November 15, 2009
- Tom Jacobs, RPCV Eastern Caribbean, 2005-07
Because I was a new volunteer to the island, one of the senior volunteers provided a local contact. She had been working in the HIV/AIDS sector for more than a year and a half, and she described her contact as the “president” of gay Grenada.
“Is there a gay organization here?” I asked.
“No,” she clarified, “but if there were, Nigel would be president.”
Integrating whole-heartedly into Caribbean culture, it took me another ten months before I would meet Nigel, halfway through my Peace Corps stint. If there is one thing I regret about my PC experience, it is that I spent half of it not knowing Nigel. On the other hand, spending a year in Grenada without a connection to a local support system gave me the opportunity to experience the isolation that sexual minorities in a highly conservative and homophobic culture experience. By the time I met Nigel a year into my service, I had developed a greater appreciation for who he is and what he does.
During my last year of service, supporting Nigel’s endeavors became my secondary Peace Corps project. In that year, Nigel was able to gain official recognition through the Ministry of Health for GrenCHAP, Grenada’s chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership, a network of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and CBOs (Community Based Organization) in the OECS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) islands working with the most at risk populations in order to reduce the rate of HIV infection and increase respect for basic human rights and dignity. Along with Nigel, GrenCHAP has two other directors. However, Nigel was and continues to be the primary point person for the organization, thus fulfilling my colleague’s prediction: Nigel is now the official president of gay Grenada.
Working with Nigel during my last year of service, I had the opportunity to do various forms of outreach to Grenada’s underground MSM (men who have sex with men) population. One project consisted of a series of three weekend retreats for a small group of men. Another consisted of doing a “Voices” project in which I was allowed to conduct candid, intimate interviews with Grenadian MSM about all aspects of their lives. These projects helped to make that tiny isle a permanent fixture in my life.
I recently returned to Grenada and decided to turn the table on Nigel. This time, rather than being the orchestrator of inquiry, he became my subject.
Tom: How did you become the president of gay Grenada?
Nigel: (Laughs) By default, I guess. It began with HIV work. About 15 years ago I joined the Grenada AIDS Foundation, a non-profit organization which dealt with general HIV issues. I wanted to get involved in community activities and decided that I would join the fight against HIV/AIDS. A few years after I joined that organization, there was a regional meeting for “most-at-risk” populations which would have included MSM, sex workers, persons living with HIV, and other groups. I was chosen to represent Grenada at that meeting and it went from there.
Tom: What kind of work does the Grenada chapter of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Partnership (GrenCHAP) do?
Nigel: We encourage people to get HIV testing. A couple years ago one of the guys said he went to the Ministry of Health to get an HIV test and the receptionist at the front desk said, “Why you coming to get tested for HIV? If yuh behavin’ yuhself, then yuh wouldn’t need to come and get a test!” He just turned back and left.
That said, there is a core group of health care providers who do understand the issues and are very professional in terms of testing for HIV and treating persons who are positive, and we can direct individuals to these professionals. Irresponsible behavior is not prevalent of all health care providers in Grenada.
A couple of us in GrenCHAP are also trained as VCT counselors, that’s Voluntary Counseling and Testing. We’re trained as counselors for persons who need counseling before the blood is drawn. We were trained under the Ministry of Health. We were constantly bringing up the MSM issue: “What if a lesbian or gay guy came to you? How would you react?” Or before we’d start actually doing a session out in the community to do testing, we’d remind them, “Don’t make any assumptions about anybody’s sexuality. Don’t assume that if a guy comes to you that it’s his girlfriend that he talking about. You have to talk in sort of gender neutral ways that, yeah, he might have a girlfriend, but he might be sleeping with men as well, or he might be a gay.” As advocates, it’s our responsibility to remind people about those issues as much as we can. We think people are becoming more understanding.
Some persons that we have encouraged to go get tested and have gone have said that they definitely see a difference now where they were very comfortable talking about their situation. The people we referred would have been talking in gender neutral terms saying, “my partner” as opposed to saying “he,” and then the counselors respond to that and use the same terminology, “your partner” instead of just assuming that the partner is of the opposite sex. We feel that some progress is being made there. Right now, more of our work is around human rights and advocacy work as opposed to strictly HIV, even though we do that as well. But because HIV is pretty much a mainstream issue now, everybody is on the HIV bandwagon; our niche has been focusing on the human rights issues of the most at-risk populations.
