Since the murder in 2004 of J-FLAG’s Brian Williamson, Jamaica’s gay men and lesbians have lived under the ever-increasing threat of homophobia and hate-crime violence. But some are taking a quiet stand. JANE CZYZSELSKA reports
Little Britain’s Daffyd doesn’t know how lucky he is. The only gay in the village he may be, but at least he can rely on a welcome from cheery barmaid Myfanwy while he dreams of being whisked down the aisle by the next gay tourist who walks into his local pub.
When Beverly and her partner, Gina, exchanged wedding vows earlier this year in New Kingston, they did so in the shadow of virulent homophobia that’s forced almost all of Jamaica’s lesbians and gay men into hiding. In front of a select gathering of close family and friends, Beverly, 44, defiantly decided to go public – partially, at least – about her love for 32-year-old Gina.
It was a bright spring day in April when the two women walked down the candlelit aisle of their church in New Kingston. Behind the locked church doors, a congregation of 80 friends and family, many of whom had flown in from Canada and America, came to witness the extraordinary and courageous event. ‘All my friends and anyone I’ve talked with for a while knows about my sexuality; I refuse to pretend. I’m a proud lesbian. And it was a real thrill for me to have one of my sons walk me down the aisle’, she said. ‘We had a cake-cutting, union candle, toast and the works: I wore a traditional white dress made by Christian Dior. We sealed our union with a kiss and signed a Power of Attorney to each other’.
‘Verbal abuse takes place on a daily basis, and I regularly see and hear about lesbians who’ve been raped and beaten. We can’t hold hands safely.'
Beverly’s decision is all the more poignant, considering the catalogue of abuse she’s experienced since she came out a few years ago. The last time, she was threatened by a mob who saw her with a young, gay man at a Burger King outlet. The assault was preceded by an angry exchange and verbal taunts of ‘sodomite’ and ‘lesbian’. ‘It’s all part of what we’ve grown to expect,’ Beverly explains. ‘Verbal abuse takes place on a daily basis, and I regularly see and hear about lesbians who’ve been raped and beaten. We can’t hold hands safely, regardless of whether you’re middle- or working-class, and we’re routinely run out of regular dancehalls. Gina fears losing her job if her boss finds out she’s gay. We both live in fear of officially sanctioned persecution’.
Most of the media coverage of Jamaica’s homophobia has focused on the violently anti-gay lyrics of the country’s dancehall and reggae music, and brought to the world’s attention the murder in 2004 of Jamaican gay rights campaigner Brian Williamson, founder of J-FLAG, Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals and Gays, the country’s first and only LGBT lobbying, advocacy and support group.
But little has been written specifically about the experiences of Jamaican lesbians. Although lesbianism isn’t a criminal offence under Jamaican law, lesbians are significantly affected by Jamaica’s climate of homophobic violence. Karlene is co-chair of J-FLAG, and uses only her first name because of fears for her safety. Against inconceivable odds, J-FLAG runs a women’s group. Says Karlene: ‘We have socials where we’ll lyme – hang out at someone’s house – and some of us host little events at our homes, but they must be in a safe area. Everything must be done in secret – we don’t want unexpected visitors’.
While in Britain we’ve been celebrating the right to join in Civil Partnership, lesbians in Jamaica struggle for the right to exist. Terry, a 22-year-old waitress, is fortunate to have a gay older brother and is out to her father, but she and her brother are regular targets for homophobes. This year alone she’s been trailed and taunted by homophobic men, who’ve threatened to beat her up at work and showered her with a torrent of verbal abuse.
‘I hope one day I’ll be able to walk down the street with my lover, hand in hand, without worrying that I might be killed,’ she tells DIVA.
In recent years, Jamaica has become notorious for its shocking gay rights record. In 2004, Human Rights Watch produced an alarming report called Hated to Death. It focused on homophobia within the country, detailing commonplace acts of extreme violence against gay men, and widespread incidents of lesbians and gay men being driven from their homes under threat of death.
The report also found that police in Jamaica routinely and actively support homophobic violence, and concluded that Jamaica is in violation of its obligations as a state party to regional and international human rights treaties.
It may seem odd, given the country’s heinous record on gay rights, that people like Beverly and Gina should risk having a fairly elaborate ‘wedding’ but, as Amnesty International spokesperson Sarah Green explains: ‘There’s no legal recognition for any act of union whatsoever, but in places where police are brutal and there’s serious vigilante violence, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all gay people are going to be forced into hiding.’
Amnesty, too, has received a litany of grim reports ranging from anti-gay vigilante action by members of the community to ill treatment or abuse by the police, medical authorities and employers. Lesbians and gay men have been beaten, burned, raped and murdered because of their sexuality – but Amnesty believes that the number of reports it hears is the tip of the iceberg.
‘We’re only a voluntary organisation, and have built up a picture via limited investigation, but we believe our finding holds true for the national picture. The very nature of these crimes is likely to make people mistrust figures of authority, so reporting levels are going to be lower because of the fear of being identified. There’s shame about sexuality, so people might not want to talk about themselves,’ says Green.
Amnesty has received reports of specific acts of violence against lesbians, namely rape and other forms of sexual violence. There are reports of lesbians being attacked on the grounds of ‘mannish’ physical appearance or other visible ‘signs’ of sexuality. Some reports of abduction and rape emanate from inner-city communities, where local NGOs have already expressed concerns about high incidences of violence against women.
One of the reasons for the widespread disdain for lesbians, reckons Karlene, is that the public thinks lesbianism is illegal. That’s true of male homosexuality, but there are no specific legal penalties against lesbians. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jamaicans are largely unaware of this, a perception reinforced by comments made by politicians, the media, religious leaders and dancehall musicians. ‘It’s a popular subject that’s often used to stir up support,’ confirms Green. ‘If you’re a politician and are criticised for not being firm on crime, at least you can give yourself a platform on this subject.’
‘Our prime minister, PJ Patterson, has said he won’t allow two women or men to get married, and he’s richly supported by religious leaders’, says Beverly, ‘but I hope things will change. If I wasn’t a lesbian, I know my life would be easier. I can’t say what I’ll do if things don’t change, but I do know I’ll never leave this country. I’ll stand up for what I believe in’.
www.jflag.com. Send messages of solidarity to J-FLAG, who need to know support is there from all around the world, via www.amnesty.org.uk/lgbt