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U.S. President announces national HIV/AIDS strategy

By Antoine Craigwell

(Tuesday, July 13, 2010) – Finally, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) as a way of addressing the rising numbers of people in the U.S. who are HIV positive and living with AIDS.

President Obama meets with Jeffery Crowley, ONAP director.

Announcing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, coordinated by the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), the president said in a letter, “Thirty years ago, the first cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) garnered the world’s attention. Since then, over 575,000 Americans have lost their lives to AIDS and more than 56,000 people in the United States become infected with HIV each year. Currently, there are more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV. Moreover, almost half of all Americans know someone living with HIV.”

The country is at a crossroads with HIV as a domestic epidemic demanding a renewed commitment, increased public attention, and leadership, the president said. He said he challenged the Office of National AIDS Policy at the start of his administration to develop a national strategy with three goals: reducing the number of people who become infected with HIV; increasing access to care and improving health outcomes for people living with HIV; and, reducing HIV-related health disparities.

“To accomplish these goals, we must undertake a more coordinated national response to the epidemic. The Federal government can’t do this alone, nor should it. Success will require the commitment of governments at all levels, businesses, faith communities, philanthropy, the scientific and medical communities, educational institutions, people living with HIV, and others,” Obama said.

ONAP in its vision statement said: “The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”

But leaders at the forefront in the fight against AIDS, especially in the Black community, suggest that the Strategy does not go far enough.

Phill Wilson, president and CEO. Black AIDS InstituteIn a press release, Phill Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute, on his organization’s Website  said that the National AIDS Strategy represents a new day in the country’s nearly three-decade-long struggle against AIDS.

“For the first time, we finally have a national plan in place to guide our fight against the epidemic and to hold decision-makers accountable for results,” said Wilson.

Wilson pointed to the hypocrisy in the U.S.  AIDS policy toward other countries, which imposed as a condition to  receive AIDS assistance that they were required to have a national AIDS strategy, but America never had one.

“With no plan in place to mandate coordination between different government agencies or to ensure accountability, it is hardly surprising that we have an HIV/AIDS epidemic 40% worse than previously believed, with 1 in 5 Americans infected with HIV don’t know they have the disease, half or more of people diagnosed with HIV are not receiving regular medical care, and HIV rates in some communities worst than those found in some of the poorest countries on the planet,” Wilson said.

The new strategy provides a promising opportunity for Americans to get real about the shortcomings in its national response to the epidemic, he said. At a time when AIDS deaths are largely preventable, the government has provided only minimal leadership in making knowledge of HIV serostatus an essential social norm in the most heavily affected communities. And even though the face of AIDS in America is typically Black or brown, most people with HIV are forced to seek medical care from health providers who neither look like them nor understand the challenges they face. The new strategy provides a blueprint for changing some of these realities, and it is an opportunity we must energetically grasp, Wilson said in the release.

But, he said that while he praises the president for placing Black America front and center in his national HIV/AIDS strategy, AIDS in America today is a Black disease, which accounts for about 13% of the national population, with Black people making up half of all new HIV diagnoses. The AIDS death rate among Black males is eight times higher than for white males, while Black women are 19 times as likely to die as whites, he said.

Pointing to the limitations of the AIDS Stratefy, Wilson said, “If the new AIDS strategy is to succeed, it has to work for Black people. In reporting results, the Obama administration needs specifically to report outcomes for Black people. Only if prevention and treatment programs work for Black America will we win our national fight against AIDS. Unfortunately, the new strategy does not sufficiently address the issue of resources. Already, we are seeing many AIDS drug assistance programs impose caps or waiting lists for life-saving drugs. There are over 3000 people on ADAP waiting lists. This month, the President authorized a one-time funding increase for ADAP of $25 million, but this amount, while welcome, represents only about 7% of amounts needed this year alone to ensure the program’s continued solvency.

“At a time when we are largely losing the fight to prevent new infections, prevention programs currently account for only 3% of federal AIDS spending. To put available prevention weapons to effective use, experts estimate that annual prevention spending needs to increase from $750 million to $1.3 billion for at least each of the next five years. This new strategy offers a sound, evidence-based approach to better results, but it will be worth little more than the paper it is written on if we don’t follow through with essential resources.

