Homosexuality in Jamaica and the Caribbean

The Caribbean appears to be one of the most homophobic regions in the world. Such a generalised statement may be supported by the staunch opposition to omosexuality evident in countries in the Caribbean such as Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and Jamaica.

While this is so, it is not fair to assume that all Caribbean countries are strictly homophobic as the situation is more one of contrast as countries such as Cuba have upped their activism to ensure greater acceptance. In Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, and St Lucia all acts of same-sex activities are illegal, while the Guyanese and Jamaica laws forbid men who have sex with men (MSM) relations but are silent on same-sex relations between women.  The general term ‘Caribbean’ as referred to in this article mainly refers to the majority of English-speaking islands.

The Psychology and Social Ideologies
The psychology of homophobia in the Caribbean is by no means superficial. It is one of the most staunchly defended psychological norms present in the region today. There are a number of reasons for this ideological view.

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One such reason is the deeply rooted ultraconservative Christian and other cultural (especially Rastafarian) and religious beliefs as well as accepted norms in the Caribbean. Caribbean nationals are extremely resistive to anything that attempts to thwart their own understanding of what is morally acceptable according to their own standards and values. These standards, values, and morals, are deeply rooted in Christianity and African retentions of what is right and just.

This strong ideological obscurantism presents itself across all the islands and as such people are generally intolerant of anything that they may consider even faintly taboo. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that homosexuality is an issue of sexuality, a topic that is often shied away from or considered taboo in some quarters. The perceived ‘perversion’ of the sexual act is therefore one of the most unforgiveable and egregious social/sexual sins that anyone can commit in the eyes of most Caribbean nationals.

Prevalence
Regardless of the rampant homophobia that pervades the Caribbean, there are homosexuals living in the region. There is however a lack of data on the numbers as there is great world of secrecy surrounding this community and in fact, some people are quite concerned about the growing number of homosexuals living in their respective societies.
 
The population of homosexuals, both male and female seems to be most evident at major universities. The University of the West Indies is an example. Reports of various acts of sexual indecency and indecent public exposure has surface from time to time.
 
Homosexuality in Jamaica
Time Magazine, in a 2006 edition, asked the question: Is Jamaica the most homophobic place on earth? It is not incidental that Jamaica is singled out in the title of this article. You may have a laid-back image of Reggae, Rasta, sunsets, beaches and sand. For the gay population, however, Jamaica is akin to hell. Among all the other Caribbean countries, Jamaica is considered the most homophobic in the region.
 
In fact, many people consider Jamaica the most homophobic country in the world. Why? Homosexuality is characterised by a vicious intolerance in Jamaica. Openly, gays must contend with the constant fear of violence. Verbal and physical violence, ranging from beatings to brutal armed attacks to murder, are widespread. For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse. The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), a pressure group, has reported 33 cases of serious injuries from mob attacks on gays in 18 months.

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A 2011 University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, study indicated that there were strong negative perceptions and attitudes towards homosexuality in Jamaica, cutting across all social classes and gender groups. The report found that negative views of homosexuality tended to be greatest among males, those who mostly listen to dancehall and reggae music, and those in lower socio-economic groups. In the study, 82.2% of the respondents deemed male homosexuality morally wrong, as opposed to 3.6% who did not see it as a moral issue.

A more recent, March 2012 preliminary study done by University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) indicated that while the tide internationally is turning, the views in Jamaica have not changed. The study, which combined gay males and lesbians, reported that 80% of the respondents viewed homosexuality as a bad thing. Approximately 2% considered it good, and approximately 18% were indifferent to the issue.

Sexism
Interestingly, Caribbean nationals are quite sexist with respect to homophobia. There is a tacit acceptance for lesbianism in fact, some even finding it erotic.  However, if two males are even seen holding hands, they may end up losing those very limbs.
 
In a May 2012 report, the International Lesbian Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) listed Jamaica as one of 78 countries, roughly 40 per cent of the United Nations members which have legislation criminalising same-sex acts between consenting adults. According to the report, four of the 11 regional countries, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis, do not criminalise lesbianism. 
 
Homosexuality and Popular Culture
Opposition to the homosexual lifestyle is an easily identifiable facet of Caribbean popular culture, especially in Jamaica. This is reflected in the music, especially reggae and dancehall.
 
