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LGBT rights are human rights and part of Jamaica’s heritage

LGBT rights are human rights and part of Jamaica’s heritage

During his World Human Rights Day speech on December 10, 2012 marking the launch of another human rights watch dog in Jamaica, the country’s Justice Minister, the Honorable Mark Golding claimed that recognizing the human rights of LGBT is a Western concept which Jamaica may be forced to accept or face financial sanction.

While this statement is great politics, it is, of course patently false.

First, homosexuality has been identified in over 1500 animal species, however in no other species besides humans are gay members attacked.

Even so, few human societies mirror the level of savagery that Jamaicans meet out to members of the LGBT community, as exemplified in the recent barbaric attack of a student on a Jamaican university campus.

Even without reference to international standards it would seem logical that human rights of Jamaican homosexuals should extend to protection from these kinds of inhuman assaults.

Second, many African societies, from which the majority of Jamaicans descended, have a tradition of homosexuality, including same-gender marriages.

The Supreme Court of Kenya recently affirmed the validity of such a marriage between 2 women.

Similarly, a large number of Jamaicans are descended from Indians and in that culture transgender individuals, called Hijra, have long been viewed as semi-divine and essential guests at special events in order to guarantee good fortune.

This is mirrored in Native American societies where transgendered individuals, termed Two-Spirited, were always honored and served as judges because of their perceived ability to understand both the male and female perspectives.

While the only remainders of Jamaica’s indigenous population are the figures adorning the country’s coat of arms, it is quite likely that homosexuality existed in that culture similar to the Native Americans.

It was western imported Victorian morality which sought to destroy these long traditions of tolerance for sexual diversity found in the civilizations from which most Jamaicans are descended.

King Henry VIII of England introduced the first anti-gay legislation during his split with the Roman Catholic Church as a way of gaining revenge on the church and its notoriously gay priests.

Through various iterations, this anti-gay/anti-Catholic legislation was finally exported to Jamaica in the form of our 1864 anti-sodomy law.

By respecting the human rights of homosexuals, Jamaicans will therefore simply be honoring our ancestral acknowledgment of the natural diversity in the human family, as well as upholding our modern national motto of ‘Out of Many, One People’.

Finally, none of Jamaica’s traditional development aid partners have even hinted that the country stands to face any financial repercussions for the continued violation of the rights of LGBT citizens.

That disingenuous suggestion by the Minister was meant, no doubt, to gain sympathy for the beleaguered government from an increasingly disgruntled electorate.

Subsequent to the Minister’s inflammatory statement, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published its latest report on the human rights situation in Jamaica.

In this report, released on January 3, 2013 the IACHR was understandably critical of the country’s treatment of its LGBT population.

Citing rampant abuse of LGBT by state and non-state actors, the report made numerous recommendations to the Jamaican state.

Some of these recommendations are aimed at immediately ending the crushing stigma and discrimination that LGBT Jamaicans face, and also to give effect to the international human rights obligations the country voluntarily undertook as a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights.

One obvious and expected recommendation was a repeal of the country’s antediluvian legislation which criminalizes male private consenting same-gender intimacy. This was cited as a clear example of discrimination in violation of the American Convention.

Curiously, in its initial response to the draft report the Jamaican government claimed that there was no discrimination against gay Jamaicans.

However, in response to the IACHR report the Minister of Justice participated in a radio interview a day later, where he admitted that anti-discrimination legislation was necessary to address violations against certain groups in the society.

Although he failed to specifically mention homosexuals, his reference to the lack of access some groups have to the courts as a result of the revisions to the Jamaican Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 2011 was an obvious reference to the anti-gay provisions entrenched by the Charter revisions as well as the exclusion of sexual orientation as a ground for non-discrimination.

Ironically, Jamaica’s Civil Service Staff Orders (which have the force of law) already protect civil servants from discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. A general anti-discrimination legislation would simply extend this right to all other Jamaicans.

However, don’t pop the champagne cork just yet. The country’s religious fundamentalists will surely wage a mighty war to prevent any movement aimed at recognizing human rights for LGBT.

This incredibly powerful and influential group, led by attorney-at-law Shirley Richards, is largely responsible for the regressive anti-gay provisions in the Charter.

They were so paranoid that gay Jamaicans would actually be constitutionally recognized that they orchestrated to ensure that even the word “sex” was avoided in favour of the restrictive definition ‘male and female’.

This was done to prevent sexual orientation from being interpreted as a right akin to sex, as has been found by several national and international human rights tribunals.

The tragic consequence of this religious malfeasance is not only the entrenched constitutional disenfranchisement of homosexuals, but also the deliberate exclusion of persons born inter-sex who biologically cannot fit the male-female binary.

In light of recent Jamaica’s recent history on LGBT rights I am less than sanguine about the Minister’s promise to introduce this anti-discrimination legislation.

After all, nearly a year ago the Jamaican Prime Minister made a similar promise to call for a Parliamentary conscience vote aimed at reviewing the country’s anti-sodomy law.

We now know that the government has no plans to do this any time soon (if ever).

This latest statement by the Justice Minister is quite likely just another attempt to appease human rights bodies, while doing nothing to confront the root cause of systemic discrimination in Jamaica, namely the strident, studied and virulent anti-gay animus being fomented by powerful religious fundamentalists inside and outside of the country. 

Maurice Tomlinson is an attorney-at-law and has been involved in LGBTI and HIV and AIDS activism in Jamaica and the Caribbean for over 12 years. He is Legal Advisor, Marginalized Groups for AIDS Free World and helped coordinate the first ever legal challenge to Jamaica’s British colonially imposed 19th century anti-sodomy law. In 2012 Maurice was awarded the inaugural David Kato Vision and Voice Award which celebrates the life and work of murdered Ugandan LGBT activist, David Kato.