Homophobia is notoriously prevalent in Jamaica, with 82 percent of Jamaicans seeing male homosexuality as “morally wrong” according to a 2011 survey by the University of the West Indies in Kingston. The issue of LGBT rights and the buggery laws in particular (which criminalize same-sex intimacy) rose to prominence in 2011, when Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller mentioned in her election campaign that she favored reviewing the laws for possible decriminalization. Later, the issue was highlighted by several high profile bias crimes, including the stabbings of a gay man in Montego Bay and a gender non-conforming 17-year-old in St James, both in 2013. A lawsuit seeking to evict homeless LGBT youth forced to live in a public sewer in New Kingston also garnered international attention. Other public figures in Jamaica, including former Prime Minister PJ Patterson, recently voiced support for LGBT rights, and a joint committee of parliament is set to review the Sexual Offences Act soon.
Last Sunday, 25,000 Jamaicans gathered in the capital to protest the repeal of the buggery laws. The protest was organized by CAUSE (Churches Action Uniting Society for Emancipation) in response to what they see as the advance of “the homo agenda.”
To understand the politics of the protests and the prospects for LGBT rights in Jamaica, Salon spoke with human rights advocate Maurice Tomlinson, who has litigated extensively to overturn the Jamaican buggery laws and other anti-LGBT statutes in the Caribbean. Tomlinson has worked with Aids-Free Jamaica on issues related to HIV in marginalized communities and recently started a new organization, LGBTI Aware Caribbean, to conduct sensitivity trainings with service workers in the region. Broadly acknowledged as one of the foremost human rights advocates in the world today, Tomlinson was awarded the David Kato Vision and Voice Award in 2012 (named after the late Ugandan LGBT rights activist). Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Why is homophobia so virulent in Jamaica in particular?
Well, I’ve done a fair bit of traveling around the region when I worked full-time with Aids-Free World to do training in documenting human rights violations against LGBT people and advocacy to advance the rights of these people. And it was my experience that yes, the level of physical violence against LGBT is definitely more pronounced in Jamaica and also more pronounced is the influence of the evangelical churches. I’ve found in the other islands that have much more multicultural and multireligious makeup or a more moderate form of religion, there was less virulence against LGBT people.
So for example, Trinidad and Tobago, they have a more stringent anti-sodomy law. As a matter of fact, their country actually bans the entry of homosexuals. And similar with Belize. … But you will not see the level of hostility towards gays as you’ll see in Jamaica, because those two countries—in Trinidad, they have the Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Black, Chinese—there’s a much more multicultural mix, so there’s much more of an appreciation for diversity….
And I think we have to interrogate the influence of the evangelical churches, as you saw on Sunday with the massive march that they were able to pull off.
Which churches specifically are you speaking about?
There’s a coalition of evangelical churches: the Brethren Church, the Open Bible Church, the Pentecostal churches across the board.
How would you compare the situation to that in Uganda?
It’s exactly the same, in my view. We have seen the evangelicals from North America come to Jamaica and mount the same kind of conferences, meet with parliamentarians, do extensive high-level lobbying, pouring millions and millions of dollars into Jamaica, and the result is the same as we’ve seen in Uganda.
Just as an example: What we saw on the front page of the Observer on Sunday mirrors what happened in Uganda when they had that headline: “Hang them; they’re after our kids!” On Sunday, we saw in Jamaica, “No to Homo Agenda.” It’s the same kind of rhetoric, which is being driven by evangelical money, and they’ve made the same kind of pronouncements saying that, ‘We should play up the whole issue of the threat that gays pose to kids.’ … The discourse in Jamaica now about gays is all about the threat gays pose to kids.
So you really see a direct influence of American evangelicals here, particularly via the funds and the personnel they’re sending over to Jamaica.
Yes. And it’s not just Americans; it’s Global North. Because we’ve seen persons from Canada, persons from the United Kingdom, persons from the United States. I mean, there have been more Americans by far, and the Americans clearly have a more direct influence, because many of the Jamaican evangelical churches have American counterparts. For example, the Open Bible Church, which is a very hostile anti-gay church in Jamaica. It has roots to Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa.
That’s sort of ironic, isn’t it? Because isn’t the charge always that homosexuality is a Western import or that it’s a colonial influence?
Of course, and this irony’s always missed by the Jamaican populace, … I think because we got independence from Britain, we have to prove that we’re more civilized than the people who gave us independence, and the mark of civilization is their standard… We have to prove to ourselves that we are more civilized than our former colonizers.
Well, and these buggery laws are British in origin to begin with, no?
Exactly. And even though the British have jettisoned them, we now see them as defining our culture, even though they’re 1864 impositions.
It’s the most bizarre thing, but in this debate, there’s no logic; it’s all about emotion.
So I wanted your sense of the significance of the protests on Sunday.
Well, the significance of this march happening at this time is that it will—I believe—foreclose any possibility of the government moving forward with a review of the anti-sodomy law.
