By Jessica DuLong
While gay rights activists in the U.S. push for the right to marry, lesbians in Jamaica are fighting for the right to live.
Local activists say women who step outside societal norms--by dressing "too manly" or having few male visitors, for example--risk threats of verbal and physical abuse. Women have reportedly been raped, beaten, murdered and forced out of their homes or jobs simply for being lesbians.
Karlene--she only uses her first name out of fear for her own safety--has heard all too many horror stories. As co-chair of the country's first and only lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender group--Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, or J-FLAG--she is on the front lines of lesbian rights advocacy in Jamaica. Headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica's largest city, J-FLAG's activities include lobbying for legal reform; providing advocacy, counseling and referrals, in addition to coordinating educational activities community-wide.
"Just the other day abuses were hurled at me where I live, saying stuff like 'sodomite' (a derogatory term for lesbian), 'cocky fi u' (penis for you), 'Sodomite can't stay ya, gunshot fi u' (Lesbian can't stay here, gunshot for you)," Karlene says. "They find all kinds of names to call you. It lowers your self-esteem. When you're out in the community you just have to hold your head down and hope nobody finds out about your sexuality." Karlene has seen enough not to dismiss angry words as idle threats. She recalls the lesbian who was raped and beaten by the local 'don,' or gang leader: "Because she had no men coming to visit her, it was alleged that she must be a 'sodomite' and what she needed was a 'cock.'"
She traveled throughout the United States last month on an Amnesty International-sponsored speaking tour to raise awareness and ask for help. Her message includes a litany of grim tales of rape, murder and constant verbal harassment, which she says is killing her community and hurting Jamaica as a whole.
Michael Heflin, director of Amnesty International's OUTfront program on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights, says the events in all seven cities were successful with attendees committing to work with J-FLAG to improve conditions in Jamaica. "This tour granted new attention to the need to put pressure on Jamaican authorities: the government, the prime minister, the legislature and the police commissioner."
Pattern of Homophobic Violence
In recent years, the pattern of homophobic violence against men, including vigilante attacks and torture by police, has been spotlighted by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Activists have criticized the violent lyrics peppering some dancehall music as part of the problem.
At a concert last January, Jamaica's most celebrated artists repeatedly used derogatory terms for gay men, "chi chi men" and "battybwoys," according to an Amnesty International report. One singer urged the audience of 30,000 to "kill dem; battybwoys haffi dead; gun shots pon dem . . . who want to see dem dead put up his hand" (kill them; gay men must die; gun shots in their head; whoever wants to see them dead, put up your hand).
Human rights groups have rallied in response, working with J-FLAG, an all-volunteer organization with minimal resources and a membership list of approximately 100 people, to raise awareness about the damaging effects of hate lyrics and to document the pattern of homophobic violence in Jamaica.
"There has been a lot of movement on this issue," says Amnesty's Heflin. "Some of the producers in Jamaica, for reasons of concern over tourism, have been saying that they don't want performers in their venues who are going to use these kinds of lyrics. Some major corporations in Jamaica have spoken out about their concerns. They're careful not to say 'homophobia' directly but say 'violent lyrics.'"
Lesbian Attacks Less Visible
Receiving less attention, however, is the particular impact this homophobic climate has on Jamaican women. Vigilante attacks most often target men, while the violence affecting women, including rapes and murders, usually occurs outside of the public eye.
"Violence against lesbian and bisexual women happens more often in a more private sphere," says Heflin. "It's what we've seen in other countries as well, although particularly acute in Jamaica." Men often get attacked in a more public way with crowds present and even participating while women are more likely to suffer assaults in their homes or neighborhoods.
Karlene recounts the story of a woman who was murdered in the community where she was born by people she'd known all her life after they discovered her sexuality. "The guys decided the lesbian can't stay here. They worried she was going to infect the young people and the ladies around her. After they raped her, they murdered her," she says.
Another lesbian raped several times by the local 'don' has never reported the matter because she fears for her life; the man has threatened her several times, Karlene says. Most of these attacks go unreported, making it difficult to track the full scope of the violence.
"They're afraid to come out and tell what happened to them. They don't want to face the embarrassment, the shame," she says. "They say, 'I don't want to talk about it. I just want to get past it.'" For these reasons, documenting rapes, beatings, and murders of women in their homes and neighborhoods is perhaps even more difficult than tracking violence against gay men on public streets.
Politicians Part of Problem
The pervasiveness of homophobic violence in every sector of daily life suggests that hate lyrics are just one aspect of the problem. "The politicians themselves make homophobic statements," says Heflin. "Religious leaders have made homophobic statements. What we're really trying to do now is get Jamaica's public officials to take some responsibility because ultimately they are responsible for the climate."
Karlene agrees: "We would like them to put in policies that protect our rights as human beings, which they have failed to do so far."
Mindful of Jamaica's dependence on tourism dollars, she says international intervention is the key to real change. "It forces the government to at least enter the debate, whether it's positive or negative." They'll be forced to take a good look to realize there needs to be change, she added
The best way the international community can help, she says, is to help keep the issue on the front burner. "Keep writing to the government," she urges both individuals and human rights organizations. "Keep publishing our stories. Keep at it, because the more it becomes open, the more the government is forced to really listen."
Karlene acknowledges Jamaica still has a long way to go on the road toward equality. "We can barely even get the newspapers to speak positively about J-FLAG and our work. We can't even get them to run an ad advertising our helpline. We're nowhere near ready yet for these nice things that LGBT community in the U.S. is asking for: civil union and that kind of thing. We're nowhere near there."
The fight now is for basic freedom. "All we're asking for right now is a little space where we can feel free to be who we are," Karlene says. "The government needs to put policies in place to protect our dying community, because we are dying--mentally and physically."