The boy was 16 when his father found pictures of naked men in his school bag. The father went to Dunoon Park technical high school in east Kingston and began yelling in Jamaican patois that his son was gay and needed to be taught a lesson. Pupils began tearing benches and desks apart for clubs and beating the 11th-grade student while his father reportedly looked on smiling. A teacher said the mob swelled as people from outside the school joined in. The father then drove away.
“They were intent on killing him,” the Jamaica Observer quoted a teacher as saying. “They were like a pack of wild animals who had smelled blood and if it wasn’t for a staff member who jumped on top of him, you would be reporting on a mob killing.” Police were called to escort the boy from the school grounds but were themselves attacked by the mob for protecting him. A dozen pupils were taken to the police station, given a warning by officers and released. It is not believed that the father faced any charges.
Months later, Time magazine reported, witnesses said police encouraged another mob that stabbed and stoned a gay man to death in Montego Bay. Soon after, a young man called Nokia Cowan drowned after jumping into Kingston harbour to escape a crowd who had chased him through the streets shouting “batty boy” (one of the many Jamaican insults for homosexual).
At least 30 gay men are reported to have been murdered in Jamaica between 1997 and 2004. To put this in context, between 1998 and 2005, the Jamaican police reported 8,993 murders; with three-quarters of those murders occurring in the Kingston metropolitan area, according to UN-Habitat. The trend in overall murder rates is, fortunately, steeply downwards with numbers in Kingston falling 42% from 684 in 2010 to 399 in 2011, according to the Jamaica Constabulary Force. However, attacks on the gay and lesbian community seem to be bucking this trend: eight gay men were murdered between April and June this year, the Jamaica Observer reported.
Some of these victims’ names made it into the news. Jamaica’s most prominent gay activist, Brian Williamson, was found murdered at his home with his throat cut in 2005. His neck and face had been stabbed or hacked with a machete 77 times. Police claimed it was a robbery; the gay community knew better. A year later Steve Harvey, a leading Aids activist and gay Jamaican, was abducted by armed gunmen from his house. They asked Harvey and two other men who were with him if they were gay. The two others denied it, and were tied up and left at the house. Harvey did not and was driven away and shot.
But many more lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people run the gauntlet every day, where tight trousers or a less than macho attitude can lead to an insult, which might turn a few onlookers into a crowd and then a mob. Even more dangerous is to cross the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable for your gender to wear. In December 2010, the Jamaica Observer reported the murder of a cross-dresser in Half-Way Tree, whose body was found with machete wounds.
There are innumerable reports of gays and lesbians avoiding medical care because of the discrimination and outright abuse they face from health workers, who are highly likely to announce their HIV status to other staff and patients. One man told HRW he had suffered for six months from bad teeth to avoid the dentist: “A lot of people go there and have a bad experience. I just took some pliers and pulled out the teeth myself.”
Because of this all-pervasive threatening atmosphere, most gay men stay in the closet, get married and have illicit liaisons. Accordingly, the HIV rate among men who have sex with men has remained above 30% since the 1990s—the highest rate in the English-speaking Caribbean and behind only Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2003. One HIV-positive gay Jamaican man explained: “As one person said … he’s more worried about being killed by a crowd for being gay than he is about dying of Aids.”
There are several factors in the peculiarly hostile attitude of Jamaicans to homosexuality. Not least is the role of churches, which generally have a fundamentalist attitude to gay and lesbian members of their flock. Homophobia has become a basic tenet of most churches. In a statement that could have come from a multitude of clerics, Rev Mark Dawes of Tower Hill Missionary Church, warned against any liberalisation: “If we remove the buggery law, then we might be opening the floodgate for sexual anarchy.”
Maurice Tomlinson, a lecturer and legal adviser to the advocacy group Aids-Free World, blames the US evangelical movement. “My mother said when she grew up, Jamaica was a very tolerant society. Noël Coward had a home in Jamaica. Nobody cared. But during the 80s and 90s, right-wing evangelical Christians came. They started to change the attitude of Jamaicans from tolerance towards hate. The preachers in Jamaica picked up on it and started parroting that stuff.”
