By Elan Era John, Panos Global AIDS Programme
Homosexual men in Guyana are still finding it difficult to live free from fear of stigma and discrimination as the World celebrates another AIDS Day today.
These are everyday parts of their lives whether at school, work or accessing services from hospitals or transportation service providers. Kobe, a young openly homosexual man, said his first experience with stigma and discrimination goes way back to his childhood when he was bullied and harassed.
`Being in school, having persons tell you or trouble you and you would have to shift to doing certain things.`
He explains some of the shifts he is forced to make to avoid the harassment.
`If I see a set of guys liming at a corner I would walk around or take the longer route if that was the shorter route [to avoid passing there].
`…If I go back home right now to where I am from in Berbice I would experience a great deal of stigma in terms of verbal words. Most of the stigma that I receive is verbal words,` he said.
Kobe said that although he has overcome being affected by words, some people take their attacks further than that. He said that up to the day before (being interviewed) while he was speaking on his cell phone, five young men were passing and one of them picked up a bottle to toss at him.
`I stop at the time and I stand up, waiting to see if they were going to shy (hit) me with the bottle. When they realized that I am standing up there they start to say, `Oh, I am getting brave,` and that sort of thing,` he said.
He added that the day prior to that incident, he was actually pelted with a bottle by another set of 20-something year old your guys. He said that most of the harassment that he receives would be in the form of people smiling in a mocking manner or nasty comments from older people.
Kobe works in a health facility. He says a lot of people know who he is. He thinks that because of this, he is able to access services quite comfortably, despite the occasional gesticulations from persons.
But, the worst forms of discrimination come when he seeks access to public transportation.
`You find that bus conductors and drivers may not stop to pick you up, or upon discovering the person`s orientation may not want that person in the bus. I go to shop and I get sold, I get [attended to]. But even the taxi drivers, you have a big issue where they might not want to pick you up. They may slow down when flagged down but when they see who you are they drive away,` he said.
He said that he has never confronted a transportation provider to know why he was asked to exit the bus. Instead he would simply comply with the demand to leave the car or bus. But there was one time when the minibus operator objected to him being in the bus and other passengers in support exited the bus also. Kobe said that the problem has been escalating of late and it has been costing him money to move around.
Openly gay men have more difficulties when it comes to employment. According to Kobe they sometimes have to be somebody else before they are given employment because of employers` requirements for dress code.
`Lots of young gay flamboyant men are unemployed because of this, and this may lead to them engaging in transactional sex. They may not go out there at night, but engage in it right in their homes. In their minds it is not sex work. They do it occasionally to get income to [supplement] support from family,` Kobe explained.
Gay men do experience sexual assaults. Relating to an incident earlier in his life, Kobe said that when he was gang-raped, he could not go to the Police nor could he tell his parents, because of the fear of stigma and discrimination.
`When I got home I didn`t tell my family anything, I just told them I got robbed and dropped the matter,` Kobe said.
`The same is about telling the story over and over…and then to get the reaction from the Police, a laugh or a smirk or a smile, and the questions that they ask,` he said.
Today, Kobe is part of the Guyana Rainbow Foundation and is also affiliated with the Society against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). He also has a youth community based organization called Diverse Youth Movement which looks at issues in the younger Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered (LGBT) community. His organisation looks at personal development and capacity building for young persons. He said that because the Guyana Rainbow Foundation is fairly new, they have not approached agencies for assistance with funding to look at social cohesion and conflict resolution.
`I am now finishing the governance manual for the organization and once that is off, [we will be moving ahead]. We are registered with the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sport. Now we are starting the work, we are doing some personal work,` he said.
According to Kobe the Ministry of Health has been greatly involving the youth group in its programmes and initiatives in terms of HIV/AIDS in Guyana.
Director of the National Aids Programme Secretariat (NAPS), Dr. Shanti Singh, said that the agency works with groups like Kobe`s, providing funding for advocacy and training. There is also a coordinating committee at the national level that brings together all the NGOs that work with commercial sex workers and with men who have sex with men – once every quarter – to discuss with them whether things are going well.
`Groups that have a focus on the LGBT community have been able to benefit from funding under the project to be able to do work among their members,` she said, noting that this is done through an arrangement similar to the groups that work with the female commercial sex workers.
Dr. Singh said that from a health sector perspective it is very difficult for NAPS to infiltrate those communities and hence the use of the NGOs whose members may have the trust of the community that they are working with.
Kobe is trying to make a difference through his group`s advocacy work because of his experiences and those of people he knows in his community.
`We want to work in the schools and homes because we have young men who have been placed out of their homes because of their status…people don`t want to come out because they are afraid of the stigma,` he said.