It’s been a dramatic year for gay people in Jamaica with the election of new Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller who wants to review the ‘buggery’ laws.
That’s a light at the end of the tunnel for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender campaigners who have fought tirelessly for their rights, particularly the end to the criminalization of gay sex, in one of the world’s most hostile countries.
But rather than waiting for the politicians to solve the problem, which may mean waiting a long time, J-FLAG, the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays, is mounting a legal challenge to the buggery laws and the homophobia in the country.
They will take their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States. And in their formal submission, they particularly highlight the case of Gareth Henry – a gay Jamaican who was forced to get asylum in Canada because of the risk to his life at home.
Their work is being supported by Human Dignity Trust.
I caught up with Henry, Dane Lewis, director of J-FLAG, and Ian McKnight, who heads Caribbean Vulnerable Communities – which is the largest coalition of HIV and AIDS groups in the region.
I started by asking about the election of PNP party leader Simpson-Miller, despite her saying that she would review the buggery laws and, theoretically, allow gays to serve in her cabinet if they were qualified.
Do you have any faith that your Prime Minister Simpson-Miller will take action to change the laws and decriminalize gay sex?
DL: Nobody in politics had ever before made such a bold statement. We had used to the opposite. Whether that will translate into action remains to be seen.
They are newly elected, having had the previous four or five years to get them into power. This is the honeymoon period for them to get settled. We are hopeful in the life of this parliament there will be some concrete demonstration they are moving forwards.
When pressed her colleagues did respond to say they have a commitment to reviewing the laws and would call for a conscience vote. It was a question of when.
IM: The fact nothing has happened so far is typical of our leaders. They have consistently failed to do anything. Their movement has usually been the opposite direction, to tighten laws and make them more draconian. Portia Simpson-Miller is surrounded on both sides by politicians who are too afraid to do away with these laws.
There are politicians who are very clear this is a stupid, outdated law. You also have other politicians who think it’s just and needs to stay on the books. At the very least, most are pandering to the religious sentiment that says it’s ungodly and let’s keep this abomination out of our beautiful, Christian community.
What is the view of the majority of Jamaicans?
DL: We recently did some research which found one in five Jamaicans was tolerant of the LGBT community. Almost two in five, believe the government wasn’t doing enough to protect LGBT people.
About 40% of those surveyed believe there should be legal reform because we should all have equal rights. But when you start to break down what equal rights they thought we should have access to, the numbers dwindled significantly.
The stereotype of Jamaica is that your life is in danger if you are openly gay. Is that the reality?
GH: The hostility has increased, become more intense and more complex. The complexity is in part because there is a prime minister who demonstrates some level of will power to see change happening so we find the Christian right-wing have exerted themselves much more in direct retaliation.
The Christians are poising themselves to stifle the possibility of change. So you see an increase in violence and threats against gays and lesbians and an increased number of gay men who have become homeless as a result of homophobia because there is no community support.
There is no family support. Because if they are being supportive, they become the victims of homophobic violence and if they are not supportive they are lauded by the community. Often family members are being forced to disown their loved-ones and the person is ending up on the streets and they are dealing with the homelessness and also with HIV and AIDS which is rampant in the gay community because of the limited access they have to services and programs. They have to move around to find a safe place they can sleep, which is often outdoors for most of them.
The police have been very instrumental in the violence meted out to me. I have been the target of the police since I led J-FLAG from 2004 to 2008. All the incidents and harassment have been at the hands of the police or instigated by members of the police force. And that is still something that is happening.
On the police, when Assistant Commissioner Les Green left the Jamaican force to head back to Britain, he said anti-gay murders were actually due to gay lovers fighting, not homophobes. What’s your reaction?
GH: When I was harassed by the police it was reported and when you report it, it goes up the chain of command. And when nothing happens, there is a level of complacency and it is obviously coming from the top.
So when Les Green was leaving, the statement that he made was careless but it shows the police force is part of the problem. They are there to serve and protect but they fail to do that because they believe homosexuality is illegal. Actually it is ok to be gay, what is illegal is anal sex. But even when two people are found who are perceived to be homosexual, even when they are not caught in an intimate act, they are still being harassed, dragged through the street and also being harassed by the police.
DL: I have had persons call me 10pm at night saying the police are recording us sitting in a car together and say if we don’t pay them some money they are going to send this to one of the tabloids. It really drives fear into the community. There is a sense of hopelessness.
We sometimes see cases of street violence against LGBT people, which is often reported in a very biased way by the Jamaican media. How frequent is this?
DL: Mob violence does happen. The police are complicit in this. They oftentimes know who some of the people are and arrests are not made. You don’t need all 20 people but a demonstration would be to arrest even five of the people they can identify.