“In difficult economic times, it is often necessary to make painful choices. As a country, though, we need to transition from AIDS “spending” to AIDS “investments.” By investing in cost-effective AIDS programs, we are investing in America’s families and helping young people remain productive contributors to society for future decades.”

Paul Kawata, executive director of the Washington-DC based National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC), in a statement said, “This is a historic time on many fronts. On the one hand, President Obama has made history today by being the first President ever to create a truly national strategy to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The ideas contained in this plan are aggressive and would certainly go a long way toward combating what continues to be one of our nation’s most troubling public health emergencies.”

Kawata said he purposefully used the word ‘plan’ to demonstrate that without the funds to carry out the president’s ambitious agenda, it significantly short of a strategy.

“The blueprint is most certainly there,” he said. “But now our collective attention must shift to resources.”

He said that while the president can rightly lay claim to a historic and much-needed moment in the HIV/AIDS movement, history continues to be made each day as more people living with HIV/AIDS continue to join the ranks of those waiting to receive life-saving medicines. Tragically, this has become an issue of resources as well—an issue that has become an all-too familiar refrain in the battle against this disease, he added.

“We must look at this plan as a solid first step in achieving our ultimate goal: eradicating HIV/AIDS. Now the conversation must turn to implementation—and how we fund such an audacious goal. To ignore the difficult topic of HIV/AIDS funding would be tantamount to placing the president’s strategy in a shredder,” said Kawata.

But, Jeffery Crowley, ONAP director, in a statement posted on the ONAP Website said, “Today, Secretary Sebelius also announced that $30 million of the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention Fund will be dedicated to the implementation of the NHAS. This funding will support the development of combination prevention interventions. It will also support improved surveillance, expanded, and targeted testing, and other activities.”

Among the many items the Strategy calls for is a three-step process of reducing HIV-related disparities and health inequities, which include reducing HIV-related mortality in communities at high risk for HIV infection, adopting community-level approach to reduce HIV infection in high-risk communities, and reducing stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

The Strategy said that regarding the third step of this process, in the earliest days of the HIV epidemic, fear, ignorance, and denial led to harsh, ugly treatment of people living with the disease, and some Americans even called for forced quarantine of all people living with HIV. Although such extreme measures never occurred, the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV was often extremely high. Even today, some people living with HIV still face discrimina­tion in many areas of life including employment, housing, provision of health care services, and access to public accommodations. This undermines efforts to encourage all people to learn their HIV status, and it makes it harder for people to disclose their HIV status to their medical providers, their sex partners, and even clergy, and others from whom they may seek understanding and support.

Time and again, an essential element of what has caused social attitudes to change has been when the public sees and interacts with people who are openly living with HIV. For decades, community organizations have operated speaker’s bureaus where people with HIV go into schools, businesses, and churches to talk about living with HIV. In the 1990s, both major political parties had memorable keynote speakers at their presidential nominating conventions that were living with HIV.

With Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and other civil rights laws commemorating their 20th anniversary this year, these laws have proven to be vital for the protection of people with disabilities including HIV. The Strategy calls for a greater commitment to civil rights enforcement and that to be free of discrimination based on HIV status is both a human and a civil right, “We know that many people feel shame and embarrassment when they learn their HIV status. And, there is too much social stigma that seeks to assign blame to people who acquire HIV. Encouraging more individuals to disclose their HIV status directly lessens the stigma associated with HIV. As we promote disclosure, however, we must also ensure that we are protecting people who are openly living with HIV.”

Working to end the stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV is a critical compo­nent of curtailing the epidemic, said the Strategy document. People at high risk for HIV cannot be expected to, nor will they seek testing or treatment services if they fear that it would result in adverse consequences of discrimination. HIV stigma has been shown to be a barrier to HIV testing and people living with HIV who experience more stigma have poorer physical and mental health and are more likely to miss doses of their medication. An important step is to ensure that laws and policies support current understanding of best public health practices for preventing and treating HIV.

“While we understand the intent behind such laws, they may not have the desired effect and they may make people less willing to disclose their status by making people feel at even greater risk of discrimination. In some cases, it may be appropriate for legislators to reconsider whether existing laws continue to further the public interest and public health. In many instances, the continued existence and enforcement of these types of laws run counter to scientific evidence about routes of HIV transmission and may undermine the public health goals of promoting HIV screening and treatment,” the Strategy document said.

