Lisa Biagiotti is working on signature stories for Worldfocus on HIV/AIDS and homophobia in Jamaica. She reported with Producer Micah Fink and Director of Photography Gabrielle Weiss, both from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Their reports will air on Worldfocus later this summer.
Q: Gay pride is celebrated across the U.S. every June. Could there be similar celebrations of gay pride in Jamaica?
Lisa Biagiotti: No, there could not be an openly gay pride parade on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, as in New York or San Francisco. In Jamaica, anti-sodomy laws criminalize sex between men, fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible and pride in reproduction contribute to the general disdain and non-acceptance of the gay lifestyle. The idea of a “glass closet” best describes the public’s expectations of homosexuals, meaning, “We know you’re gay, and we can see you, but stay in that glass closet.” In fairness, Jamaica tends not to be a heavily PDA (public display of affection) culture. You don’t see men and women petting each other or even holding hands in public, with the exception of the dancehalls.
One thing that was interesting was the way homophobia finds its way into the language, in the choosing (or avoiding) of certain “gay” words. When little boys call each other “sissy” names, they say “you’re a battyman.” “Batty” means buttocks and is a derogatory name for a gay man. Saying the number “two” — referring to the anus — is also avoided. We heard a story of a father instructing his two-year-old son to say he’s going to be three. You’d say “come forward” instead of “come back.” If you’re ordering fish to eat, you’d say, “Give me a swimmer or a sea creature.” “Fish” is another term for a gay man.
Q: This anti-gay side of Jamaica doesn’t really jive with what many Americans may think of Jamaica. (Stereotypically, sun, fun, Bob Marley and “no problem, mon.”) How did you become interested in this topic?
Lisa Biagiotti: I first became interested in the subject of gay Jamaicans about 18 months ago. I was reporting on gay asylum in the U.S. and was told that Jamaica was one of the most violent and homophobic places for gays. I was told by human rights organizations that if you’re gay and Jamaican, you’d qualify for asylum. I then spent a year profiling Alex Brown, a gay Jamaican who received asylum in the U.S. In all honesty, this portrait of Jamaica was completely foreign to me — it contradicted the image of the Jamaica I know and love.
Q: Your mom is Jamaican and your family ties to Jamaica span three generations. Was it difficult to report these seemingly negative stories for Worldfocus? What did your family think?
Lisa Biagiotti: At first, I was concerned we were doing advocacy journalism. I questioned whether we were imposing our U.S.-centric views on a country with a different cultural bedrock. Did we really understand the Jamaican culture, which is steeped in religion? Admittedly, I was protective of Jamaican people, who I still hold to be some of the warmest and most resilient people on Earth.
Going into these stories, I was aware of my bias. As a journalist, first-hand observation served as my guide. My team and I went to the places where people were literally living in hiding. We listened to the palpable stories of many gay men — the violence against them, the families that rejected them, the double lives they lead and the idea of mainstreaming their lifestyle to “make it right with God.”
We spoke to hundreds of Jamaicans from all walks of life to try to understand the cultural nuances and attitudes toward homosexuals. And everywhere we went, we heard the same things — said with varying levels of vitriol. Open homosexuality is not accepted. Tolerance and violence really depends on class and whether people act on their general disgust toward gays.
After observing and speaking with people on the ground, I’m confident that the stories we’re producing are fair and accurate illustrations of Jamaican attitudes toward homosexuals. As for my family in Jamaica and abroad, I believe they will respect that. Our goal is not to change Jamaican culture and mores, but to present what it’s like to be gay in Jamaica, and why it is important for the general population to talk about homosexuality because gay men are living double lives in secret.
Q: What do you mean by “double lives?” How is this playing into the spread of HIV?
Lisa Biagiotti: A recent Ministry of Health study showed that more than 30 percent of gay men are HIV+. It was a small sampling of about 200 gay men. But it was one of the first surveys conducted within the gay community. Whether or not the study is actually reflective of the larger gay community is questionable, but this rate is still 20 times higher than the general population.
What’s important here is that gay men are not isolated from the rest of the population. These men lead double lives — one gay life underground and another “heterosexual” life to save face in their communities. Gay men have girlfriends and wives and children, who likely do not know of their secret lives. This poses a threat to spreading HIV into the general population. So, when you layer this 30+ percent figure over the laws, religion and general stigma against homosexuality, you’re masking the problem and potentially spreading the infection into the general population.
Q: How does the Jamaican government address the HIV problem without acknowledging the gay community?
Lisa Biagiotti: It’s difficult to target the gay community because they’re not out in the open. There could be no ad campaign in Jamaica talking about using condoms for anal sex because anal sex is illegal and punishable with a 12-year prison sentence of hard labor. The channels of awareness and education of gay men are limited and insufficient. I should also mention that, on the flip side, Jamaica has made incredible strides in making anti-retroviral medication free and accessible to everyone. Early testing has whittled the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate down to under 5 percent. But the gay community is not siloed from the general population and could potentially reintroduce the disease into the general population.
Q: Given the extreme anti-gay discrimination and level of violence in Jamaica, did you ever feel that you were in danger as you covered these stories?
Lisa Biagiotti: Every day, approximately four or five people are murdered in Jamaica. For a country the size of Connecticut, with 2.8 million people, that’s a staggering murder rate. I don’t know if I had a false sense of security, but I never felt in danger. We had local guides taking us around and introducing us to communities, and I think that was key. We made sure we had an introduction wherever we went. We told people we were reporting on homosexuality, HIV and AIDS. We knew these were touchy topics, but we were open and I think Jamaicans appreciated our honesty, and were in turn welcoming.