Just by way of background, the government has to review the Sexual Offences Act every five years, and it is now being reviewed. And the Minister of Justice had discussed that the possibility existed for the anti-sodomy law to be read down, to decriminalize private acts of intimacy between men during this review.
But he’s always said—and so has the Prime Minister—that despite their personal objections to the law, they have to respond to public opinion. So they’ve made it an issue of majority rule, ignoring our constitutional protections for minorities.
And so this show of force was deliberately meant to foreclose on any possibility of the government reading down the law at this time. … And the churches have actually said that any government that reviews the law, they will punish at the polls. And they have said repeatedly that they have the numbers. So it is a categorical warning to the politicians: They dare not touch the anti-sodomy law.
This is the most—I would say—extreme form of protest I’ve ever seen. … They had press conferences, loud speakers on cars. They had very expensive ads in both media and broadcast. And they had senior politicians at the event; for example, the leader of the opposition was there. Former government senators and ambassadors from Jamaica were there. So, very significant people. And if the Prime Minister was not willing to touch it before such a well-orchestrated event, I’m sure she’s not going to touch it now that the churches have made this very vulgar show of force.
But didn’t the Prime Minister make some very supportive statements before?
Oh yes, she said during her election in 2011 that she thinks the law should be reviewed.
Didn’t she also say that she would appoint a gay person to her cabinet if she felt they were qualified?
Oh, yes. And those kinds of statements are wonderful. But bear in mind that on April 4 this year, at the state opening of Parliament, she was asked whether she was going to, in fact, review the law, and she said no, and she’s not giving any timeline, because it’s not a priority for the majority of Jamaicans who are poor.
And then subsequently, when she was receiving an honorary doctorate from Lafayette College recently, she had a discussion with … the fellow that did God Loves Uganda [Roger Ross Williams] … and she said that she can’t review the law, because it’s going to lead to mass protest. And that was before this thing that happened on Sunday. So, there’s no likelihood that she’s going to move forward on the law.
Whether she’ll appoint somebody to her cabinet that’s gay is neither here nor there in my estimation, because we know for a fact that there’ve been gay members of the cabinet before—it’s an open secret. Jamaica’s not a big society; people know who is gay. But those persons are insulated from attack, because of their position and their wealth. It’s the average Jamaican LGBT who is vulnerable, and who this law continues to expose to violence, and she will not touch it.
So then you see an interplay of class and sexuality and gender identity here.
Oh, yes. In Jamaica, we have two clear distinctions between what we call the ‘rich queens,’ like myself and persons who have jobs and drive wherever we need to go. We insulate ourselves by living in gated communities and self-selecting the types of parties we go to. We never have to take public transportation.
And then, you have the ‘scary queens.’ These are the ones who have to take public transportation. They walk the thoroughfares, and they are the ones that are subject to violence.
Do you feel that your advocacy endangers your personal security?
Well, certainly. I’ve received multiple death threats, very graphic and vulgar death threats, and the [Jamaican] police have flatly refused to do anything about it.
I go back to Jamaica to do all the cases that we’re using to challenge anti-sodomy laws in Jamaica and in the region. But when I go back, I have to have a dedicated driver, and I’m taken straight to the hotel and then to court. I don’t do anything social, because the last time I decided to go out and do something social, I was identified in the car I was traveling in, and someone tried to call a crowd down to attack the car. And thankfully, the light changed, so we were able to get away. But since then, my trips back to Jamaica have to be shrouded in a lot of secrecy, and I really can’t be in the public as I would like to. It’s just very dangerous.
And what about your family in Jamaica?
My family in Jamaica have asked me not to return to my hometown of Montego Bay. I basically am only allowed to go to Kingston. … Because my mother has said that there’s still a lot of hostility towards me there.
Where do you think change can come from or how do you think it will come about? Do you see it coming from the top? from outside?
That’s a very tough question. … But I know that at the end of the day, like everywhere else in the world, it’s visibility of the LGBT community that helps to reduce the level of hostility towards LGBT. We’ve actually had research done, quite ironically, by the son [Dr. Keon West] of the most homophobic Jamaican I can think of. His son became a pro-gay activist after actually having a gay roommate overseas, … He’s a Rhodes Scholar, and he’s done research, which pretty much confirms what we know: Until people get to know LGBT people, then their hostility will not decline. And the six million dollar question is—How do we create an environment where LGBT people in Jamaica feel safe enough to come out to their friends, their family, their coworkers, so that people start to know them as gay and reject this homophobia?
We’re trying to challenge the laws, because we believe that if we get rid of the laws, then we will be able to do simple things like run tolerance ads on TV. We tried to do that before, and the television station said, ‘To air the ads would be aiding and abetting an illegal activity.’
And you know the power of the media. You see people like Lavern Cox in Orange Is the New Black, The New Normal, Will and Grace—those kinds of images help to soften the society towards LGBT. We can’t have those images in Jamaica.
So you really see the repeal of these buggery laws as a door to the media.
