Joan Didier is considered a foremost expert on marginalized populations. She works extensively with groups such as men who have sex with men (MSMs) in St. Lucia, advocating on their behalf and fighting to get what she says is their basic human right to “live and love as they want” without fear of retribution or jail.
Didier is a founding member of the AIDS Action Foundation (AAD) and she continues to be its Director. AAD is a non-profit organization, formed following a meeting in Barbados in 2000 to discuss the regional fight against HIV/AIDS. A lab technician by profession it was Didier’s desire to stave off a disease she described as a “ticking time bomb”, that first influenced her to investigate and safeguard marginalized groups like MSMs from contracting it.
She wants education to play a leading role in that regard.
“There needs to be an education program that speaks to human rights,” Didier says. “Sometimes we can change attitudes without changing laws or we can change attitudes even before we change the laws.”Didier agrees that stigma and discrimination are huge factors keeping MSM “in the closet.” But she also believes that buggery laws and morality, as preached by churches like the predominant Roman Catholic faith, do as much damage if not more.
“There are punitive laws so some people will use the punitive laws as a reason not to accept people who are gay or who are marginalized. There are also people who will preach the morality issue,” she says.Randy (not real name), a man in his early twenties, does not believe the laws that address homosexuality in St. Lucia should change. His views about MSMs are in contrast to Didier’s although Randy is himself gay. He admits to hating flamboyant gay men during his teen years.
“It won’t be a good thing because criminals will still want to kill them (gays),” he says, referring to decriminalizing homosexual activities. “At this moment, it wouldn’t make sense. The best thing for Caribbean people now is to go somewhere like Canada where people are already safe with that.”
The former hotel employee, who still works in the service industry, has traveled and lived outside of St. Lucia – trips he credits for his decision to live on St. Lucia as an openly gay man.
“I’ve traveled and seen how people do it. I don’t care” [I] put on whatever I want [although] I’m not the type to go drag (dress in female clothes)… I like to dress to look good. I’m not the type to do things to let people actually know but I know people see it in my walk. It’s not something I can change.”His biggest challenge is familial acceptance. Although his family and friends admit he has always been effeminate, he is affected by their constant scrutiny of his “feminine walk.” Randy says they do not approve of him. That is why he lives away from them and seldom visits, despite missing them desperately – especially his mother.
Double standards for acceptance of gays
Didier observed, during her decade-long work with MSMs, that class plays a major part in the acceptance of homosexuality.
“We know that society operates on different tiers: ‘up there’ homosexuality is accepted,” she says. “Look at certain people who are gay here who have established professions. They don’t suffer any societal stigma or discrimination. They go about their business.”It was with an eye to eliminating stigma and discrimination that Prime Minister Stephenson King, during his 2010 budget presentation, called for an end to the attitudes he says were endangering marginalized groups. And although he never mentioned MSMs by name - the AAF was very happy about that public statement – one for which Didier says, her organization lobbied the Prime Minister.
She described the statement as brave for two reasons – first, because the Prime Minister has been and continues to be dogged with talk of his homosexuality, especially by political opponents who refer to him openly as ‘Stephanie Queen’ at public rallies; secondly, Didier believes it is only on the strength of individuals like the Prime Minister that marginalized groups will be able to assume their rightful place in society.
“There [are] lots of recommendations about changing the laws--they have been done umpteenth times. It may be sensible for the OECS as a grouping to talk about changing the laws within the OECS. And I think sometimes a lot of those things are personality driven, so if you found a Minister of Health who was willing to go out on a limb and push this and convince about three other Ministers of Health to do it, eventually the others would say ‘they did it and nothing happened so we could do it.’ But until that happens, most politicians are worried about being re-elected – they have an electorate to please and the electorate is against it.”The real risks for MSMs
But the politics pale in comparison to the very real threat homosexuals face on St. Lucia. As recently as two weeks before Didier was interviewed for this article, an advocate for gay rights was threatened with death. This followed other murders of open and closet gay men.
Randy acknowledges the recent murders of gays but he still thinks that gay men are not as harassed as they used to be.
He thinks the recent murders were tied to recklessness and other issues on the part of the victims.
“The stories I have heard is they’re getting themselves into it,” he said. Referring to a recent incident where a gay man was bound, gagged and brutally murdered he said, “some guys told him ‘let’s go’ and he just went with them and that’s things you don’t do. You have to be careful. Some of them [gay men] are so wild, it’s like anybody will tell them ‘let’s go’ and they will go. That’s how they kill most of the people.”MSMs are still considered to be at high risk for deaths related to HIV, although nobody knows how many men are infected with HIV/ AIDS, seeking treatment or have died from the disease. There is no definitive data in St. Lucia on MSMs and HIV / AIDS.
“We cannot say that there are 150 men having sex with men and 50 men on the down low and I don’t think we will ever reach a stage in St. Lucia when we will be able to say that accurately,” says Didier. “We will be able to do a mapping survey and think we have an idea [but] I’m not sure it will still reflect the situation because there is such a high level of distrust among those communities [that] it’s going to be very difficult.”While the AAF Director wants to quantify the MSM population accurately, she wonders if the focus of the discussion should move away from men who have sex with men to bisexuals. According to her, most men who sleep with other men in the society also sleep with women, and they are the ones who are largely responsible for spreading the disease to both groups.
“The men who are married but who are also into having sex with men, they don’t consider themselves MSM at all. So even if you ran a study, you won’t get that group. But that’s the group that’s transmitting [HIV/AIDS] both to men and women.”This point of view receives some support from Randy who admits to having feelings for women although he still maintains that he will only sleep with men. He said, however, that there are other gay men in his family who are married.