a chartered accountant; the trans woman has always wanted to be a mechanical engineer; the youngest (the kid who's been sleeping rough since January) just had no idea how to answer that question. He was still a child. It was so obvious that he should be at home with his Mom and that questions about his future should be postponed for another time. Did I mention, they all have HIV?

Are these kids just like so many others, unlucky? Did they just get a bad role of the dice? Apparently there are 50 gay kids surviving amongst the other homeless of Kingston. I asked them if they thought things would have turned out differently if they hadn't been gay or trans, or, more to the point, they hadn't been "discovered" as being gay or trans. They were clear: as far as they were concerned, their young lives would have continued as normal and their professional dreams would have had more chance of becoming reality.

The cards are stacked against them. Jamaica criminalises consensual adult homosexual relations.

The consequence of this is that, leaving the transgender issues to one side, these young people are, in the eyes of the State and society, unapprehended criminals. As such, Jamaica has fomented the environment whereby such rejection and violence by parents of a gay child can flourish. These kids' experiences show the everyday human consequences of the human rights violation that is the criminalisation of homosexuality. International human rights law is settled on this issue. Jamaica, by refusing to decriminalise, does so in breach of its own international human rights treaty obligations.

I met these kids whilst visiting the offices of Jamaica's main lesbian, gay and transgendered organisation J-FLAG. Within the confines of its four walls it is a robust organisation. At least once a week it offers food and support to homeless gay kids. It is a safe haven, but its existence is a twilight one. There's no sign on the door. It cannot be officially registered as a charitable organisation doing the work that it does. Criminalisation, therefore, has consequences on freedom of expression and association rights. Those who work there are pragmatic, they have to be: the last director was forced to claim asylum in Canada; the one before that was murdered.

President Obama in his election victory speech promised to create an America of opportunity for everyone and expressly included gay and lesbian Americans. This set me thinking about my experiences on US election day. The homeless gay Jamaicans I was with were not aspiring to such equal opportunities. They had set their bar much lower. All they wanted was not to be forced to live out the consequences of the criminalisation of their identities. Returning to the question, should I have given some money to those kids? Of course, the answer is yes. However, the real change will come through J-FLAG, but they need support if they are going to bring about the most basic of fundamental human rights protections in Jamaica.