Boom Bye-Bye, a popular hit song by recently incarcerated Jamaican Dancehall artiste Buju Banton is one very strong demonstration of this.  Buju’s lyrics are hardly unique among reggae artists today. Other artistes joined the fray of bashing gays in the past. The long list includes Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Vybz Kartel. Numerous Dancehall artistes have had their US visas revoked due to same opposition and ‘hate songs’.

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Recently, Beenie Man posted a video on YouTube, apologising to the gay community for his anti-gay songs and remarks. He has recently had his visa reinstated. Other artistes such as Bounty Killer have come out to condemn Beenie’s move, writing it off as a cowardly act; and simply a ploy to regain a piece of the US music market.

Opposition to the gay lifestyle is not only in music, but in many other aspects of Caribbean life including social behaviour and general deportment.

Hate Crimes

Hate crimes against gays is common in countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. In Jamaica, being accused of such an act undoubtedly means jeering, ridicule and beating. Many people will incite ‘jungle justice’ (the act of an irate mob taking it upon themselves to judge and punish perceived crime/behaviour)on the accused if caught.

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Recently, a student at the University of Technology (Utech) in Jamaica was badly beaten after he was accused of being caught in the act. The young male tried to flee from an angry mob and ran to the security booth for protection. Little did he know that the security guards would severely batter him in the sight of riled up youth, jeering and attempting to catch a glimpse of or inflict wounds on the young man. An amateur video of the incident was captured and went viral on YouTube and international news. Public outrage resulted in the security guards being arrested and the actions condemned by the university.

Activism
Activism is also strong and increasing in the Caribbean. International activists realise the Caribbean is an area to target and are intensifying their efforts especially in the Spanish-speaking countries. Human rights groups such as Jamaicans for Justice speak out against violence against gays and advocate social change and acceptance.

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The achievements of the activist community is further strengthened by preventing musical performances by homophobic artistes, taking homophobic songs off the airwaves as well as sensitizing the public as to the issues surrounding homosexuality.

The Laws
The Economist published a 2009 article titled 'Homophobia in Jamaica a vicious intolerance, the politicians seem unperturbed by hate crimes'. The title makes it strikingly apparent that many do not understand the multi-dimensional problem with regards to politics and homosexuality in the Caribbean.
 
It is however true that the Caribbean has some of the toughest anti-sodomy laws. At present, same sex marriage is illegal in Caribbean countries and punishable by law in nine. In fact, any act of homosexuality(between males), whether it may be in public or confined to a private space is considered a criminal act of buggery and the accused may be charged and sentenced if found guilty. Jamaican courts, for example often sentence men who have sex with men (MSM) to prison terms with hard labour. Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago ban relations between same-sex couples, especially men. Penalties for this crime vary between 10 and 50 years, depending on the laws of each country.
 
Many consider these archaic laws and argue that constitutional change is due such that the laws may reflect the changing global landscape. Others consider this sentiment wishful thinking as political issues arise with the need to change or alter these laws, effectively preventing any change.
 
Many leaders have admitted that they are indeed in favour of liberalisation or at least the ‘reconsideration’ of the laws that be. Former Prime Minister, Bruce Golding summed up Jamaica's homophobia by saying on a Hardtalk interview that he would never appoint a gay to his cabinet. Golding further told parliament that he would not yield to foreign pressure to liberalise the laws. In the lead up to the last general elections held in Jamaica, The Most Honourable Portia Simpson Miller, then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister reported that if her party was elected, it would consider reopening parliamentary debates to review the buggery law. Since taking office, nothing much has been said about this issue even though the government faces pressure from the media and various human rights bodies for answers.

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One can easily see that the legal issues related to homosexuality in the Caribbean are severely hampered by the game of politics. Some politicians shy away from the issue altogether, else they risk political suicide while others simply turn the issue into a perennial matter.

If there is any hope for an ounce of acceptance however, laws must be the framework on which further efforts will stand. Of course, tolerance cannot be measured solely on legislation, as violence, persecution and discrimination can take place despite legislation. However, legislation is an essential step in the process.

With regards to the future, there may indeed be some amount of lax in the laws due to external pressure, human rights group advocacy, etc. The question is, will politicians ignore the electorate and succumb to these other issues? It is indeed a quandary, the result of which remains to be seen.

By Norvan Martin

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