Well, it’s many things, because the law also serves as a license for blackmail by police. I’ve gone to the police station on many occasions where individuals have been caught in compromising positions, and the police basically say, ‘Either you pay me a huge bribe, or I will release your story to the media.’ They have no intention of prosecuting, but they have the option of taking you in under the pretext of this law.
We’ve also seen people being evicted because of the law. The claimant in the domestic challenge [Jaghai v Attorney General of Jamaica] was evicted by his landlady, because she said he would be engaging in an illegal activity on the premises, because he’s gay. So the law has a very deleterious impact on people’s regular lives.
Do you think there are any promising signs for Jamaica?
Well, this has been like a rollercoaster for me, because in 2011, we thought—with the Prime Minister’s statement—that yes, we were definitely going to see a shift in attitude, because our politicians are very powerful. But, the churches have doubled down in a way that I have never seen them engage on any issue, not abortion, not gambling, nothing. … And it’s frightening, because the fact is the Jamaican church is extremely powerful. So whereas I had hope in the past that this would be resolved relatively quickly, now, I’m not so hopeful anymore. It will eventually be resolved; this level of hate is just not sustainable. But the timeframe for me certainly is much longer than initially, I thought it would have been, because the churches have really ratcheted up the rhetoric.
But where I think there’s a greater victory was in the TV Case [Maurice Tomlinson v Television Jamaica Ltd. and Others], where the President of the Constitutional Court said that although the Charter of Rights does not specifically mention LGBT people, it is to be understood that LGBT people are entitled to the rights, which are found in the Charter. And that’s a significant victory.
Because before this statement, there was a presumption that the Charter did not cover gays. There was no reference to LGBT people. … The anti-discrimination clause was specifically written to say, ‘Non-discrimination on the grounds of being male or female.’ They deliberately took out ‘sex,’ because they did not want ‘sex’ to be interpreted to include sexual orientation, as happened in Canada and elsewhere.
So we thought that the Charter would never ever be seen to cover LGBT people. But even though in the TV Case, we lost that case, we did have a very significant statement, which nobody has really made much of, that the President of the Constitutional Court said we are included, and she referenced homosexuals. … That now needs to be teased out in further cases, of course.
So what can non-Jamaicans do to be helpful?
Well, there are really a lot of things that persons can do if they really want to help. The first thing I would say is educate yourself about what’s going on. Get on somebody’s Facebook who posts a lot, like myself.
If you decide that you’re not going to spend your money in Jamaica, I wouldn’t blame you. But don’t just avoid the country, let the government know. You need to find the emails for the Minister of Tourism or the Prime Minister and let them know … why you’re not coming.
There are also very practical things that people can do to support the groups on the ground. For example, I am working on two projects—One is supporting Dwayne’s House, the kids who are living in the sewers. We are trying to get a shelter built for them. And I think this would be a great opportunity for parents to learn about what’s happening with LGBT kids.
And also, there’s a program called LGBTI Aware Caribbean. We’re doing this program to provide LGBT awareness for police, media, healthcare workers, etc. Because we believe that if you train these influential persons about LGBT reality—basic LGBT 101: what it means to be gay, etc.—you’ll be able to influence the society. So people can support those kinds of initiatives.
And there’s always this push by Americans and people from the Global North to tell their politicians: ‘Immediately sanction Caribbean politicians, etc.’ I would encourage a different approach. I’d basically ask that politicians in the Global North engage with politicians from … the Global South, and help them to see how the laws can be overcome. Because I really believe many of the politicians want to get rid of the laws, but they don’t know how to avoid the backlash. And people from the Global North who have escaped this or survived this can provide guidance.
And I think the final thing I would want to recommend to people in the Global North is see what you can do to expose the exporters of homophobia from your country … and stop the export of homophobic evangelicals and academics and legal luminaries who are coming to the Caribbean and causing havoc.
I’ll give you one little anecdote. There’s one woman: Dr. Janet Epp-Buckingham from Canada. She came to Jamaica while we were negotiating our new Charter, and we were taking our Charter of Rights from Canada and basically doing a cut-and-paste. She came at the invitation of the Jamaican evangelicals, because she’s a member of the Canadian Evangelical Association. And she went to Parliament and met with the MPs etc. and said that if we keep ‘sex’ in our charter as a grounds for non-discrimination, it will be expanded to include sexual orientation, and that will end up resulting in marriage equality as happened in Canada, etc.
And of course, that’s what was done, the Charter was written in a way to prevent recognition of sexual orientation. So when I outed her in Canada, in terms of the fact that, thanks to her, we have this perverted charter, it got back to her and all of a sudden, she’s being very defensive and, oh, she never had any intention of doing that. She respects LGBT people and blah blah blah blah blah. Which is of course completely counter to what she did.
So once you expose them, they tend to back off and be made less willing to come to the Caribbean and do this kind of nonsense. And that’s what we need to see happen, more of these people being exposed.