IM: It is a part of the institutionalized homophobia. And Les Green’s statement feeds into that. It says all you are seeing is gay lovers not being able to manage their own domestic problems and they turn on each other. What makes that statement untrue is the cases have not been investigated. He has no evidence to support his case because the majority of the cases have not been investigated.
DL: There seem to have been some cases in the last few murders which suggests they weren’t domestic. This is a targeted pattern.
GH: Society has sensationalized the issues around homophobia so when there is a murder it excites people. It is something that people want to see. So the culture which exists is ‘how do we dramatize, or further disgrace, or prove to the wider community that these fagots are going against all moral integrity?’
So the murders that occur are done in a way that clearly distinguishes them from, for example, a robbery which went bad and someone was killed. When you go to the scene you know. The assailants have been deliberate in what they do to show to society clearly this was a gay man who was killed or this was a lesbian that has been murdered.
The Jamaican education authorities recently got in trouble for distributing teaching materials which encouraged children to question whether they are gay. What did you make of that?
IM: The content is valuable but it was not age appropriate. That was the mistake. You have to tailor these things for children dependent on their age and stage of development.
It was careless because we already know that these teachers are themselves ill-equipped and do not have the facility and language to have these kinds of discussions.
Has that set back the work needed in education?
IM: Absolutely. And it’s unfortunate because we’ve had a similar case before. We should have been so cautious – not timid but deliberate in what we have done. So what has happened now is it has come across as the promotion of deviant behavior.
We reported on a Christian ‘Love March’ against homosexuality in Jamaica in September but it took us a long time to work out the full details. What really happened?
DL: What is interesting is how the media played in and support this right-wing movement. Because there was about 100 people, not hundreds.
IM: Your inability to pin it down is exactly the same challenge we had in the country. It was not as significant as it seemed at all. But the potential to galvanize hundreds of Christians across Jamaica is there.
Tell me about the legal challenge you are planning to Jamaica’s buggery laws and the homophobia in the country.
DL: The Inter-American Commission which is an arm of the Organization of American States, provides a space to bring cases against various human rights violations. And J-FLAG and Gareth are the petitioners in this case. The case is about the type of incidents we have seen and Gareth having to leave Jamaica because of what happened to him.
GH: As a result of the laws in Jamaica, it created an environment which became unbearable for me and where I was forced to choose between life and death and had to seek refuge in Canada.
I shouldn’t have to leave home to be who I am. I should have been able to stay in Jamaica and be supported, knowing that I have rights as a gay man within my own country.
What happens if you win? Will it force Jamaica to change the law?
DL: No, it’s a strong recommendation. It’s not binding.
GH: For J-FLAG, it will allows us to apply pressure on the Jamaican government to at least acknowledge these recommendations and start to do something about it. It creates the platform for us to take into an international campaign.
DL: Jamaica is due to report in November to the UN Human Rights Council on the concrete steps it is taking to address these discriminatory laws. We feel that all these pieces will come together. Our hearing probably won’t be for another few years. It’s a fairly lengthy process. But we feel it is a necessary piece of our advocacy towards legal reform.
So what else is in your strategy for changing Jamaica?
GH: Portia’s political will needs to be translated into action. It is difficult to change a nation’s perception of homosexuality. What’s not hard to do is to repeal the sodomy laws. That will allow for an environment where there is a vehicle where we can access our rights and talk about these issues.
DL: We still have more work to do on the ground with families coming to terms with their son or daughter being gay. It’s not just about J-FLAG doing work. This is going to require society, the church, the government coming together.
If there are changes in Jamaica, how might it help in the rest of the Caribbean?
IM: Jamaica definitely sets the pace in the region. People look to us. So for example, the acts of violence we are seeing in different countries is attributable to the importation of Jamaican hate music.
That’s not something I just dreamt last night. Governments in the region have been banning some of our artists from performing in our country because the stir up violence.
So people are looking to Jamaica. Any change in Jamaica will set off a ripple effect through the Caribbean region and help generate change in other places. And in other Commonwealth countries in the region that have these punitive laws, if Jamaica repeals it, it will say it is possible.
To be very honest I’m not sure if it’s Jamaica that is going to lead this in the end or if it will come the other way. Taking what we have told you and bringing in that international perspective is essential.
No one thing is going to solve this. Changing the law is not going to solve it on its own but it has to go. A multi-pronged strategy is what is needed. Unfortunately the problem has become ours. People are expecting us to solve the problem. But J-FLAG just doesn’t have the resources. Government must be held accountable for the conditions under which their citizens live.