Is Jamaica about to become a more friendly place for gays and lesbians?
In an attempt to establish a more human rights centered presence in Jamaican government, a new Human Rights Institute is being built with the support of the United Nations Development Program and the Commonwealth Secretariat. If this new institute is to live up to its name, then it will need to directly tackle Jamaica’s deep animosity toward the LGBTQ community.
Animosity against homosexuality is rooted in slavery, colonization, and Christianity, three institutions which heavily influence the culture of Jamaica.
According to The Offenses Against Persons Act of 1864—about 26 years after the emancipation of slavery in Jamaica—homosexuality is illegal. Article 76 of the act, also known as the buggery law, states,
”Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery [anal intercourse] committed either with humankind or any animal shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for a term not exceeding 10 years.”
Articles 77 and 78 further elaborate on punishment for ”gross indecency” between males. Over the centuries, these laws, originally drafted to protect the people, now crystallize into fear, violence and abuse.
These cases are reported by the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG) every year, at increasing rates. Some of the well-known cases include, the homophobic police beating and mob hostility of Gareth Henry (then President of J-Flag) in 2007 which led him to flee the country, and the vicious homophobic murder of cross-dressing teenager Dwayne Jones in 2013, who was beaten, stabbed, shot, and ran over by a car. As of yet, no one has been convicted for these crimes, and because of an anti-informant culture, it is unlikely that anyone will be. There are also reports of lesbian degradation, where they are beaten and raped because of their sexuality. A 2009-2013 J-FLAG report specifies 213 incidences of discrimination and violence against homosexual persons.
These widespread acts of violence force many in the LGBTQ community into marginalization and poverty. Teenagers who get thrown out of their homes are left jobless and homeless, while living in abandoned houses together and sometimes even in rat-infested gutters.
This is the context in which this new human rights institute will be operating. Can it help change laws and attitudes on the island?
Just ten years ago, Jamaican politicians were avoiding LGBTQ rights. In an interview for the documentary ”The Abominable Crime”, Ernst Smith, a lawyer and politician, unabashedly said, ”I do not hate them [gays], I detest their filthy ways.” Even past prime minister, Bruce Golding shares this sentiment. When asked if Golding would allow gays into his cabinet, Golding stated, ”gays can be in the cabinet, but not mine.” These views are consistent with The Human Rights Watch Report of 2004, Hate to Death, which outlines the abuses of Homosexuals by civilians, police, and family members.
The 2014 report, Not Safe at Home still describes similar accounts of abuse as the 2004 report, but there seems to be more awareness building in the government and law enforcement than in the past. Although progressive steps are being made, severe abuses are still a reality, as Dwayne Jones’ 2013 case exemplifies.
When questioned in parliament on gay rights on April 4th , 2015, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller informed reporters, “We have to go to our constituents, consult our constituents and then we go with the decisions of those consultations.” Seeing no action to her words from 2011 to 2014, some critics of Miller believe that she is betraying the LGBTQ community.
Since July 23rd 2015, the government has been moving the the Human Rights Institute initiative forward with planned consultations. The consultations will be aided by the ministries of justice and foreign affairs, Office of the Public Defender, Planning Institute of Jamaica, and the United Nations Development Program. If all goes according to plan, this new institute will open on December 10, human rights day.
What is not know at this point is the extent to which this new institute will tackle, head on, one of the most serious human rights transgressions underway on the island.