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Jamaica at 50: Gay rights and the west

As Jamaica celebrates 50 years of independence, Stewart McDonald looks at the west’s view of the country’s LGBT rights record
New Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller has made positive comments on gay rights.

This week I attended one of many events organized by the Glasgow African-Caribbean Centre to mark fifty years of independence for Jamaica. The event was a debate to discuss the contribution that Jamaica has made to the world as an independent nation, and would Scotland be better if it was also independent?

I believe in independence. I think it’s the normal thing for a country to be, so I was naturally interested to find out what Jamaicans thought of their country’s independence half a century on.

Before going to the event I did some research on how gay and lesbian Jamaicans get on in their homeland and the picture painted was less than pretty.

In June of this year five men were under attack from an angry mob outside their house because they were suspected (yes, suspected) of being homosexual.

Human rights organizations have documented shocking human rights abuses of LGBT people on the sunshine island ranging from police complicity in attacks, to the corrective rape of lesbians. Polls amongst ordinary Jamaicans show that 80% of the country believes that homosexuality is wrong, almost always justified with religious reasoning.

There has been progress on the political front, however. Jamaica previously had a prime minister who said that he would not allow any homosexuals to serve in his cabinet. But the new prime minister said in response to a question in a national TV debate that she would not discriminate against homosexuals when it comes to choosing her ministerial team. She won by a landslide. After forming a government Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has made some positive noises about repealing the country’s anti-buggery laws, which were imposed on it by the British Empire.

One Jamaican I spoke to at the event called the ‘gay’ question put to both Portia Simpson Miller and her Labour Party rival, Andrew Holness, as the ‘killer question’ in Jamaican politics; ‘it’s a trap question’, he said. He seemed delighted with the now prime minister’s answer at the time and even more so, if also surprised, that she won by a landslide.

Another man at the event, himself not a Jamaican national, had said that the reason for homophobia in countries like Nigeria, where he was from, was because the people there are simply not ready to accept that homosexuality is normal. They didn’t want ‘western values’ to be imposed on them, he said, and the Jamaican man I spoke with said the same about homophobic people in Jamaica.

‘When the west condemns Jamaica for the level of homophobia it’s almost like they can feel the self-righteousness from what they’re saying,’ he explained.

This is where international gay politics gets difficult. How do I as someone who believes that what is happening to gay people in Jamaica, Uganda, Iran or any other country where gay people are persecuted, convey a message that doesn’t make me sound like a typical white, western, liberal arm-chair activist who thinks that their way of life is more superior and better than those in countries that persecute LGBT people?

The answer is that I don’t think it can be done.

I’ve struggled with this question for some time but after this event I came to a conclusion that sat a bit uneasy with me to begin with. It might seem hawkish and neo-con, but I actually do think that what we have here in Scotland is better and more superior to what our LGBT friends in some countries are experiencing; autocratic regimes that wouldn’t even make it on to the pages of an Orwell novel.

In Scotland I can criticize the government, get published, organize and take part in political activity and be myself as openly as I wish and I don’t have to worry about being tortured, kidnapped, killed or disappearing. Is what we have here perfect? No. But I do think it’s better than what’s on offer in some parts of the world – there’s no just escaping that.

Many gay people in Jamaica have learned to adapt to the country’s notorious homophobia. If you’re ever there on holiday don’t go looking for the rainbow flag or listening out for Kylie when in search of the gay scene – which does exist. Gay people are much more subtle albeit because they have to be. It’s an interesting one actually; whilst being forced to be invisible citizens they have become much more integrated. I wonder if there’s something that we in the west could learn from that.

Follow Stewart on Twitter here.

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