Earlier this year, a Washington Post article reported that in 2010, Jamaica accounted for almost a third of the people who were granted asylum in the US, based on sexual orientation. In real terms, this means that last year, courts in the US determined that 28 gay, lesbian or bisexual Jamaicans were entitled to refuge because they had a well-founded fear of persecution on their home island.
Not so, said Cheryl Gordon, deputy chief of mission at the Jamaican embassy in Washington DC: “I don't believe we are more homophobic than anywhere else.” She went on to explain that as long as crimes were reported, there was action from law enforcement, irrespective of who the victim was.
Ms Gordon’s opinion stands at odds with the facts, even if pitched at a lower decibel than other rhetoric we have heard from Jamaican public officials. Current Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding trenchantly told the BBC’s Hard Talk programme in 2008 that there was no room in his cabinet for gays or lesbians. A former prime minister, P.J. Patterson once felt obliged to declare in a public forum that “his credentials as a lifelong
heterosexual are impeccable.”
But as homophobic utterances from politicians go, Jamaican officials have not been the most outrageous. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has never backed down on referring to gays and lesbians as “pigs and dogs” and Gambian President Yahya Jammeh promised to “cut off the heads” of his homosexual citizens. While he was still a senator, US Republican aspirant for President, Rick Santorum, likened homosexuality to incest and bigamy.
As with many Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, Jamaica inherited British colonial laws which prohibit homosexuality. Though the UK has long repealed such laws, homosexuality has come to play a massive role as an ethical marker between new, nationalist states and their erstwhile colonial masters. The argument is often made that the anti-homosexuality offences of buggery and gross indecency - derived from the 1861 Offences against the Person Act of Britain – is necessary to preserve native moral and cultural values.
In recent changes made to Jamaica’s constitution, the country’s parliament went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that no interpretation of “privacy” could result in a successful challenge to the laws against homosexuality. However, Jamaica’s legislative stitch up pales in comparison with the aborted attempts to enact draconian “defence of marriage” type legislation in Nigeria – supposedly to bar against gay marriage- a few years ago. The Ugandan parliament recently ditched a bill that would have sought the death penalty for so called “homosexuality offences”.
How then did Jamaica become the global standard bearer of the homophobia mantle? The answer is by no means simple.
From Bob Marley to Usain Bolt, a brash self-confidence is associated with the Jamaican personality in the international imagination. Jamaica’s contribution to world popular culture – through reggae music, and recently, track and field dominance - has perhaps given the island of 3 million people an outsized global brand.
With the Jamaican persona, often come predominantly held cultural attitudes towards sexuality and gender. Opinion leaders on the island accept that hostility towards homosexuality exists almost as a part of the national DNA. There is a common understanding that visible displays of same-gender sexual activity are likely to attract physical abuse and possibly even mob beatings.
Jamaican anthropologist at Harvard University, Dr. E. Akintola Hubbard, says that policing male sexuality and gender roles in Jamaica gets to the point where there is almost a “presumption of homosexuality” until a man can prove otherwise. A pervasive need exists to hype and over-dramatise the rejection of gayness. The obsession of reggae dancehall artistes with the theme of homosexuality – most infamously with Buju Banton’s song “Boom Bye Bye”, in which called for the murder of gay people – demonstrates the extreme national preoccupation with this subject.
In a piece of dramatic irony, Buju Banton, who has been the target of a global “Stop Murder Music” campaign by gay rights activists, was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for drugs and gun charges by a Florida court. The outpouring of sympathy for the entertainer - who is seen as a protector of unique Jamaican values - took a bizarre twist, with supporters charging that his entire case had been a “set up” by a foreign, gay rights lobby. Banton’s story is the classic example, of how Jamaican nationalism and homophobia becomes sexed up as one and the same thing.
It is difficult, and perhaps pointless to prove whether Jamaica is the most homophobic place in the world. But reports of gays and lesbians fleeing persecution from the country, tell a harrowing story of intolerance and national anxieties about sexuality and gender. Addressing this issue requires strong moral leadership at the very highest levels, and a serious review of what goes into being considered authentically Jamaican.
This article was originally published in the Bulletin of the Runnymede Trust