It’s an old argument. Jamaica is homophobic. No! goes up the cry. Jamaicans are very tolerant of gays! So which is it? The Oxford Dictionary, by the way, defines homophobia as the fear or hatred of gays. (My emphasis).
In 2004, international human rights group Human Rights Watch put out a report titled Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic.
The report’s summary began thus:
“On June 9, 2004, Brian Williamson, Jamaica’s leading gay rights activist, was murdered in his home, his body mutilated by multiple knife wounds. Within an hour after his body was discovered, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed a crowd gathered outside the crime scene. 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,” a line from a popular Jamaican song about killing and burning gay men.
The report went on:
“Violent acts against men who have sex with men are commonplace in Jamaica. Verbal and physical violence, ranging from beatings to brutal armed attacks to murder, are widespread. For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse. Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women reported being driven from their homes and their towns by neighbors who threatened to kill them if they remained, forcing them to abandon their possessions and leaving many homeless.
The testimony of Vincent G., twenty-two, is typical of the accounts documented by Human Rights Watch: “I don’t live anywhere now. . . . Some guys in the area threatened me. ‘Battyman, you have to leave. If you don’t leave, we’ll kill you.’”
Claims that members of the gay community are either at risk or have been victims of violence are often greeted with derision. The reports are often disbelieved. Activists are accused of lying. After all, the argument goes, we all know gays who live among us and nobody troubles them.
The trouble is, we Jamaicans don’t make it easy for ourselves. The condemnatory statements from human rights bodies are not pulled out of thin air. In 2007, Amnesty International, in condemning violence against gays in Jamaica referenced their statement as follows:
“On Sunday 8 April 2007, a crowd allegedly surrounded a church in Mandeville and hurled different objects through a window at the back of the church. The attacks were directed at persons in attendance of the funeral being held there, who the crowd believed to be homosexual.
On 2 April 2007, another crowd reportedly threw stones and bottles at a group of costumed men who were dancing in the carnival procession along Gloucester Avenue in Montego Bay. According to reports, the crowd was angered because the men were supposedly gyrating in a sexually suggestive manner and demanded that they leave the stage. According to eye-witnesses, the men were attacked, chased and beaten by the mob of around 30 or 40 people. At least one of them had to be hospitalized due to injuries.
These two incidents occurred only two months after a group of men were targeted in a similar manner in a pharmacy in Tropical Plaza, Half-Way Tree, in Kingston. A human rights defender told Amnesty International that a mob of at least 200 people had gathered outside the store, calling for the men to be beaten to death because they were homosexual.”
Jamaicans argue that these incidents are isolated. But while the incidents of reported mob violence are not frequent, we need to understand how brutish and vicious we appear when images are broadcast of crowds baying for blood outside a building in which gays are holed up.
Just last week, CVM TV broadcast a story in which community members in Jones Town burst into a private dwelling because the occupants were suspected of being homosexuals. The suspicions allegedly confirmed, the crowd started to beat the men, and police had to rescue the occupants, incurring the wrath of the crowd. One man wanted to know why taxpayers’ money was being used to rescue gays.
I cannot find words to describe how backward this story makes us look. Go and try to convince a sceptic now that we are not homophobic!
So let’s acknowledge that violence against gays is real. We are not as uniformly tolerant as we would have the outside world believe. But neither have the gay activists done their cause any good by overstating the extent of the problem. Gay-on-gay violence is also real.
Recently, the Jamaica Forum for Lesians Allsexuals and Gays (JFLAG) publicly condemned the killing of gay men. In a statement (re-tweeted by Amnesty Caribbean), they said:
“Members of the LGBT community have reported to J-FLAG that eight gay men have been murdered within the last three months bringing to the fore the reality that despite progress towards greater tolerance, the LGBT community continues to be at great risk of violence. Among the most recent attacks against the gay community was the savage killing of two young men.
“The men were apparently brutally murdered with blunt instruments in the vicinity of the intersection of Trafalgar Road and Lady Musgrave Road. Persons who are homeless frequented this area; among them are young gay men who have been made homeless because of the continued intolerance of homosexuality in Jamaica.”
In an interview with me on my radio programme Beyond the Headlines a few days later, JFLAG spokesman Dane Lewis admitted that the organisation had jumped the gun, and that his later information was that the two men in question had been killed by members of the gay community. He said he withdrew that part of the statement and promised a corrected version. I haven’t seen that yet.
So which is it? Are we homophobic or are we tolerant of the gay lifestyle?
I submit that we are both. However, the incidents of violence and public hatred against gays are so embarrassing and so horrifying that nothing else matters. There is no room for any other depiction of our attitudes when the images seared into people’s minds are those of police having to be deployed to protect men from a bloodthirsty crowd. Given those graphic realities, our reputation as an extremely homophobic country will continue to dog us, protest as we might.
So when Prime Minister Simpson Miller courageously declared that sexual orientation would not affect how she chose her Cabinet, and that she would initiate a review of the buggery law, she should understand that outside Jamaica, gay activists saw her statement as a beacon of hope in a country of darkness, or near darkness. That was one of the reasons for her inclusion on that Time 100 List, misrepresented as her position was.
The outside world sees us as homophobic and violent. We don’t see ourselves that way.
As always, the truth lies obscured, somewhere in the middle.