To be a churchgoer and gay in Jamaica is to be forced to worship underground like a first-century Christian: once a month an American pastor visits for a secret meeting of the Sunshine Cathedral. It has some 150 active members in four branches around the island. Global Postrecounted some of the horrific experiences of congregants: “One man told me his best friend was murdered, chopped into pieces with a machete, and had the skin flayed from his face; he then went on to relate how another gay friend was locked up in his parent’s house by a group of gunmen who then set the building on fire and burned him alive.”
Rastafarians, especially the Bobo Shanti sect, appear to have even more virulently homophobic attitudes than the churches. The Guardian said of the sect: “As well as believing in racial segregation, bobo rastas go in for a fire-and-brimstone reading of the old testament that makes Jamaican Christianity look liberal.”
Even by the standards of the Caribbean, where fundamentalist Christianity is ubiquitous and attitudes to gender roles are antediluvian, Jamaica is notoriously homophobic. Time asked whether it was “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?”
Much of this stems from the island’s greatest export—reggae is steeped in what would be called hate crimes in many parts of the world. Gone are the days of Bob Marley’s progressive lyrics. Instead, Buju Banton’s hit Boom Bye-Bye in the early 1990s spawned a trend for songs urging violence against gays and lesbians in ragga, and its offspring,dancehall—the successor to Marley’s roots style of music. Banton, who was sentenced to 10 years in a US prison last year for his role in setting up a cocaine deal in 2009, was charged in 2006 with blinding a man he believed to be gay when he and a gang of friends burst into a house near his studio and attacked the residents. The judge threw out the charges for lack of evidence.
T.O.K.’s Chi-Chi Man urged the burning of gay men; others called for shooting or decapitation. One (anonymous) critic of the genre has produced a masterly compilation of the lyrics of such dancehall stars as Sizzla, Beenie Man, Capleton and Bounty Killer. The website lists more than 200 songs that explicitly incite violence against gays and lesbians. Two of Beenie Man’s songs call for “hanging lesbians with a long piece of rope,” and “I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays.”
Within an hour of Brian Wiliamson’s body being found, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher watched a crowd gather at the scene of the murder. “A smiling man called out, ‘Battyman [homosexual] he get killed!’ Many others celebrated Williamson’s murder, laughing and calling out, ‘let’s get them one at a time’, ‘that’s what you get for sin’, ‘let’s kill all of them’. Some sang Boom Bye-Bye.”
There has been a fierce reaction in countries such as Britain and the US, with gay rights activists such as Peter Tatchell and groups such as the Stop Murder Music campaign helping to ratchet up enough pressure for Elephant Man and Vybz Kartel to have their nominations for Mobo music awards withdrawn. Apologies were issued in the name of their artists by panicky record companies but denied back in Jamaica, as Banton did. Sizzla, when asked to apologise for his lyrics, said: “They can’t ask me to apologise. They’ve got to apologise to God because they break God’s law.”
HRW noted that political leaders “foster an atmosphere of violence” so, during the 2001 elections for example, the opposition Jamaican Labour Party used Chi-Chi Man as its theme song, while the ruling People’s National Party “adopted as its campaign slogan for the 2002 national elections ‘Log On to Progress’, a reference to a popular song and dance involving kicking or stomping on gay men.” The attitudes seep into every aspect of island life. Television Jamaica’s parent company, RJR Communications, turned down an advertising campaign encouraging families to accept relatives who are gay, which the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-Flag) wanted aired during prime time. RJR felt it had to “respect and value the attitudes and values of our society”. Explaining their refusal to screen the ads, Kay Osborne, general manager of the TV station, blamed “a form of bigotry that is deeply rooted in our culture”.
The police force is a bastion of this bigotry. A US Aids activist, Nancy Mahon, said: “Overturning the anti-sodomy laws would not cure the problem, but certainly these laws create a perception that governments condone anti-gay violence and … that there would be no recourse if you were to go to the police. There are many instances where either the police are part of the violence or the police see it and ignore it.”
HRW described the events that led to an innocent bystander on a beach being stoned and chopped to death with machetes in Montego Bay. What turned a remark into a lynch mob was the initial beating the man received from the police—the only people a beleaguered gay man might turn to for protection from the crowd are the very instigators of the violence.
