amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Talk About Your Business Safely (TABS)—Jamaica

“We live in a society where so many young men who have sex with men (MSM) are rejected by their families and many are living in the street. TABS interacts with young MSM who are engaging in risky sexual behavior or are on the verge of suicide because they had no one to talk to or are just searching for a safe space. TABS provides that space, anonymously, for freedom of expression and for trusted guidance and knowledge.”—Conroy Wilson, cultural specialist, arts administrator, and creative director of the Ashe Company

Strategies:

1. Use SMS messages and social media to provide young GMT with counseling and psychosocial support.

2. Refer young GMT to discrimination-free health services, including HIV testing and antiretroviral adherence support.

3. Train peer educators to operate the network and provide support and counseling.

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A team of Ashe Company educators.

In 2011, educators from the Ashe Company, an arts organization using edutainment “to inspire and foster empowerment of all people,” visited three high schools in Jamaica to conduct interventions about high-risk sexual behavior. Repeatedly, young GMT told the educators that they were not getting the psychosocial and sexual health support they needed and did not feel safe seeking it out. Using support from amfAR, Ashe launched its Talk About Your Business Safely (TABS) initiative so these young people could safely and anonymously receive this critical guidance online and through SMS messages.

“TABS services provide MSM with a safe and secure medium in which they can express themselves freely without being judged or discriminated against,” says Wilson. The services, which are aimed at GMT ages 16 to 24, include an SMS message line, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and a blog. Clients can receive psychosocial support and counseling services via a variety of SMS services—including text, WhatsApp messenger, and BlackBerry messenger—seven days a week, and every morning a peer educator sends out an inspirational quote to the thousands of users throughout Jamaica. The Facebook and Twitter pages provide a forum to discuss and post articles regarding popular and pressing national and international issues relating to GMT, and the blog provides a forum for more in-depth discussions about topics including family, relationships, discrimination, entrepreneurship, and HIV.

Over the last three years, the SMS line has received over 500,000 messages and 15 young GMT have completed Ashe’s peer training program to provide text and online guidance and refer clients to safe, discrimination-free HIV testing and other healthcare services. Each month, approximately 50 new clients sign up.  “Is this a real live MSM thing in Jamaica?” texted one new user. “I can talk to someone without being exposed. Just for us.”

In Jamaica, the HIV rate among the general population is 1.7%, but among MSM it is estimated to be 32.8%—which ranks among the highest HIV prevalence among MSM in any country in the world. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International state that Jamaica is also among the most dangerous places in the world to be gay. Same-sex sexual conduct between men is illegal and punishable by 10 years in prison and the social stigma against LGBT is intense, widespread, and often violent. In 2006, Time magazine publishing an article asking if Jamaica is “the most homophobic place on earth.”  And since 2009, incidents of violent attacks against LGBT have steadily increased. In July 2013, a trans 17-year-old named Dwayne Jones was stabbed to death by a mob after attending a party dressed as woman.

However, there are also signs of progress towards a more inclusive system. The Minister of Justice has stated that he plans to conduct a non-binding “conscience vote” to review the anti-gay law this year, which could open the door to overturning it, and a case challenging the constitutionality of the law is currently working its way through the Jamaican court system.

In the meantime, TABS will continue providing young GMT with guidance, support, and a forum to discuss the discrimination and other issues they confront each day. “Ashe provided a safe space for me to grow and learn and be my best, and I would like to provide that space for all young people,” says Wilson. “As the Ashe motto states, we inspire and thereby empower all people to live a life of integrity and fulfillment doing what they love and loving what they do.”