To reduce stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV, the Strategy document recommends that communities be engaged to affirm support for people living with HIV: Faith communities, businesses, schools, community-based organizations, social gathering sites, and all types of media outlets should take responsibility for affirming nonjudgmental support for people living with HIV and high-risk communities. The promotion of public leadership of people living with HIV: Governments and other institutions (including HIV prevention community planning groups and Ryan White planning councils and consortia) should work with people with AIDS coalitions, HIV services organizations, and other institutions to actively promote public leadership by people living with HIV. The promotion of public health approaches to HIV prevention and care: State legislatures should consider reviewing HIV-specific criminal statutes to ensure that they are consistent with cur­rent knowledge of HIV transmission and support public health approaches to preventing and treating HIV. And, strengthening of enforcement of civil rights laws: The Department of Justice and federal agen­cies must enhance cooperation to facilitate enforcement of federal antidiscrimination laws.

July 13, 2010 Posted by | African-American News, Black Gay Men, Black Gay Men Health, Black Men, Black Men Health, Caribbean, Caribbean Community, community, death, depression, Economy, Elderly LGBT, Health, HIV, HIV Status, LGBT community, LGBT Immigrant rights, LGBT Rights, LGBT Seniors, Male Health, Mental Health, mental illness, Obama, Politics, Public Health | Leave a comment

The rights of a gay person are human rights.

This is a letter to the editor of Stabroek News, a daily newspapers in Guyana, in response to a letter to the editor by Abu Bakr, published on Sunday, Mar 14, 2010.

Dear Editor:

The letter published by Abu Bakr in your Sunday, Mar 14 edition deserves a direct response. It is unfortunate that this discussion has degenerated into a sexualizing of the issues. I am taking a stand for the human rights denied Mark and many like him who have no voice, or whose voices are drowned out in the cacophony of denial. There are many who have fled the country, such as Vermal from Soesdyke, whose story of sexual abuse, taunted, beaten and imprisoned in his home, was turned into a play performed on stages around the U.S., or those who still suffer in silence, forced to conform and dare not speak up. If Bakr and Williams are standing on preserving a homophobic and bigoted status quo, then I hope they realize the tenuousness of their position.

While Bakr’s letter contains numerous flaws, his arguments are illogical and inconsistent. There are two glaring non sequitur arguments. First, he stated that instead of apportioning blame to the community or the stepfather for Mark’s demise, that I should be held responsible and submit to guilt. Aside from being absurd, Mark came to see me for compassion, understanding and acceptance. Had I retreated behind a wall of dogma and fundamentalism, he would have been let down by at least one more person he trusted. With the altruism that Christianity calls forth from each of us, would I not be betraying him by asking him to deny himself and to embrace something that is against his nature, how is accepting yourself an “inversion of values”? The story of Mark, the pathos and the emotive aspects associated with it was intended to illustrate the point, that as one case, it was an exercise in compassion and acceptance, when the community and society had failed, and the ultimate tragic consequences. Also, if at the time I was aspiring to a deeper Christian way of life, how hypocritical would I be, that in my formation, I could not extend the compassion, understanding and acceptance that Jesus practiced and advocated to the marginalized of society, of which gays and lesbians are confined? Is Bakr implying that, as with many who profess one thing and do another, in that period of formation; I should squander my authenticity?

Despite the abuses and the negativity of those who preach or act in the name of Christianity, a friend, a deceased priest, once said that each person is called to strive for and achieve greatness. Bakr correctly suggests that I am inviting Guyanese to progress rather than to be lagging behind the rest of the world. And, to bring relevance to this discussion, since Guyanese are descendants of Africans, the examples of the struggles for rights and the violence against gays in Africa, ought to expand otherwise myopic or provincial views. Bakr claims a “gay militancy,” when is a call for acceptance and inclusion of human nature a militancy and not a human right? With the advances in gay rights, which several countries have recognized as synonymous with human rights and enacted appropriate laws to enshrine those rights, and with progress in Guyana, however little there is, is Bakr so jaded or disillusioned to the human condition to warrant such absolute denial?

