Jamaica is not the most homophobic place on earth

Friday, 2 November 2018 11:41 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Thousands of Jamaicans hold a demonstration against the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Half Way Tree, Kingston.

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In Jamaica, like elsewhere, homophobia is complicated by class, race and gender

Jaevion Nelson is executive director at J-FLAG, a human rights and social justice advocacy organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and well-being of LGBT+ people in Jamaica 

Twelve years ago, Tim Padgett, a reporter for the New York Times, asked a profound question: “Is Jamaica the most homophobic place on earth?”

Whatever Padgett’s intentions, he set the base to which everybody with a vested interest in the protection of the rights of LGBT+ Jamaicans would have to think, advocate and operate to this very day.

The designation has become a sour point for many Jamaicans, LGBT activists included, because it failed to consider the nuances around which many gay and transgender Jamaicans live and thrive. Over time, Padgett’s question became a label to castigate the country as if that would automatically engender change.

Jamaicans, on the other hand, rebutted it and used it contest the legitimacy and representativeness of the advocacy and activism and suggest that “the gay agenda” is a nefarious one.

Between 2011 and January 2017, J-FLAG, Jamaica’s oldest LGBT+ organisation, received 261 reports of rights violations, including attacks, threats and violent displacement.

These horrendous reports must be taken in the context of a country whose violence has become notorious, with high rates of murder and violent crimes. Rather than discount the reality of homophobia in Jamaica, it needs to be seen in its proper context.

We continue to struggle with violence prevention and conflict resolution in family disputes and violence in communities. For the last 10 or so years, crime and violence has been one of the primary concerns of citizens. Homophobic attitudes, therefore, exacerbate these realities to the detriment of LGBT+ Jamaicans.

The Jamaican gay and trans community is, however, a resilient one. LGBT+ Jamaicans are not only raising their voices to call for law reform, but are being defiantly and vibrantly visible, as seen by the two pride celebrations each year that have taken place since 2015.

Violence cannot be the hallmark of how we understand homophobia and consider countries homophobic. If that were the case, the presence of homophobia could easily be contested by those who wish to deny there is a problem. Homophobia manifests itself as bullying in our schools, workplace discrimination, experiences of social exclusion, and other forms of abuse that are not only expressed through violent means but are equally significant and challenging to address.

In Jamaica, like elsewhere, homophobia is complicated by class, race and gender. While homophobia may mean violence, harassment and even death for many poor black men and women living in rural communities and urban inner-cities, for persons who are wealthier, more educated and/or live in middle or upper class communities, homophobia may be subtle, marginal and interpersonal but still real.

Scores of LGBT+ people flee the country each year to seek asylum in Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States and Canada because their lives are at risk or they’ve simply had enough. Those who have to stay face palpable intolerance, begrudging acceptance, growing tolerance and fully fledged celebrations of diversity.

There is no one story as there is no one Jamaica in which the LGBT+ community is hated and killed outside of a socio-cultural context. Such a formulation is only possible in the minds of people who casually ignore the possibility of countries in the global south being more than their projected stereotypes.  

We have to find new ways of talking about Jamaica; one that reflects, truly, the complexity of the challenges faced by the community. We must encourage conversation and engage political and other leaders and encourage them to take action to protect and promote rights.

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