Thu | Jan 18, 2018

Jaevion Nelson: Starting a different conversation on homophobia

Published:Thursday | March 31, 2016 | 12:00 AM

We have a perplexing way in which we use the stories of victims of homophobia and transphobia in advocacy to improve the human-rights situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Commonly, when there is an incident, there is a flurry of reports that are shared widely (sometimes with incorrect information) to draw attention to the stigma, discrimination, harassment and violence that is perpetrated on the grounds of one's sexual orientation and/or gender identity. These incidents are often seen as an 'opportunity', and rightly so, to highlight the effect of the lack of political will to address this pervasive issue and thereby hold the government as duty bearers accountable to their obligations under law to protect and promote human rights.


Driving community underground

On the other hand, without realising, we help to drive the LGBT community underground and away from much-needed services and support by instilling more fear in the way we narrate and use these unfortunate experiences to demand change. We end up privileging certain experiences over others and consequently develop a sort of hierarchy of infringements based on its gruesomeness as the most critical to promote a more peaceful and hospitable society. Regrettably, we force people into hiding, silence them and make them invisible as a result.

Note, I am not suggesting these incidents should not be publicised and the perpetrator should not be brought to justice. I fully appreciate the utility and currency of doing this. However, we must be mindful of the impact it can have on the LGBT community - the very people we are trying to help, and the wider society.

It is also crucial that a conversation is had with the victim (and their partner and family where necessary) to get permission to broadcast their personal information. Sometimes, they would rather to deal with the situation in a much more private way. This can have a profound impact on them in a number of ways. Activists must also speak to others as well to get the details of the incident correct.

Some time ago, in a heated debate regarding the representation of the situation of LGBT people in Jamaica, a colleague shared that someone told them that their experience as an LGBT person in Jamaica is invalid (read not horrific enough) to be shared with activists because they have never experienced homophobia in the way it is commonly reported. This is unfortunate.

We have to begin to speak about the many ways in which people experience homophobia - not just the beatings, home evictions and, in some cases, murder. We have to talk about the depression, suicide, parents not paying for their children's education, etc.

We have to create a space for stories of resilience and triumph to give hope to the community. Doing so does not hinder our ability to address the challenges faced, nor is it an attempt to sweep whatever is happening under the carpet. We must recognise that we also have a responsibility to help people be bold in their truthto navigate and create spaces where they are free to be themselves. I also feel the way in which we use the experiences that we tend to highlight have more utility overseas than it does to engender change in our own country. Our strategy must be more localised. We have to use the experiences and successes of advocates in the Global North as best/good practices and lessons learned; not as a blueprint. One size does not fit all.


Much learning to do

As with anything, there is a whole lot of learning and unlearning to do every day to get it right. It's the paradigm of development and human rights, really. We need to appreciate that critiquing the movement is not in any way projecting ignoring the realities on the ground but simply accepting that some things can be done better and some things must be rejected.

I have found that some of the resistance to LGBT rights is caused by the methodologies and narratives we favour. Jamaica is an excellent case study for a place that cries for justice often but is opposed to said pursuits. Many Jamaicans see a more nuanced situation but rarely ever hear it said by gay-rights activists. I will never forget a tweet a couple years ago by a key opinion leader who saw two guys hugging and kissing at Devon House and was unable to situate that in the context of what they had been reading about LGBT issues in Jamaica.

Let's start learning from each other - even those who seem to be in opposition to LGBT rights and recognise that 'the scripture for the homophobia is imported ... but so is the solution' (Javed Jaghai).

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to and