I refuse to be a victim, so I took a stand, Tomlinson says

Maurice Tomlinson (Photo courtesy of International Planned Parenthood Federation)
Maurice Tomlinson (Photo courtesy of International Planned Parenthood Federation)

I considered myself to be a very confident person. That changed suddenly a few years ago when I received a particularly vicious email death threat because of my advocacy for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Jamaicans. In vulgar language the author made plain that, if I did not immediately cease my calls for an end to homophobic victimization and violence, then I would die.

I was certainly no stranger to verbal and electronic abuse because of my activism. In fact, it was par for the course in my country, where so many persons have fallen victim to the vile anti-gay rhetoric being whipped up by fundamentalist evangelicals with the support of their Global North backers. However, the immediacy and the potency of the latest threat startled me, and for the first time I heeded the advice of my allies and friends in the LGBTI liberation movement and reported the matter to the police.

I was shocked, appalled and deeply dismayed by my reception at the Freeport police station in Montego Bay. Instead of empathy, the recording officer proceeded to state that he hates gays and that they make him sick. When the incident was reported to a senior officer (ironically, a man who had been sent from the UK to help professionalize the Jamaica Constabulary Force) this assistant commissioner stated that such attitudes were unfortunate but they would not change until the law changes.

As a former volunteer and eventual board member of Jamaica’s largest NGO engaged in the AIDS response, Jamaica AIDS Support for Life, I had read the national and international reports confirming that the anti-sodomy law contributed to the vastly disproportionate HIV prevalence rate among men who have sex with men (33% vs. 1.6% in the general population). This is the highest in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. Not only did the law inhibit HIV interventions (for example, condoms could not be legally distributed in prisons, despite clear evidence of sex occurring there) but it also gave licence to horrendous anti-gay attacks that drove MSM underground, away from effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support intervention.

As an attorney, I had witnessed police using the anti-sodomy law to extort gay men and felt helpless when my clients who were found in intimate situations by officers were given the “option” of either paying a bribe or having their lives destroyed by the police leaking the story to the local tabloids.

Oshane Gordon (Photo courtesy of CVMTV News)
In Jamaica in 2011, a homophobic mob used machetes to kill 16-year-old Oshane Gordon because of his sexual orientation. (Photo courtesy of CVMTV News)

As part of a documentation project that I helped develop for J-FLAG, the country’s largest LGBTI lobby group, I had witnessed and recorded the brutal mob attacks against gay men. I had even taken reports while these men were still bandaged and bleeding. I have painful recollections of a young man with a huge gash across his forehead inflicted by a large knife simply because he looked gay; and the 16-year-old youth, Oshane Gordon, who was chopped to death because he had “questionable relations” with another man; and the 26-year-old hairdresser who was decapitated because some community members were tired of his “femininity.” There were also countless home invasions, evictions, arbitrary employment terminations, etc., etc.

As a former evangelical Christian, I winced at my role in spreading the false “gospel” that gays are an “abomination” and can be “cured.” I was ashamed that I even hosted a “gay cure” group in my home for a time and vividly remember the pain when we all realized what an utter failure the exercise had been. I recoiled at the disingenuous platitudes of my former fundamentalist church family who would respond to the savage abuse of LGBTI people with the stupefying “love the sinner hate the sin” rhetoric while doing hardly anything to condemn the ongoing assaults.

As a constitutional law lecturer, I understood just how many fundamental rights and freedoms that Jamaica recognized, both domestically and internationally, were blatantly violated by this archaic law, and how impossible it was to enforce this statute without invading the privacy and liberty of homosexual Jamaicans. I also understood the vastly disproportionate nature of the law. The possibility that a gay couple could be imprisoned at hard labour for simply kissing in the privacy of their bedrooms, and then be required to register as a sex offender and carry a pass or face an additional 12 months imprisonment and a $1 million fine — these consequences for consensual acts of intimacy all defied logic.

As a proud Jamaican who had also studied the painful history of British colonization, I grasped just how ironic, embarrassing and offensive it was to our national identity and sense of independence for Jamaica to cling to this 1864 British colonially imposed anti-sodomy law as a sign of our sovereignty, especially when Britain abolished it in 1967, five years after granting us our independence.

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller promised a review of the country's buggery law, but did not follow through after she was returned to office. (Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)
In 2011, Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller promised a review of the country’s buggery law, but did not follow through after she was returned to office in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)

I was therefore hopeful when in 2011 our first female Prime Minister (a black woman who was well-acquainted with prejudice and discrimination) promised a review of the odious legislation during her election campaign. I was utterly devastated when three years later she reneged on her promise because, as she described it, the law “does not concern the majority of Jamaicans who are poor.” What she failed to acknowledge is that the majority of LGBTI Jamaicans are in fact poor because the law legitimizes discrimination against us in employment and elsewhere.

It was clear that no Jamaican politician would voluntarily support an end to the ban on male same-gender love because of fear of the powerful evangelical churches. The courts seemed to be our only option for justice.

I was optimistic when we found a brave young man who was willing to be the face of such a court challenge after his landlady kicked him out because, she claimed, he had too many male visitors. She offered him the option of remaining if he submitted to Bible study. He rightly refused.

When the young man was forced to withdraw his case because of fear for his life and that of family, I was sent right back to the point of helplessness on that the day when the police officer treated me as an unapprehended criminal instead of as a victim.

Maurice Tomlinson (Photo courtesy of Macalester.edu)
Maurice Tomlinson (Photo courtesy of Macalester.edu)

So, I had to bring this constitutional action to have the anti-sodomy law struck down. It was either remain a powerless victim or stand and reclaim my sense of belonging as a Jamaican. I chose to stand. And I am happy that some Jamaicans, including the island’s largest newspaper, are standing with me.

You can read more about my constitutional challenge here: Constitutional challenge to Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law: Questions & Answers

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


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