We’re advocating for very basic things: don’t threaten to send people to prison just because they’re gay, kind of thing. Marriage is not on the radar. The whole Proposition 8 issue, because we get all our cable feed out of the US, that’s something everybody was talking about here: “These gay people want to marry. It’s not right for a man to marry another man!” – and you’re hearing this while you’re on the bus because we’re bombarded with anything that’s coming out of the US. In some ways, it’s damaged a lot of the work we’re trying to do here in the Caribbean because people don’t really understand. As soon as they hear anything gay-related in the Caribbean now they immediately think we’re talking about marriage, and that is not what the issue is. Sometimes the conversation is shut down even before we get a chance to say this is not the issue in the Caribbean. We’re talking about basic human rights, removing repressive laws from books. That has been a challenge for the work that is going on in the Caribbean, and it’s a huge challenge to keep the conversation on track.
Tom: Why do you refer to MSM and not ‘gay men’?
Nigel: Especially in Grenada, the reason I still use the term MSM (men who have sex with men) is because there are a lot of people in the community – well, I can’t even call it a community – because people are so closeted, there are many men who have sex with men who do not consider themselves gay. We don’t have any gay bars or gay hang out places. There’s hardly a community. It’s more a matter of guys who have their girlfriends or have their wives who sleep with men on the side. There’s this obligation to maintain your Caribbean machismo image that you’re a guy with lots of girls, or at least one girl fathering a few children gives bonus points. As far as most guys are concerned, anybody finding out that they’re gay is the worst thing possible so they will go as far as possible to hide that. Because of that, it’s very rare that people develop relationships with persons of the same sex. People might have steady “friends with benefits” kind of thing but it’s never really a relationship. It’s never regarded as a relationship.
Tom: Do you know anyone who’s been able to sustain a same-sex relationship?
Nigel: (Laughs) Yes, there have been a few couples around. But don’t expect that to show up on a national census anytime soon.
Tom: Jamaica has the reputation of being the most homophobic country in the western hemisphere and many people lump all of the Caribbean islands together. How does Grenada compare to Jamaica in terms of homophobia?
Nigel: Jamaica has a population of 2.5 million as compared to Grenada’s 100,000, so that is a huge difference; and Jamaica has something like the second highest level of homicides anywhere in the world. There were more than 1,500 murders in Jamaica in 2008. In Grenada, if one person gets killed, that’s big news. We’re proud of our relatively safe track record.
A lot of people hearing these reports of violence would be frightened to go to Jamaica because they figure that if I’m a gay person, the moment I set foot in Jamaica, someone’s going to shoot me. That’s really not the reality. I even thought that before I went to Jamaica myself a few years ago. When I went there, I was shocked at how openly a lot of gay Jamaicans seem to be, very effeminate guys boldly strutting down the streets. I didn’t even know there were gay clubs before I went. Jamaica does have gay clubs and gay things to do, as opposed to Grenada where we don’t. If you have 5% of 2.5 million people being gay then there’s quite a community, as opposed to just a small pocket of Grenadians.
What happens, in my belief, is that in a country where you have such a high level of violence and there is homophobia as well, then when they express their homophobia it’s very often in a violent form; and so, you have a lot of gay people being attacked and murdered. I believe violence is the bigger problem. In Grenada, and other small islands such as Grenada, I would even go so far as to say that we are more homophobic than the Jamaican society; however, we’re not violent. That’s why we don’t share the startling and unfortunate statistics as Jamaica. It’s more subtle. People will talk behind your back or people will call you a batty-man or a faggot or whatever it is when you’re walking down the street sometimes. But somebody wouldn’t pull a knife or shoot you for it in Grenada where they might do that in other places.
Tom: How can foreign activists best support the work you’re doing in Grenada, and more broadly, in the Caribbean?
Nigel: One of the things that we all have to remember is that whatever we do and whatever we say is not just constrained to our immediate environment but it has rippling effects across the work that everybody else is doing and trying to achieve. One example, there was a call for a boycott of Jamaica by a group of activists in California recently, and this boycott was called without any sort of dialogue with the activists in Jamaica or with a total disregard for what the activists in Jamaica really wanted to happen. These are persons not living in Jamaica but who feel that they have this impetus to make the world a better place, that they know what is better for everybody else and Jamaicans don’t know what to do for themselves.