UN Secretray General Ban Ki-Moon

Keeping to the aspirations of a better human condition, to which we are all called, in the context of global HIV and AIDS, in which many gays and lesbians are affected, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on World AIDS Day last December, called on member countries to decriminalize homosexuality, “This goal can be achieved only if we shine the full light of human rights on HIV. That means countering any form of HIV-related stigma and discrimination… I urge all countries to remove punitive laws, policies and practices… In many countries, legal frameworks institutionalize discrimination against groups most at risk…”

Second, Bakr sought to draw comparisons to Africa, by saying that 29 countries on the continent outlawed homosexuality. He does not develop his argument or refute the evidence that homosexuality was practiced and accepted as part of the traditions before the colonialists arrived. He trundles out a list of countries, whose governments facing their respective crises, have chosen instead to demonize or pick on the vulnerable, and have declared that homosexuality is alien to the continent, and then undermines himself, “The ethnographic evidence contradicts their assertion.” He also confirms the position that India accepts homosexuality, inclusive of inter-sexism. However, the point he misses is that homosexuality exists in human nature and as a member of a civilized society he is denying acceptance and recognition, not as one commentator, F. Skinner, suggests, to suppress it.

David Kuria Mbote, director of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, in an opinion “You can’t wish away African gays,” published on Mar 10 in the Daily Nation, a Kenyan publication, responded to an article written by Fr. Dominic Waweru, published on Mar 8, in which he said that the attacks on young people on suspicion of being gay was “only too comprehensible”. In his article Mbote said, “It should be noted that compulsory heterosexuality has never converted any one from homosexuality, but in the context of modern diseases, the African community continues to place itself in a curiously unintelligent position. By affirming what is globally known to be an alternative and legitimate form of sexual expression for a minority within any population to be unAfrican, they are saying that the African falls beyond the ambit of what is human. Instead of giving tacit approval to violence against gays, churches should be in the forefront preaching reconciliation and love to even those who they regard as “sinners”. Gay rights activism has reached a point of no return even in Africa, events in Malawi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Zambia, and Mtwapa notwithstanding. It’s unfortunate that the Church stands at the vanguard for this extremely unjust violation of rights of gays, lesbians, transgender and intersex Kenyans.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Two days later, the distinguished Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa in an opinion article “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” published on Mar 12, in the Washington Post, said clearly, “Hate has no place in the house of God. No one should be excluded from our love, our compassion, or our concern because of race or gender, faith or ethnicity — or because of their sexual orientation…In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are part of so many families. They are part of the human family. They are part of God’s family. And of course they are part of the African family. But a wave of hate is spreading across my beloved continent. People are again being denied their fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Addressing the wrongs committed against gays and lesbians in African countries, the Archbishop said, “That this pandering to intolerance is being done by politicians looking for scapegoats for their failures is not surprising. But it is a great wrong. An even larger offense is that it is being done in the name of God. Show me where Christ said, “Love thy fellow man, except for the gay ones.” Gay people, too, are made in my God’s image. I would never worship a homophobic God… My scientist and medical friends have shared with me a reality that so many gay people have confirmed, I now know it in my heart to be true. No one chooses to be gay. Sexual orientation, like skin color, is another feature of our diversity as a human family. Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people? Does God love his dark- or his light-skinned children less? The brave more than the timid? And does any of us know the mind of God so well that we can decide for him who is included, and who is excluded, from the circle of his love?”

Bakr, Williams and those who share repressive views would do well to remember that Guyana’s buggery laws, which are part of the Penal Code, were enacted in colonial days and remain unchanged, even though Guyana achieved independence and republic status with its own constitution, which guarantees the rights and protections of all its citizens. On Mar 11, the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report, “Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity References, Human Rights Reports for 2009, 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.” In the introduction, against the backdrop of the 2009 Anti-homosexuality bill pending in the Ugandan Parliament, the report referred to the 1950’s colonial law against homosexuality, which the Ugandan High Court in December 2008 ruled as unconstitutional and that the rights of all persons are protected. This is a report that advises other nations, companies, and individuals of the quality of human rights in a particular country, so that appropriate decisions could be made regarding the level or degree of involvement, including investment, in that country. On Guyana the report says, “Sodomy is punishable with a maximum sentence of life in prison. There are no laws concerning female-to-female sex. On September 18, Health Minister Leslie Ramsammy publicly called for a Caribbean-wide discussion on the laws, stating that “many homosexuals suffer because of the stigma and discrimination attached” to their sexual orientation.”

