Life in Jamaica as a gay, HIV-positive male

Picture courtesy of Suzanna Birchwood.

Growing up in the country with three sisters and six brothers was amazing, says 25-year-old Javon (not his real name). His feminine behavior and gay lifestyle, as he calls it, were not an issue in the tiny rural community.

“It was extraordinary, meaning that my lifestyle was more acceptable,” he says while eating a soy patti at Devon House.

The threats, attacks and discrimination began invading his life after he moved to Kingston at 15 years old to live with his mother.

“I’m scared because I can’t express myself comfortably. There is nowhere safe in Jamaica,” he says. Javon wants to live abroad, where he will be accepted and there will be less stigma, less discrimination, less attacks and less judgment. Where a perfect day would consist of wearing his heels, doing his nails and “looking fabulous.”

Javon has left Jamaica before. He travelled to Europe for a conference, but the prospects of moving somewhere permanently are bleak, since there are often severe restrictions on migration from Jamaica. Claiming refugee status is also a complicated process, as one must not make such a claim from one’s own country. Migration is expensive, so low-income Jamaicans often do not have the option.

For Javon, the negative experiences that have prompted his yearning to move abroad started to happen only when he left childhood, in high school.

With his small, athletic frame, Javon excelled at track and field. The 400 and 800 metre races, to be specific. “The issues started there,” he said. At school, kids called him he/she, deuce, fish. “It bothered me a lot, but I didn’t understand who I was. I really and truly didn’t know what I accept myself to be then,” he says.

Pressure from the community to change his behavior eventually escalated into an attack. A group of boys threw stones at him. He’s since been attacked two more times, and must be on guard at all times. One of the worst incidents occurred in high school, when he was beaten by fellow members of the track team. The coach instigated it, Javon alleges, and did nothing to discipline the perpetrators.

Around this time, Javon began to experience digestive problems and severe pain. He was diagnosed as a teenager with HIV and remains on medication. “I was vulnerable. I didn’t know anything about HIV or STIs and I had no time to think about what I was doing.”

Javon graduated high school with two CSECs and went on to tertiary education, where he specialized in hospitality and food preparation. He worked as a retail clerk downtown, until the store burned down. In order to support himself, Javon has, over the years, been a hairstylist, sold phone cards and tried to raise chickens.

“I have to fight. I am self-motivated. I have this personality where I’m different. I want to do something that impacts somebody, and if a life opportunity comes, I take it. I’m not waiting for it.”

He has tried to settle down in a long-term relationship, but it never worked, although one partnership resulted in him getting back into tertiary education.

His relationship with his mother, who lives in Spanish Town, is not good, while it is strong with his father.

Javon’s well-being deteriorated this summer after he participated in a Youtube advocacy campaign. He appeared dressed in women’s clothes. This caused a ripple in his community, and he had to leave home. For a few months now, he has been without a permanent place to live. “There were rumours in the community, and troubles,” he says. He has found temporary refuge with a community member.

Javon continues to strive to move abroad, where he can feel safe and experience freedom, and where he can pursue a dream of being a counselor for his peers.

In the meantime, “I feel blessed,” he says, “because of the fact that I see another day. I take it one day at a time.”

He would like to tell his fellow Jamaicans, those who are uncomfortable with people who lead lives that differ from them, that “we are human. I recommend that they accept and understand differences. Then we can be a better country.”

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