Once the boycott went public, that caused a lot of problems for the work that the activists were doing in Jamaica. They were talking not only of a boycott of Jamaica, but also of Jamaican products and they singled out Red Stripe Beer. Red Stripe Beer was actually in dialogue with the activists in Jamaica and they were very sensitive to the issues and were not at all involved with the dancehall artistes who were promoting homophobia. So here was a responsible and sensitive corporate entity in Jamaica, and at the same time the foreign activists were calling for the boycott saying don’t support Red Stripe Beer. It really does more harm than good.
Calling for a boycott of a country that depends on tourism is going to make life worse for everybody, especially the persons who already have life difficult, i.e., the persons who are the most at risk. Yes, it’s all well and good to want to help, but you have to have some sort of respect, some sort of regard for the work that is happening in these countries that you want to affect some sort of change in. For advocates or agencies interested in doing work in regions around the world, dialogue with existing agencies in those parts of the world is critical.
You cannot decide what is going to happen on the other side of the world and expect it to roll out smoothly. You would not know the realities of what is going on in this other part of the world better than the persons who are actually working with those communities. There has to be some sort of conversation and you need to listen.
Tom: Would you be willing to serve in that role?
Nigel: In Grenada, yes, by default, since I’m told I’m the president of gay Grenada. The dialogue has to start somewhere. If I’m not the best person to talk to, we would direct you to whoever is.
Tom: You’re connected to the other islands?
Nigel: Yes. We’re one Caribbean. We all have very different local nuances, but at the same time, a lot of the same basic issues that we are dealing with right now are common across the Caribbean. The legal issue, for instance, that was inherited when we were all under British rule. Most of us are now independent states. We’re no longer under British rule, but the laws are still here. And it’s best if we advocate for change as a region.
Tom: Do you plan to continue as the President of GrenCHAP for much longer?
Nigel: Somebody has to do it. I will continue to do it for as long as I can; however, I really wish that other persons would be willing to speak openly. For me, it’s been baby steps along the way. I remember a few years ago, a reporter came up to me with a television camera and mic; I froze like a deer in the head lights and didn’t know what to say or do. Months later, and after much prodding, I agreed to do a radio interview. And then I wondered, “Am I going to do television? No, I’m not going to do television! Okay, now I’m on television.” Nobody threw any bottles at me after I did that so maybe I can do a little bit more. That’s how it’s been going for the past couple of years.
I can understand why many people are afraid to be visible, but everyone needs to start at some point, and hopefully realize along the way that it’s not as difficult as it seems at first. But, at the same time, you never know. I may just have been lucky so far. I can’t guarantee that somebody else following the same trail would have the same experience that I have had. I’ve been very fortunate. There have been threats toward me, but none of those have come to fruition.
Tom: What kind of threats?
Nigel: People saying that they’re going to hold me and beat me up, or whatever it is. The threats haven’t happened often, but other persons have heard those threats and that has prevented them from joining or being involved in our organization because they feel that the same thing might happen to them or that I am aligned with something that is dangerous.
Tom: Do you feel that it’s dangerous?
Nigel: It’s not something that I actively worry about. If I’m walking down the street, it’s not something that I think about, but at the same time, if it were to happen, I wouldn’t be surprised. I just need to have my head on like any other person who’s involved in any sort of advocacy.
Tom: Why do you do this?
Nigel: Good question. I’ve tried to figure that out myself. I think I just want to impact some sort of positive change, generally speaking. A long time ago when I wanted to choose how I am going to do this, through what sort of means, then we ended up in the HIV, MSM, human rights issues. I think that if I am effective in my role, if the organization is effective in its role, then we will be making the lives of a lot of people a lot better. I’ve seen that change start to happen. Marginalized populations start off at a stage of questioning and paranoia. Then there’s this long journey where you go along until you eventually are comfortable with yourself and you can function as a “normal” person. And I think if we can speed up that process as much as possible so that people can start living their lives and be comfortable sooner than later, then that would have a big impact on peoples’ lives. Ultimately, we want people to have a better life.
Interviewer Tom Jacobs can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.