Against these undeniable truths, what would Bakr, Williams and the others now say?

Respectfully,

Antoine Craigwell

March 16, 2010 Posted by | African-American News, Black Gay Men, Black Gay Men Health, Black Men, Black Men Health, Blogroll, Caribbean, community, death, Guyana, Health, HIV, HIV Status, Jamaica, LGBT community, Male Health, Politics, Public Health | Leave a comment

Positive: Retelling the HIV message

Trevor Rhone’s play, directed by Karl Williams.

By Antoine Craigwell

Trevor Rhone (1940-2009)

Dressed in black with a long red silk stole draped around his neck, he hovered in the background as a specter, visible to all, yet intending to be unseen by those he haunted. He chortled and skipped with glee, announcing “another one gone” when someone’s test results were positive or someone had succumbed and died from complications associated with HIV, and gnashed his teeth in chagrin when someone’s results was negative or despite his attempts at influencing, someone chose to use a condom. He was the embodiment of HIV.

Poster - Trevor Rhone's Positive
Poster – Trevor Rhone’s Positive

The image of HIV, familiar yet menacing, was the central theme of the play written by the late Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone (1940 to 2009). Set in the island nation of Jamaica, “Positive” explores and examines different sections of society, unconfined to the island, which remain as obstacles to effective dissemination of information, prevention, and treatment of HIV. Originally, Rhone intended “Positive” as a musical, incorporating the pulsating, suggestive lyrics, and beats of reggae, music from Jamaica. The play, when it was presented at the New Perspectives Theater on Saturday, Mar 6, 2010, although it was a first performance, the small theater space was packed, standing room only, with friends, guests, and possible sponsors. In this production, an old story of the devastating consequences wreaked on those infected, HIV was told with the definitive accent and vernacular of Jamaicans at home in their city, according to the director, Karl O’Brian Williams, at the post performance Q&A, without music. Two companies collaborated to produce Positive, Barata Productions and Banana Boat Productions, with a nine-member cast, whose intensity and passion found identification with the characters, and with the shifting scenes, at its conclusion received sustained and enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Trevor Rhone

The play examines frequently colliding and juxtaposed religious dilemmas and socio-economic issues, cultural mores and pressures, and of sexual abuse and promiscuity, which runs as an undercurrent in society. It tells of the story of Devon, played by Kyino Cunningham, a late teenager of his time, tall, muscular, lithe, and physically attractive, who is already jaded by the experiences of his life: the many family and friends who have died from HIV. He is caught in a position where he has to choose between the demands of his peers and immediate society to prove his manhood through multiple sexual conquests, and what he knows would protect him from the fate of those he mourn, as he declares resignedly, “there’s no tomorrow in my reality.” In exasperation he exclaims, when asked about his preference for not using condoms, that since he was about nine or 10-years-old, when he first had sex, condoms were too small for his penis and the girls he had sex with wanted the intimate feel of skin on skin, insisting that “true intimacy is sex without a condom.” As the play progresses, Devon meets and is smitten by Melissa, played by Annmarie Cole, who is voluptuous, sexy, beautiful and desirable; everything about her screams sex. She is a willing partner for sex, not only with Devon, who she desperately desires, but also with his friends in a sexual orgy, termed “to run battery”. She wants to prove herself, to her peers, and to share in the experience she has heard from her friends. She agrees to have sex with Devon, but he cautions her that it would not be with him alone, he tells her she would be having sex with six men. All the while, as Devon and Melissa negotiate their impending sexual encounter, HIV, played by Lemark McPherson, lurks behind them as a specter, miming, gesticulating suggestions, and as if he was a master puppeteer, manipulating the strings to ensnare one more victim. Melissa agrees and when the time arrives, in a simulation of the act, surrounded by the males in the cast, she falls to the floor, holds her abdomen and utters a guttural scream from the pain of the number of penetrations, which are imagined to be not all vaginal.

from a production of "Positive"

The playwright explores, addresses, and reconciles the conflicts the religious institutions experience when faced with the stark reality of the suffering of ordinary people. In one scene, Sister, a habited member of a Roman Catholic religious order, played by Hillary Roosevelt Ricketts, is recruited to assist with outreach. She quickly learns how removed she is from the real world when she answers a call to the agency from someone enquiring about how HIV is  contracted and about “eating at a two-foot table”, a term which perplexed and  embarrassed her when Joe, the head of the HIV prevention and outreach agency, played by Andrew Clarke, explained that it was another term for oral sex on a woman, “I’ve learned more out here than from all the books I’ve read,” she said.

