On April 25, Canadian philanthropist and businessman Salah Bachir received this year’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art award, worth $25,000. He immediately donated it to lawyer/activist Maurice Tomlinson to support his LGBTI rights work in the Caribbean.
By Maurice Tomlinson
Last Saturday night Salah Bachir silenced me with his generosity, and I think that I have finally found my voice to tell him thanks.
For years I have been trying to identify sustainable funding to restore my country’s “One Love” culture. Our society has largely been coarsened and corrupted by imported homophobia, which was produced by global north Christian fundamentalists, and their local clones. The results of this anti-gay animus have been devastating. One palpable example is the fact that Jamaican men who have sex with men (MSM) have been driven into hiding, away from effective HIV interventions. As a group, they now account for the highest HIV prevalence rate among this vulnerable population in the western hemisphere, if not the world (33%).
Intense societal homophobia (measured at 91% in a recent poll) also forces many MSM to have sex with women as “masks” or “cures” for their homosexuality. Even more tragic is the fact that LGBTI kids as young as 10 years old have been driven out of their homes by indoctrinated parents. Some of these youngsters resorted to living in sewers, and many sell sex to survive. They are paid extra for condomless sex with their (mostly married) male partners, which increases their vulnerability to HIV.
Several persons and institutions have graciously supported my work combating Caribbean homophobia and HIV. This includes the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network where I am now part of an exciting and dedicated team that collaborates with local partners to tackle barriers to prevention, treatment, care and support interventions for persons infected with, and vulnerable to, HIV. Together, we challenge anti-gay laws across the Caribbean, conduct LGBTI sensitization sessions for police and other stakeholders in the HIV response, provide human rights and documentation training for groups working with vulnerable populations, and support local initiatives to provide immediate assistance to marginalized individuals.
Sadly, many potential funders spurned my requests because, in their eyes, homophobia in Jamaica and the Caribbean, as well as the chronic HIV epidemic that it sustains, are just not that urgent. Not when there are “starving children in Africa.” As a result, only about 0.5% of private funds supporting human rights and HIV goes to the Caribbean.
The shortsightedness of these donors is exemplified in the fact that the region has the second highest HIV prevalence rate after sub-Saharan Africa. We also have possibly the highest HIV prevalence rate among MSM is the world while our porous borders and heavy dependence on tourism (mostly from the global north) means that we are incredibly susceptible to external pressures. Indeed, our population almost triples every year due to visitor arrivals and we have played host to many of these very same donors and their families, friends, and acquaintances at some point. Further, the micro-size of many Caribbean countries means that donor funding can go very far very quickly. Finally, the states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) account for 15 votes in the UN where the issue of LGBTI human rights are constantly being debated. Helping the Caribbean to embrace full equality WILL have global impact.
That said, I never want to be in a competition for resources with other social justice groups and I reject the scarcity mentality associated with charitable giving. There ARE enough funds to do good in ALL the world. And Salah demonstrated that handsomely on Saturday. He is possibly one of the most generous persons that I know, and on the night when he was being honored and rewarded for his selfless sponsorship of the arts, he unhesitatingly made a charitable donation of his entire prize money. Classic, and classy Salah.
Salah, like me, you are probably at the stage in life where you wish to “collect experiences, not things.” Therefore, my gift to you for your overwhelming benevolence is an experience of my homeland that sustains my passion and hope in our future. Thankfully, there are places on the island where one can still enjoy a sweet generosity that envelops strangers in hugs as warm as our sunshine, differences dissolve in copious mounds of rolling laughter, and gregarious generosity is second nature.
Salah, please indulge me a bit and close your eyes for a moment. And imagine rich, green hills, which are only accessible by unpaved roads that give you a “therapeutic massage” for miles. They wind into the very heart of the deep countryside through dense forests, then drop into clearings with broad cultivated plots, passing waterfalls that bubble up right by the roadside, alongside tumble-down shops where no one is really interested in commerce and everyone is primed for conversation (what is lacking in material goods will be made up for by barter, so deficiencies never persist).
Our destination is “Cottage,” my mother’s ancestral village. Upon arrival you will immediately be dubbed “Mass Sal.” That’s both a title of respect and of access. There will be timid smiles and quizzing looks at your broad broach and rich attire, but they will only be fleeting. And then you will be accepted, normalized and allowed to observe and partake as you wish.
There will be unfamiliar foods, in large quantities, and you will smell pungent spices mixed in with incredibly clean air just washed by the rain. There is no chlorine, so the water comes unfiltered from the heavens, and the taste lingers longer than any Perrier.
You see, Salah, your largess reminds me of my mother’s cousin, Sonny, who was also from Cottage. I didn’t know much about Sonny, except that, like you, he was larger than life and easily and effortlessly owned any space that he entered. Sonny was similarly passionate about people, and quite possibly gay. But that last detail was never the topic of public conversation. He was simply allowed to live and pass on without let or hindrance. There were no anti-gay mobs chasing Sonny. And while I am sure that he faced his fair share of teasings for his difference, nevertheless his place in the community was secure.
And, Salah, that is the Jamaica I want to see re-established. A Jamaica where, as my mother tells it, everyone knew someone in the village who was gay, but no one cared. There were certainly the petty jealousies and hypocrisies that define any human community. However, common courtesy was far more important than pandering to intolerance.
Mass Sal, when you are ready, I want to hold your hand and take you on this physical or emotional journey. Because, thanks to your lavish gift, that reality is drawing a little bit closer today.
Thank you, Salah. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you.
And for those of you who may wish to join Salah in restoring equality to Jamaica and the Caribbean, please consider donating to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. There is a lot of work to be done, and every little bit helps! Thanks.