Dane Lewis, J-Flag’s director, said: “Urgent national leadership is required to address the chronic intolerance for LGBT Jamaicans so they can be afforded equal rights and protection of the law like any other person.”
So are Jamaican politicians tackling this shameful bigotry? In contrast to the former prime minister Bruce Golding, who said in 2008 that he would not allow gay people to be a part of his cabinet, the current PM, Portia Simpson Miller, declared when she was standing for election in December 2011 that “no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation”, and indicated she would be willing to have gay people in her cabinet. “I certainly do not pry or do not have any intention to pry into the private business of anyone,” she said. She won by a landslide. However, since then Simpson Miller has backed away from her bold rhetoric.
A survey by Professor Ian Boxill, of the University of the West Indies, found more than 80% of respondents felt that homosexuality and bisexuality were immoral and 77% disagreed with amending the criminalisation of homosexuality. More than half of those surveyed believed professional help could change homosexual orientation to heterosexual. Alarmingly, this anti-scientific notion had become more embedded: the numbers believing this increased by 6% in a year. The study also showed that Simpson Miller’s pledge to repeal the laws criminalising homosexuality had no positive effect on public opinion and had hurt her politically. Sadly, but predictably, the politician shelved her plans. But there are signs that attitudes might, very slowly, be changing. Boxill’s study did find that almost two in five Jamaicans believed the government was not doing enough to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination and violence.
In October, two gay Jamaicans launched a legal challenge to the island’s Offences Against Persons Act of 1864, known as the “buggery law”, arguing it is unconstitutional and promotes homophobia throughout the Caribbean. The case is being taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Jamaica is not a full member and any ruling would not be binding but it would highlight how far behind the times Jamaica is in its attitudes to human rights and how much it is failing to meet its own legal obligations. For example, the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Jamaica is a signatory, protects private adult, consensual sexual activity.
One of the co-petitioners of the legal challenge is Gareth Henry, former head of J-Flag until he fled to Canada after death threats—including from the police—and was granted asylum. During his four years at the group, he said, 13 of his friends were killed. “Now I want to hold the Jamaican government accountable. A large proportion of the gay community in Jamaica is homeless and living in poverty and being ravished by HIV. Living with no hope and facing humiliation,” he said. “Those people go through each day trying to survive, being anxious about homophobia and wondering whether they will be the next victim. There’s no safe place in this country.”
HIV/Aids rates on the island doubled in the decade from 1999 to 1.7% of the adult population—more than eight times the rate in the UK. The stigma of living with HIV/Aids inhibits the take-up of medical treatment and seeking advice on safer sex in most parts of the world. How much harder is it then to combat the disease when people are so in fear for their lives if thought to be gay that it feels safer to ignore the disease, all the time potentially infecting more partners. Quite simply, there can never be an effective response, medically or socially, to HIV/Aids until this antiquated and shameful law is repealed and the Jamaican government makes strenuous efforts to re-educate the population, starting with the police.
Jamaica’s proudly discriminatory “sodomy” laws are the key to changing the island’s lynch-mob attitude to homosexuality. Without politicians having the vision and bravery to challenge their voters’ entrenched prejudices, the churches will never feel any pressure to question their hate-mongering, health workers will continue to refuse to treat patients with HIV/Aids, and police will continue their arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and incitement.
Jamaica is ignoring its own constitution plus every convention it has signed on human rights to freedom from violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of association and assembly, access to healthcare, right to privacy, and freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status.
The Commonwealth, as successor to the British empire, has a certain responsibility to end this bigoted colonial legacy, yet 42 of the 54 nations of the Commonwealth criminalise same-sex relations, according to the Equal Rights Trust. The organisation wrote to the Commonwealth secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, before last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting urging “all heads of government representing states where same-sex sexual conduct is criminalised to take immediate steps to repeal such legislation”.
There was, sadly, no mention of the subject in Chogm’s final communiqué. The Commonwealth Secretariat was also asked to comment on the legal challenge being taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights but did respond. From an organisation that touts itself as a force for good and defender of human rights there is only … a deathly silence.