Poster - Smile Orange

Revealing is the reconciliation which occurred when the pastor of the evangelical church, played by Ian Forrest, demonizes Joe’s outreach enterprise, condemning to hellfire and damnation with vehement denouncements all those who lead lives of the flesh, “people must change their evil ways.” The pastor himself undergoes a conversion and comes to a realization when he meets Marilyn, played by Kara Colley, and a romance blossoms. He invites her to attend and hear him preach at a crusade, to dinner and just as he was making moves to consummate their relationship, Marilyn stops him, insisting that he use a condom and explains that she is HIV-positive. Meanwhile, the specter of HIV hovering in the background, turns away in disgust at Marilyn’s revelation. So enamored is the pastor that he approaches Joe and the Sister to discuss what he should do, especially since he couldn’t understand how someone as physically attractive and sexy with no outward manifestations of the disease as Marilyn could be HIV-positive. After a conversation with Joe and Sister, he renounces the hellfire and damnation vitriol, asks what he could do to help spread the word about HIV, and asks Marilyn if she would be his wife.

In another scene, a mother, Delrose, played by Camile Deans, comes to the agency asking for help. She does not know what to do,  she knows that her boyfriend, who tom-cats all over the town, having sex with many people, has also been having sex with her 13-year-old daughter. Although she has sent her daughter away to live with an aunt and had once evicted the boyfriend from her home, she is desperate, because his financial contribution to the home provides for her and the other children, but he demands that his turn to the house is conditional on the daughter coming back home. Joe and Sister are themselves shocked by the revelation and perplexed as to how to advise Delrose, except to suggest that the daughter stay with the aunt.

Then in another scene, the daughter, Jane, played also by Cole, comes to the agency one year later, because as she said, her mother told her that if ever she needed any help she should go and ask for the Sister. To the chortles of glee from the HIV specter in the background, she recounts that her mother had died from HIV and that she is also HIV-positive. She explains that she works in a strip bar and asks for some condoms so she could go to work. Sister hesitates, as once again she faces a conflict, the church’s stance against condom use and the desperation before her: as Jane explained that she is now the sole breadwinner of the family and has to work in the sex industry to support herself and other siblings. As if not wanting to seem complicit, Sister asks to be excused from the room, and as soon as she leaves, Jane grabs a handful of condoms and flees.

Poster - The Harder They Come

While audience participation in the post performance Q&A was spirited and engaging, asking questions and offering comments, there was no consensus on retaining the strong Jamaican accent and dialects, and how to address the sexual suggestiveness of some of the portrayals as Rhone intended, if the desire is to take the play into the New York City public school system. One of the objectives of the performance was to attract sponsors for future performances. The producers thanked Rhone’s estate for permission to stage the play.

Poster - One Love

Rhone, who died suddenly last September from a heart attack, was a prolific writer, producer, director, and lecturer, being involved in films such as the cult classic “The Harder They Come” (1969), “One Love” produced in Jamaica, and his stage works, which included “Smile Orange” (1971), “Old Story Time” (1979), and “Two Can Play” (1982). He was a consultant to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Global AIDS Program in Guyana, with oversight and responsibility for a serialized radio drama production. As a member of the Caribbean theatre, he advocated that his work should “mirror the lives of the ordinary man, and to reaffirm his strengths in such a way that he learns to diminish his weaknesses and to believe that he can make a positive difference in his society.”

