In 2006, Time Magazine called Jamaica ‘the most homophobic place on Earth’. Violence and hate crimes targeting members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community along with harsh anti-gay sentiments in Jamaican dancehall music had earned the country that title. The country is among several in the Caribbean, namely Barbados, Guyana, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago, with anti-homosexual laws. Jamaica’s 1864 Offences Against the Person Act outlaws ‘acts of gross indecency between men, in public or private’ and is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.
The Jamaica Federation for Lesbians and Gays (JFLAG) deems the law ambiguous citing that it does not outlaw homosexuality, but merely makes certain homosexual acts (namely anal sex) illegal. Results of a poll conducted by Human Rights First among Jamaicans shows that 88% of respondents believe that male homosexuality is immoral, with slightly fewer saying the same of female homosexuality.
In a recent report on homelessness and displacement of LGBTI youth, Amnesty International remained concerned as young people pushed out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity continued to live in storm drains and abandoned buildings.
In the lead up to the 2011 elections, former Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller pledged to ensure that the government “have a look” at the criminalisation of gay acts, and vote freely on the matter and said that gays would not be forbidden to serve in her cabinet. Her stance was in stark contrast to that of her predecessor, Bruce Golding whose ‘not in my cabinet’ statement raised much discussion. Mrs. Simpson-Millers’ softened approach was therefore welcomed by members of the LGBT community and human rights activists and is also credited with getting her the vote of that group and ultimately winning the election. Many were surprised when she lashed out at gay- rights supporters at a meeting in New York. The protesters accused Mrs. Miller of failing to make good on her promise to guarantee increased freedoms for members of the community and to review relevant legislation
Upsurge in anti-gay campaigning has now increased following initiatives such as the Love March gaining popularity. According to organizers, the Love March Movement seeks to lift up faithful, monogamous and life-long heterosexual marriages as being the best for society and a way of strengthening the family unit, as well as the moral fabric of our nation. The group has staged several protests and marches in opposition of gay rights. President, Daniel Thomas, has called for more Jamaicans to join them in taking a stand against immorality and sexual impurity. Some human rights groups have chided the group for preaching hate and intolerance.
Most recently, the Attorney General’s comments in response to the flying of the rainbow flag at the US Embassy in Kingston, following the Orlando massacre were met with mixed responses. Mrs. Malahoo-Forte’s tweet which read “I strongly condemn the #OrlandoNightClubShooting but find it disrespectful of Jamaica’s laws to have [the] #RainbowFlag flown here. #MyPersonalView,” was plastered all over social media news sites. While many Jamaicans commended her for voicing her opposition, some saw it as an opportunity to voice their opposition and flaunt their intolerance. Legal luminaries questioned her pointing to the sovereignty of the space occupied by the embassy, with one renowned lawyer suggesting that she ought to be relieved as Attorney General. Human rights activists decried her callous response to the tragedy.
Jaevion Nelson, youth development, HIV and human- rights advocate described the Attorney General’s comments as ‘unfortunate- especially under the circumstances under which the flag was raised’ noting that in her position she is expected to have ‘a higher duty of care and understanding of the law and should have been more prudent about the sentiments expressed’. Nonetheless he cautioned against labelling her a homophobe or bigot based on the single statement.
Some argue that lesbians are generally more accepted by society than gay men. As mentioned previously, 88% of respondents found male homosexuality immoral compared to 84% who found female sexuality immoral. Nelson agreed citing that generally lesbians are more tolerated. He was quick to clarify that lesbians still experience challenges though their experience of homophobia might be different depending on how they present. ‘Femmes’, he argues, might have it a little bit easier as opposed to ‘butches’ who many see as going against the grain gender stereotypes. Nonetheless femmes many be sexual harassed primarily by men who threaten to ‘turn them’ (reverse their homosexuality).
According to Maurice Tomlinson, lawyer and gay rights activist, there is no empirical evidence to support the notion of growing tolerance among Jamaicans. The hypocrisy that I see is based on how we respond to other moral issues and homosexuality. For example, the rape and murder of a 3-year old by a grown man hardly elicits any outcry from the church. But two grown men wanting to be intimate in the privacy of their bedrooms elicit a massive protest in Kingston.
Nelson thinks that there is increasing tolerance within Jamaican society and people are generally more welcoming. He argues that while homophobia and transphobia continue to be displayed, it may not necessarily be in the form of extreme violence. The situation, he notes, might vary spatially with different realities for rural and urban areas.
Among the factors contributing to the tolerance increase is the work being done on stigma, discrimination and human rights, the fact that more people are coming out and the efforts made by transgender people who are out there in the forefront. He also credits the positive statements made by members of the government such as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kamina Johnson Smith and former Justice Minister Mark Golding.
There is definite performance of homophobia and transphobia because of the society in which we live and people seem to have been programmed to show disdain for homosexuals.
Jamaica has a complex relationship with the LBGT community. This will only change, Nelson says, ‘when people become more appreciative of diversity, there is increased openness and greater levels of respect for all human beings.”