Jamaica: Queer in a Culture of Violence
In 2002, the police themselves were responsible for the deaths of at least 133 people, "many in disputed circumstances suggesting extrajudicial executions," according to Amnesty International. The elections that year saw the deaths of at least 60 people in politically motivated violence.
Lesbians, gay men, and transgendered people are on the front lines, targeted for repression and violence from the dancehalls to the pulpits, and police stations.
Against God and Jamaica
Jamaica's Christian pastors are united against it. Just prior to last week's ceremony for now Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson, Kingston's Anglican priests gathered to reaffirm their opposition, voting 40-0 to reject his elevation.
The rest of Jamaica's Christian pastors weighed in against it as well. Reverend Al Miller, president of Whole Life Ministries and pastor at the Fellowship Tabernacle, told the daily newspaper The Observer, "The scripture calls it an unnatural behavior; therefore it cannot be something that the church can support and condone." He went on to say, "God created nobody to be that way... it is reprehensible from a Christian position. It is totally inconsistent with the Christian church."
But in a conversation with The Observer, Father Richard Johnson, of the St. Jude Anglican Church, may have revealed the cultural heart of his country's homophobia when he ended his denunciation by saying, "Jamaican society in general is intolerant of homosexuality and homosexual behavior... there is no way that a Jamaican Anglican contingency could begin to support such a decision."
Blood out ah chi chi
The Rastafarian religion, which emphasizes traditional gender roles, is also no haven for lesbians or gay men. Though it is only practiced strictly by about 5 percent of Jamaicans, it has a much broader impact. Critically acclaimed musician Capleton has popularized a radical strain of Rastafarianism called Bobo Dread. One of his songs says, "Blood out ah chi chi/ Bun out ah sissy." Kill the fags, burn the sissies. Some detractors refer to Bobo Dread fans as "the Jamaican Taliban."
Capleton's not the only musician inciting homophobic violence. Elephant Man, in A Nuh Fi Wi Fault [It's Not Our Fault] sings, "Battyman fi dead! [Faggots should die!] / Gimme tha tech-nine / Shoot dem like bird!" Spragga Benz, in his song, Nuh Inna Dat [We Don't Support That], specifically targets the activist group, Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), when he sings, "Why man waan wine man in front a I man? [Why does a man want to dance with another man in front of me?] / That caan gwann inna my land [That can't go on in my land] / From east and west, north and south / Get ready and guns out / Get ready and guns out / J-Flag dem a brag and a talk bout / Out a di closet dem a go walk out. / But man nuh inna dat, dem betta stay inside and hide / For if dem come out, they might be shot."
All of these songs were nominated for MOBO (Music of Black Origin) awards in London in 2002. When gay activist Peter Tatchell turned up to protest, he was punched, kicked and spat on until he took to his heels. His attackers used the songs as battle cries. It is no consolation that none of the songs won.
Cops Nurture Violence
In one case this summer, a group of gay men were assaulted by their neighbors. It was a family affair. Both parents and children attacked using stones, a knife and a machete. "They were calling us names and threatening us so we ran. They chased one of us down, Lenni [not his real name], who has now moved to another country. When we met up with him later in the night, we saw that he was chopped on his face, neck, hand and back. He was bleeding bad, but just bandaged it up himself. The next day, we all went back to our yard and the neighbors tried to attack us again. We called the police. When they arrived we told them how we had been attacked and chased, but the neighbors began telling the police that we were battymen and that we had to leave or they would kill us. When the police heard this, they took sides with the neighbors." They then arrested the gay men for using foul language.
On another occasion, a group of victims sought refuge in a police station from an armed crowd only to report to J-FLAG, "When the police realized it was a 'batty judgment' they began to call us battymen and told us 'battyman fi dead' [Faggots should die] and shouted at us to leave the compound. We were terrified for our lives as the group of armed men were waiting for us across the street from the gate to the police station."
The police also instigate problems, using sodomy laws as justification to harass, and beat up perceived sexual minorities. One group of AIDS activists trying to hand out condoms and promote safe sex reported that after being accused of promoting homosexuality and taken to the police station: "The other police officers told us we should be dead and that the policemen should have killed us instead of bringing us into the police station."
Lesbians: Women At Risk
The gender power imbalance can also be measured by HIV statistics. The Inter Press Service reported in 2001 that Jamaican women were being infected with HIV at nearly twice the rate of men. They cited a statement released shortly before by the Caribbean Group for Cooperation in Economic Development that "women are economically and emotionally dependent, and are expected to defer to the male demands and decision-making." Those males are demanding women not use condoms. In 2000, a UNAIDS report suggested additional causes of infection throughout the Caribbean were "rape, incest, domestic violence and 'sugar daddies'" who extract sex in return for financial support.
In this context, any woman refusing the advances of a man may be punished with violence and rape regardless of her sexual identity. It's worse when they actually are lesbians. Families use violence on their sisters and daughters to enforce traditional female behavior, including marrying and producing children. Ditto for gender variant people.
In 2001, J-FLAG managed to document the case of one woman who was attacked by a co-worker she had often rejected. After finding out she was a lesbian, he accused her of being "unfriendly," and insulted her. When she made retaliatory comments about his wife, he punched her in the face several times, then hit her with a vase and a metal paper punch.
Taking Back the Night and Days
J-FLAG was founded in 1998 in response to calls for public input into constitutional reforms. Their first act was to submit a proposal to include sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause. That was denied, but the group continues to push for the repeal of sodomy laws even though the major political parties continue to affirm them. Some reportedly even used anti-gay songs as campaign themes during the last election.
J-FLAG relies on a three-pronged approach of legal reform, education, and support within the community. They offer sensitivity training seminars, run support groups and hotlines, record abuses, and assist with asylum cases, in at least four cases meeting with success. AIDS is also a priority. There are more than 20,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. Activists trying to hand out condoms and promote safe sex are routinely harassed by police. Worse, those who may have HIV/AIDS are too ashamed or afraid to be tested and seek treatment.
Tony Hron, J-FLAG's Programme Director, says one of the challenges is financing. Because of threats of violence, "Most Jamaican gays are so far in the closet, they don't even want to write a cheque with our name on it, for fear someone at their bank will expose them." His most promising news was that doors were opening for collaboration with the human rights organization, Jamaicans for Justice, which "up to this point have declined to support us." J-FLAG is also receiving support from Black Gay UK which is sponsoring an online signature drive at http://www.blackgayuk.com/gay-rights/petition.htm for the sodomy law repeal.
The Same Boat
The fight for gay rights truly is a battle of national proportions because the problems of LGBT people in Jamaica are intrinsically linked to those facing the entire country: violence, poverty, disenfranchisement. Thirty-four percent of the population is below the poverty line. Elections are marked by violence. The police make their own laws. Vigilante violence not only targets "battymen," but anyone perceived as criminal or deviant.
Instead of claiming ground for a minority, those fighting for gay rights, like non-discrimination, equal protection under the law, and the right to participate in the political process are actually working towards a better future for all Jamaicans.