Roger Ross Williams recently called me about a dilemma. The talented and award-winning African-American director of “God Loves Uganda” was being conferred with an honorary Ph.D. by his hometown university, Lafayette College. This was for his ground-breaking work exposing the link between American religious fundamentalists and the wave of anti-gay hate sweeping Africa. As usual, there were other awardees and the trouble for Roger was the identity of one of them.
Also being bestowed with a degree, and the featured speaker at the commencement ceremony, was the Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Most Honourable Portia Simpson Miller. Ironically, she too was being recognized for her “leadership” in the area of LGBT human rights recognition. The irony is that on April 4, the PM publicly reneged on her 2011 election promise to call for a Parliamentary conscience vote on the country’s 1864 British colonially imposed anti-sodomy law. This law threatens consenting adult MSM [men who have sex with men] with 10 years in prison at hard labour for their private acts of intimacy. The stigmatizing statute has also been universally recognized as contributing to Jamaican MSM having the highest HIV prevalence rate in the western hemisphere (33%). However, Mrs. Simpson-Miller declared that the law did not impact “the majority of Jamaicans who are poor” and was therefore not a priority. Clearly someone at Lafayette had not done their homework, and Roger wanted to know how to handle the situation.
I suggested that Roger directly ask the PM about her position on the law and he reported being very troubled by her response. The real reason Jamaica’s most senior politician abdicated her responsibility to protect the rights of all citizens was fear of the religious right. As reported by Roger, the PM felt that amending the law would lead to church-led riots and protests in the very fundamentalist nation. This threat is quite real as last year the usually competing religious groups united to mount island-wide demonstrations against a domestic challenge to the anti-sodomy law. This case is being brought by AIDS-Free World on behalf of a young homosexual Jamaican who was evicted for his sexual orientation.
But when did Jamaica, the country of “One Love”, become so anti-love? And what role has religion played in this regression?
I suggested to Roger that he should do a sequel to his probing documentary along the lines of “God Also Loves Jamaica”. This is because, the impact of anti-homosexuality American fundamentalists on the island mirrors the Ugandan experience, but with far less global coverage. This “love affair” has been ongoing for a long time, and the “love-child” is now fully grown, but he recently moved back in with his parents.
My mother is a member of a fundamentalist evangelical church with strong US ties. She recalls that during her youth, everyone knew at least one person in the village who was homosexual, but no one cared. However, in the late 70′s and early 80′s she describes a “coarsening” of Jamaican society that coincided with a steady import of American televangelists and touring preachers. Crying clerics like Jimmy Swaggart, became a veritable fixture, and so was their fixation with the “abomination” of homosexuality. This was both convenient and coincidental. Condemning other biblical “sins” (such as promiscuity, adultery and drunkenness) had to be studiously avoided in this society where nearly 85% of the population is born out wedlock and there are possibly more bars than in any other country on the planet! The rhetoric also coincided with the explosion in the HIV epidemic, which provided “proof” of a vengeful deity exacting punishment on a deviant and defiant group. The preachers’ prophecies were therefore “fulfilled”, and offering plates overflowed.
Swaggart, et. al, quickly spawned grotesque replicas of themselves and these home-grown puritans even mimicked a very affected style of praying and preaching of American pastors, as that was deemed more holy! Rev. Al Miller is a particular specimen of this genre, as is the country’s former Political Ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair.
For many years, Jamaica seemed to have been self-sufficient in homophobia. Our country therefore settled into a pattern of hate-mongering preachers influencing impressionable musicians sitting in their pews who then went on to perform the most, and most vulgar, anti-homosexuality songs calling for murder, maiming and general mayhem against lesbians, gays and other sexually- and gender-diverse people.
Then something changed. Starting around 2009, the Jamaican LGBT movement became more organized and begun engaging in public calls for the recognition of our rights. From modest beginnings, this evolved into a very discernible liberation movement. And the fundamentalists took notice, as did their Global North backers.
In 2010, the right-wing religious faction began re-importing more outspoken and extremist pastors and academics from the US, Canada and the UK to bolster their demand that the anti-homosexuality status quo be maintained. And there were plenty of fanatical anti-homosexuality Global North citizens to choose from! As in Africa, these losers in the Northern culture wars found fertile ground in Jamaica. Their legal and academic credentials also gave them unprecedented access to influential Parliamentarians and policy makers. Even a former US Ambassador, Grover Rees III, has joined in the cavalcade of hate and is seeking to be admitted as an expert witness for the churches in the constitutional challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law.
So far we have been inundated by Peter LaBarbera, Peter Tozzi, Dennis Jernigan, Paul Diamond, Dr. Janet Epp-Buckingham, and many others whose major strategic advice to their receptive Jamaican minions is to “play up pedophilia” and paint all homosexuals as a threat to children. In a country that has seen a raft of vicious attacks against youth, making homosexuals the scapegoat is particularly effective. And despite the fact that their arguments remain totally unsubstantiated, the homosexuality bashers persist, because they are doing God’s work! [Editor’s note: See comment below from Janet Epp-Buckingham.]
The polarizing and perverting impact of the fundamentalists can be seen in the situation of homeless LGBT youth who have been forced to live in the sewers of Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. These kids were evicted from their homes as young as 10 years old, and engage in sex work to survive. They are also paid extra for condomless sex by their (often married) male clients. This increases their vulnerability to HIV. Nevertheless, the major children’s rights group, which is led by Jamaica’s answer to the US’ anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant, has refused to assist these youngsters because they represent the greatest evil!
So, 30 years later, Jamaica is right back where we started, and imported fundamentalists are once again sustaining Jamaica’s fetid fixation on homophobic hate with disastrous impacts for our HIV response.
I am not often given to pessimism, because, as an activist, that would be fatal. However, I confess that this latest fundamentalist invasion seems more deadly than the first. This time massive homophobic religious demonstrations, petitions, and preaching campaigns have characterized the anti-homosexuality crusaders like never before. And clearly not only homosexuals live in fear of them – our political leaders are equally petrified.
This article appeared previously, also on June 9, in SOGINews.com.