For more information and for sponsorship opportunities, contact Andrew Clarke, executive director, Barata Productions at zuzu92_2000@yahoo.com

March 12, 2010 Posted by | African-American News, Black Gay Men, Black Gay Men Health, Black Men, Black Men Health, Blogroll, Caribbean, community, death, Guyana, Health, HIV, HIV Status, Jamaica, LGBT community, Male Health, Public Health, Theater | Leave a comment

Letter to Editor – answer the detractors, bringing discussion closer to home

On Feb 26, 2010, Kaieteur News, a local daily in Guyana, published an article I had written as a letter to the editor in response to the cross-dressing suit brought by five young men and the organization SASOD in the High Court. Following publication of that letter, there were response letters to the editor in the same papers and in Stabroek News, another local daily. Below is my response to those comments:

Dear Editor,

I first met Mark, a young man in his late teens and early twenties, when he came to join the Catholic-sponsored Scout troupe at Sacred Heart Church. Then he wasn’t a Catholic and since it was a requirement for membership, he did what was necessary to become a member, including converting and receiving the initial sacraments; I was his godfather and sponsor. As a leader of the troupe, I sensed that Mark desperately wanted to belong, and when he was able to join, he fit right in and was happiest when the troupe went on camps, because there, being in charge of the food and kitchen, he was in his element, ensuring that more than 50 teenage boys had three meals on time every day for the duration of the camp. When we weren’t at camp and had regular meetings, Mark was fastidious with the gear: the ropes and staves, ensuring that everything was well taken care of and properly stored. To my knowledge, while Mark was in the KBS, he never displayed or perpetuated any inappropriate behavior to and with any of the boys. He wasn’t effeminate or flamboyant and did the boys care that Mark may or may not be gay? I don’t believe that concerned them. But a few years later when I was in my novitiate in a religious organization, he came to see me. He was troubled; the pain of suffering and abuse was evident in his eyes. His face was gaunt, he was thin, his clothes hung on him, and he appeared tired, he had lost weight and was homeless. He told me how his stepfather beat him and put him out the house he shared with his mother and other siblings because the stepfather suspected that he was gay. He looked at me and as the tears streamed down his face, told me of some of the abuses he had endured and I realized then, even though there was no definitive confirmation, that he was gay. Also, knowing the society’s reaction to anyone who they think is an “anti-man”, and by association anyone seen with someone they perceive as such, I told Mark that I was proud of him and I would not be ashamed to walk with him on the street. After our conversation, we walked north on Camp Street, oblivious to the stares. I knew he felt proud, supported and accepted.

Sometime in August 1995, as was related to me, Mark died. I was told that in the circumstances surrounding his death he had attended a party on the West Bank of Demerara and while on his way home, after the party, he was set upon by a group of young men and beaten, all the while accused of being an “anti-man,” ostensibly because of how he was dressed. According to the report, with a broken arm, sustained in the attack, he dragged himself to a nearby police station for assistance and instead of receiving help, he was placed in a cell beaten again, suffered a concussion, and when he lapsed into unconsciousness, he was transported to the Public Hospital Georgetown, where he later died – alone, abused, battered and probably wondering why he deserved this treatment. Who should be held responsible for his death: the misguided who are blinded by their beliefs to forget that the person they are attacking is another human being, someone who could be their brother, son, cousin, nephew, uncle, or close friend; by extension, the religious organizations that demonize homosexuality and advocate curing by any means, but who are just as guilty of the same offenses they ascribe to gays and lesbians; or the stepfather who put him out of the house?

I recall this story because of the vitriol, hatred, and bigotry spewing from the many commentators incited by the equally misguided and brainwashed Roger Williams and Abu Bakr, both of whom leveled criticism against my letter published in the Kaieteur News on Feb 26, 2010. In his response, Bakr correctly stated in the beginning of his critique that I was attempting to encourage a change when I wrote about the far reaching consequences of the cross-dressing suit before the High Court as a break with the mental slavery in which many Guyanese are still living, victims of a colonial power that is physically absent, but yet present in the laws. I ask those who continue with their hatemongering, using religion, convenient morality and pseudo-scientific examples to justify their misogyny how would you feel if your son, brother, daughter, sister, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, cousin, or close friend was treated as Mark. Some would say, “pray for him,” others “beat it out of him,” but, in this world of religious indoctrination, where is the acceptance and compassion that are tenets of Christian teachings?

