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Why I fled Jamaica but hope to return

Award-winning Jamaican gay activist Maurice Tomlinson on the death threats that forced him into exile and the state of LGBTI rights on the island
Maurice Tomlinson, winner of the first David Kato awards, talks to GSN about his gay activism work.
Photo by Scott Nunn.

Articulate, charming and beaming with delight as he picked up an award for his work on Sunday (29 January) in London, Maurice Tomlinson does not seem like a stereotypical refugee.

But this youthful-looking attorney from Jamaica had to flee his country this month after his LGBTI rights work and highly publicized marriage to his partner in Canada made him the target of a series of death threats.

His activism in Jamaica was initially around HIV, including working for AIDS-Free World. But after seeing the link between homophobia and the prevalence of HIV, he widened his work to gay rights. Most significantly, he has started a legal challenge to Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

While the personal pain of his exile was obvious from his moving acceptance speech for his David Kato Vision and Voice Award, in which he spoke about his desire to one day return to his home country, his pride was also clear in being recognized for his activism.

His story also indicates that, despite sympathetic words from the new prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, Jamaica remains a very dangerous place for anyone who is openly lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Gay Star News was able to catch up with Tomlinson to ask him about his work and find out how he was forced to flee the country he was born and brought up in.

How did you become a gay rights activist in Jamaica?

I kind of fell into LGBT activism. I had always been working with HIV for about 18 or 20 years as a volunteer. I used to assist in a hospice and then when I became an attorney I used to help with the legal work for the LGBT organization.

But I quickly realised that there was a connection between the overwhelming HIV prevalence among MSM [men who have sex with men] and the intense homophobia in Jamaica. And so I started looking more at the repeal of the anti-sodomy law as a way to address the HIV prevalence in Jamaica and also trying to increase the level of tolerance. For example, a very simple thing, which may seem trivial is if gay men can go and buy lube without fearing being outed. Of course they can buy condoms but the minute they buy lube that outs them.

You must have encountered quite a lot of trouble…

I had been flying under the radar for all my HIV work. I had been personally harassed but not for the work I had been doing. When I started writing about LGBT human rights violations, I started receiving nasty emails and they eventually escalated into death threats.

I reported one to a police officer and he went on a homophobic tirade and rather than take my death threat seriously he told me how he hates gays, gays are nasty, they deserve to die etc, etc. That shocked me and when I reported that to a senior member of the police force he said ‘well that attitude is unfortunate but it won’t change until the law changes’.

So that made me realize we have to address the issue of the law so I started working collecting stories to bring a legal challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law. The death threats continued because, of course, I continued to write but I stopped reporting them to the police because to me it just didn’t make any sense.

The next thing that happened was that I reported the non-responsiveness of the police to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and they told the Jamaican government to ensure my security. The Jamaican government basically ignored it. I had one meeting with another police officer at the police commissioners office and he said he would tell me who had been sending the threats in five days. That was in March last year.

When things really hit the fan though was when I got married to Tom on 28 August last year in Canada but for safety reasons it was supposed to be low-key and I did not publicize the fact. But in December of last year I did an interview with the Toronto Star and the idea was to mention my David Kato award, the legal challenge of the anti-sodomy law and the recent statements by the Jamaican prime minister which were very positive.

I thought the focus would be on that but the reporter actually chose to play up my marriage in the story. She also asked me for a picture of the wedding and I didn’t think so I sent it to her and she published the story. This made its way back to Jamaica and without checking or seeking permission the Jamaican Observer decided to carry that story with the wedding picture and immediately the death threats started escalating.

I was advised that my security had been totally compromised. Everybody knew where I lived, they knew what car I drove, they knew where I went to teach and where my family lived so I was told to leave my house immediately because the police couldn’t guarantee my safety.

I just grabbed some stuff and went into a safe house for a couple of days. At the time my passport was not available to me it was with the UK high commission because I was getting the visa to come to England for the David Kato award so when I eventually got that I was on a plane on 10 January and I haven’t been home since.

