Americas / Commentary

Homophobia in Jamaica: Time to end the cowardice

It’s time for Jamaica to turn its back on homophobia and take a stand for the human rights of LGBTI people, activist Lloyd D’Aguilar writes. “Those who recognize the validity of the struggle for gay rights — especially those who are straight — but remain silent for fear of ostracism, need to look in the mirror and deal with their cowardice,” he states.

By Lloyd D’Aguilar

Lloyd D’Aguilar (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Lloyd D’Aguilar (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Jamaica is so damned homophobic.  A former public defender once told me that though he privately doesn’t support homophobia he couldn’t publicly agitate against it for fear that people would think that he was gay.  I once heard a liberal, radio talk-show host declaring that he was straight, so there would be no misunderstanding, he said, about him making a point against homophobia in Jamaica.

Straight ally activists are rare in Jamaica.

And so it is from the perspective of recognizing that such an alliance is necessary, that I make this analysis of the current stage of the struggle against homophobia in Jamaica.

Homophobia is a serious social pathology comparable to racism, sexism or misogyny which affects both the perpetrators and the victims.
Homophobia, like police extrajudicial killings, is condoned at the very top of the State apparatus. It is still to be remembered how a former prime minister encouraged policemen to shoot first and ask questions later and, in the same vein, another prime minister who said politicians can be gay but cannot be members of his Cabinet.

How similar this attitude is to young gay men being run out of their homes by their families or run out of their communities by community enforcers because they are gay. In other words, what is the difference in sentiment between the prime minister saying ‘not in my cabinet’ and those who say ‘not in my home or in my community’?

The front page of the Daily Gleaner reports on Jamaica's independence.

The front page of the Daily Gleaner reports on Jamaica’s independence in August 1962.

There are at least three colonial inherited statutes against buggery and public exhibition of intimacy between men. Whether they are enforced or not, they remain a very important symbol of state-sponsored homophobia.
The 1962 Independence constitution has a savings clause which makes all pre-independence laws legal unless revoked by parliament. This prostration to colonialism was obviously a reflection of the fact that the new ruling class had no fundamental conflict with the colonial master, Great Britain.

They were inheriting the State not as a result of a successful anti-colonial struggle, but as part of a negotiated settlement with the colonial master.

This being a safe transfer of power and there was no need to question the legal foundation and oppressive practices of the inherited colonial State.
The fact, however, is that Britain, like other Colonial powers, has not only repealed its own anti-buggery laws (this year marks the 50th anniversary of the repeal in England and Wales), but has made substantial social progress to address blatant forms of state-sponsored discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

The Jamaican ruling class by its reluctance to repeal these laws is exposed as proudly wallowing in colonial backwardness. It has given little indication that it intends to voluntarily repeal these laws and ensure social respect for the rights of the gay community.

This is indeed one of the ugliest and ironic aspects of colonialism. A violent, barbaric oppressor enslaves, enchains and colonizes; centuries later it frees its victims from their chains, but the minds of the colonized remain in chains. The former colonial power is able to overcome aspects of its own barbarity, now appearing to be civilized and self-enlightened, but not so for the post-colonial ruling class who have assumed the barbarity of the oppressor.  A cruel irony, especially since homophobia is not a normal feature of African society prior to colonization.

Maurice Tomlinson (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Maurice Tomlinson (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The fight back against homophobia has been anaemic. It first requires gays to speak up on their own behalf and on behalf of their community and define its grievance. Over the years most have chosen to remain in the closet for fear of violence, discrimination or ridicule. There have been few natural leaders, though we should not underestimate the importance of the emergence of J-FLAG.

Enter Maurice Tomlinson, a middle class lawyer and university lecturer. He has been a prolific newspaper letter writer on all aspects of the fight against homophobia.  Not only has he not hidden his sexual orientation but he dared to get married – to a man.

Tomlinson has been able to get international financial backing to mount another constitutional challenge against the anti-sodomy laws. This after the original claimant, and Tomlinson’s client, withdrew because of threats to himself and his family. Will Tomlinson’s challenge go the route of Belize where similar laws were ruled unconstitutional?  Or, will the judiciary succumb to the dogged fight being put up by the Church?

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller (Photo courtesy of PRI)

Former Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller (Photo courtesy of PRI)

As for the political ruling class the previous PNP government spent four years in power without addressing the law as had been promised by its leader Portia Simpson-Miller.
The promise of the present JLP government is for a referendum on whether to repeal or not, which is a mocking way of saying that it has no intention to change the laws.

So at best the political ruling class looks half-heartedly to the judiciary for any possibility of change or decriminalization such as happened in Belize. Perhaps as a sort of pro forma response, the Attorney General is opposing the challenge.

Why? Because the church,  which essentially is the ideological arm of the State, is vigorously protesting the challenge. The political ruling class cannot afford to have a split with this indispensable ideological partner, a colonial relic which dates back to Imperial Rome.

Summary  — What is to be done

  1. A legal challenge to the constitutionality of the anti-sodomy law has been going on now in one form or another for at least four years and could conceivably go on for another four years.
  2. On the face of it the anti-sodomy law is either unconstitutional or needs to be repealed for the obvious reason that it violates basic human rights principles, such as the right to one’s sexual expression. Whether the laws have been enforced or not is irrelevant. They serves as the basis for homophobic prejudice and if unenforceable should be repealed.
  3. The UN Declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity has condemned:
    • Violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatisation and prejudice … directed against persons in all countries in the world because of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that these practices undermine the integrity and dignity of those subjected to these abuses; [Furthermore]
    • We condemn the human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity wherever they occur, in particular the use of the death penalty on this ground, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the practice of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary arrest or detention and deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health;
    • The same sentiments were expressed by the Resolution of the OAS General Assembly on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity: however,
    • The Government of Jamaica supported neither of these general assembly resolutions. The reasons were specious.
  4. The government is therefore out of step with international best practices regarding respect for LGBTI rights.
  5. In the interim, a terrified LGBTI population lives a paranoid existence – experiencing discrimination on the job, denied housing, or attacked in the street by ignorant mobs.
  6. The question of whether to be visible or invisible is a day-to-day challenge for this section of the population.

    Homeless LGBT youths living in the sewers of New Kingston. (BuzzFeed photo by J. Lester Feder)

    Homeless LGBT youths living in the drainage gullies of New Kingston. (BuzzFeed photo by J. Lester Feder)

  7. The real fight back is in the gullies of Kingston where mostly young, homeless gay men are forced to live after being run out of their homes by their families and community bad men.
  8. Their depraved living condition is to be pitied but their militant anti-establishment stance in not being afraid to exhibit their gayness, and knowing that unity is strength,  is to be celebrated as a reflection of a future liberated gay society.
  9. Unfortunately a castrated civil society including human rights organizations have little to offer in terms of support to the struggle for LGBTQI rights.
  10. The Maurice Tomlinson legal challenge is to be supported.
  11. Those who recognize the validity of the struggle for gay rights, especially those who are straight, but remain silent for fear of ostracism, need to look in the mirror and deal with their cowardice.

Lloyd D’Aguilar is a human rights activist and convenor of the Tivoli Committee, which has been in the forefront of the fight for justice for the victims of the 2010 Jamaican security forces massacre in Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston. He is also a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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