Why couldn’t Mark be allowed to live, as he was, a same-gender loving man? Is our society so hypocritical that we would rather kill than show compassion? Mark was rejected by at least three important pillars of his society: his family, those sworn to protect and defend the laws, and by the community. I could again be accused of romanticizing this issue before the court, but Mark’s suffering in life and his death are real. By extension what the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking, is it not to claim the guarantee and the rights provided by the Constitution, the acceptance it assures? Is denying someone the right to live as he feels, free from fear of abuse and of discrimination, depriving him of his human right?

No one is advocating turning the society lawless, no one is promoting incestuous practices, bestiality or any perverted behavior to which being gay was associated. Bakr and Williams have conveniently chosen to cherry pick, ignore, and deny historical facts, that homosexuality was practiced and accepted as a part of the way of life in superior African civilizations and cultures long before the colonialists arrived. In a conference paper, “Homosexuality in Africa: Myth or Reality? An Ethnographic Exploration in Togo, West Africa” presented by Virgile Capo-Chichi and Sethson Kassegné at the 5th African Population Conference in Arusha, Tanzania, December 2007, quoted in the introduction: “Same-sex relations are denied in most African countries even though studies have found cultural and traditional practices that demonstrate their existence for centuries (Roscoe & Murray, 1998)” and “Compared to other regions, Africa has the lowest levels of awareness and communication with regards to male-to-male sex (McKenna, 1996) and the most repressive laws against it.” The report continues, “Other gatekeepers believe that same sex relations and homosexuality have always existed in traditional societies in Togo “…tendencies towards homosexual behavior have always existed among men as well as women. It is more pronounced among men and that’s why they were called ‘nyonu – sunu’ (man – woman); that is, a man living as a woman. Or, alternatively, ‘sunu nyonu’ (woman-man) because they tend to behave like a person of the opposite sex.”(Gatekeeper, Aneho)”.”

We can all choose the material we want to justify or support an argument, but there has to be a meeting point, of agreement, that in human nature, homosexuality is as natural as being male or female. Dr. Tiger H. Devore, a New York-based psychologist, in a recent interview said that Western civilizations created the binary delineation, male and female. In reality, he said, there are three genders, male, intersex, and female. In India where on Nov 12, 2009 the Indian election authorities granted independent identity status to those who are intersex or transsexual, allowing them to be counted in the census and to vote – both democratic rights. It is reported that in remote villages in the Dominican Republic and other countries, there are the “guevedoces,” (literal translation: penis at 12) people identified as female at birth and transformed into male at puberty; all accepted as part of their respective societies and cultures. According to the Oct 2006 The Medical News report, 1,500 species in the animal kingdom practice homosexuality. Petter Boeckman, academic advisor for the “Against Nature’s Order?” exhibition at the Norwegian Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo, said, “One fundamental premise in social debates has been that homosexuality is unnatural. This premise is wrong. Homosexuality is both common and highly essential in the lives of a number of species.”

Despite the airs and pretensions with which we have clothed ourselves, and the exploitative and oppressive effects of religion, we should not forget that in the wider scheme of nature, we are still part of the animal kingdom. Many of the detractors have ignored the qualitative contributions gay men and lesbians make to society: they don’t walk around wearing a sign on their foreheads announcing their sexual orientation, instead they go about their tasks or jobs without fanfare. Looking beyond the colonial mindset, one wonders at the preference of perpetuating the “rod of correction” and beat that which is natural out of the child or continue to have a society where there are men and women living unhappy, trapped lives, resorting to violence against their spouses, alcohol and drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity, which of course means that many of the men would be down-low, and a consequence the rise in HIV infections. Or, would the preference be to perpetuate the hypocrisy of those men and women who sneak around for trysts and assignations, but profess heterosexism and homophobia, and deride anyone who is gay with their friends? While many people like to pretend that there is no one gay or lesbian in their family, “not in my family”, it is a fact, homosexuality is a part of human nature. What would these commentators do if their son or daughter were to declare they were in love with someone of the same gender?

Respectfully,

Antoine Craigwell

March 6, 2010 Posted by | African-American News, Black Gay Men, Black Gay Men Health, Black Men, Black Men Health, Blogroll, Caribbean, community, death, Guyana, Health, HIV, HIV Status, Jamaica, LGBT community, Male Health, Public Health, Uncategorized | Leave a comment