It must have been very traumatic for you to have to leave your home under those circumstances. So how do you feel about the fact you wouldn’t be safe back home right now?

I have never felt so vulnerable in my life. I did the advocacy I did because I always thought as a lawyer that I could trust the police to do their jobs. When I realised that the police were not interested in protecting me and they would go to the extent of telling a blatant lie, I died inside.

It is indescribable how scared I was when I was scrambling and grabbing clothes, not sure if the time I was taking to put stuff in a suitcase was the time that would give my attackers enough opportunity to come and kill me.

The police in Jamaica were asked by two [external] policing agencies to provide me with security to escort me to the airport and the Jamaican police said they would. But they never showed up and they lied saying that they tried to call me and I didn’t answer. My phone recalls all incoming calls and I received no calls. That proved to me that even if I were to be in danger again it would make no sense to report it to the police. If I stayed in Jamaica I would be vulnerable.

The drive to the airport I was petrified. I am relieved to have left because of the overwhelming sense of vulnerability but I was in a daze because all of my preconceptions of my country, the organs of the state protecting me were shattered.

Are you hoping to move to Canada now?

I had planned to move to Canada eventually but all of that had to be brought forward by several months.

At this point I asked his husband Tom Decker if he was relieved his partner had been taken out of that obviously dangerous situation? Tom replied:

That’s quite an understatement. To be truthful I was a nervous wreck when he was there. The one thing you want to do as a partner is hop on the first plane and go down there and get him but I knew my showing up would make the situation even worse because my picture was out.

They [the Jamaican Observer] had no permission to publish that picture and even after we asked them to remove it they refused to take it down [online]. I did what I could on my end, worked with international policing agencies and worked with the high commission to get him out as quickly as possible.

[Returning to Tomlinson] What about your family back home?

That was very hard for me. My mother and father are, for the time-being safe. People have given my father a hard time and my mother a hard time. My father is a driver for tourists and his colleagues have really been ribbing him and giving him a hard time. My mum at church, which is very important to her, has been told some very unpleasant things but I don’t think they are in any immediate danger. Thankfully my son lives outside of Jamaica so for them I think this hasn’t been as traumatic.

One of the first stories Gay Star News covered from Jamaica (we only went live in December) were those comments by the prime minister during her election campaign. Her comments about a free vote in parliament on the sodomy law and your legal challenge of that law are the most significant things happening at the moment. Do you have good hopes of either or both of those coming to fruition?

I think that it was very brave of her to say what she had said. I am very hopeful but because of the other priorities that she has I don’t think the conscience vote will be brought to parliament any time soon. I don’t think the LGBT group in Jamaica is going to pressure her to bring the vote to parliament [swiftly]. The reality is we have an economy in crisis. We have infrastructure that’s decaying and crumbling. There are higher priorities right now for her as a government.

It was significant that she said what she said and I hope that it will result in at least an increased level of tolerance. For example a personal issue for me is getting police officers who are supposed to be responding to threats against LGBTI people to start taking those violations seriously. Hopefully what she has said will get them to understand that we are citizens of Jamaica and deserve protection. Right now there is a treatment of us as if we are un-apprehended criminals and don’t have rights. So it is one thing for them to stop abusing us but they have to do their jobs and protect us.

The legal challenge will not be a binding decision when it comes down from the Inter-American Commission. It will be only a recommendation and it will be up to the government to make the legal changes necessary. Whether the government will do so anytime soon is again a matter of priorities. Whether they start to understand the economic implications of homophobia, in terms of the increased HIV prevalence of MSM [men who have sex with men] and the general population. Whether they look at the loss of investment from tourism and so on and the loss of aid… I don’t know whether they will make that connection.

So it won’t be a binding decision, only a recommendation that they can ignore, hopefully not for too long and it’s important for our advocacy that we have that declaration.

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