Jaevion Nelson | Pride, buggery and progress
There is a tendency among gay-rights activists and advocates, which trickles down to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, to chant that there is hardly any progress in Jamaica. Typically, this narrative is informed by two things primarily: the retention of the archaic buggery law as found in the Offences Against the Person Act, and reports of discrimination and violence that are perpetrated against members of the community.
The perspective from which progress is recorded tends to be most limiting and is informed by a Western popular portrayal of same - gay bars and rainbow flags serenading queer (cisgender) folks in 'safe communities', no buggery/sodomy law, and, of course, marriage equality.
Consequently, advocacy and activism are often organised around these elements to engender sociocultural and legislative changes and, thereby, ensure LGBT people are respected and safe in their countries. My research and experience, however, reveal that this kind of myopia does not do much for the community. It contributes significantly but helps to further problematise individuals in the community, and ignores many aspects of their lived realities such as their livelihood and well-being.
Recently, at the 5th Annual Larry Chang Human Rights Symposium, which was hosted by J-FLAG at the Jamaica Conference Centre on May 17, 2017 (observed as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia), the discussion about what progress looks like in Jamaica came up. My dear friend, Javed Jaghai, who filed the first legal challenge to the buggery law and later dropped it, argued that when foreign journalists and activists visit Jamaica, there are no visible signs of progress that they are accustomed to in their countries. There are no rainbow flags waving at them to welcome them to this peculiar little country, but that does not mean nutten nah gwan dung yah.
That people are being displaced and some made homeless as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity; that many Jamaicans are opposed to changes to the buggery law; that our political leaders say disparaging things about LGBT people; that music still feature negative sentiments about LGBT people; and the fact that there is a formidable and privileged anti-gay movement locally do not easily convince anyone that we are anything but the most homophobic place on earth.
This kind of characterisation, despite the hostile environment we are forced to live in. There is progress. Is Jamaica a perfect place for LGBT people? No. Nowhere is. Jamaica is gearing up for its third annual Pride celebrations, which will see LGBT people from across the country for 'a period of reflection, creative expression, showcasing of talent, demonstration of civic pride, and the sharing of stories and experiences of resilience'.
PRiDE Jamaica is a major achievement. The first was endorsed by former Minister of Justice Mark Golding, and Senator Angela Brown Burke delivered a passionate speech at the opening ceremony while being mayor of Kingston.
I was struck by a message my friend, Latoya Nugent, who is in Canada for Pride, sent me. She was at the summit on LGBTQ inclusion in the public service where they were talking about markers of progress for LGBT people. One of the indicators of success by an LGBT organisation is 'use of government logo for public events.' In addition, they consider hosting events in government buildings as an indicator and the 'government engaging 'out' people (even privately)' as well as 'labelling spaces as safe (subtly and boldly).' What a delight it was to see a list that did not include the usual suspects?!
It got me thinking about tweets from some LGBT people at J-FLAG's #OutLoudJA training about 'what progress look like'. It was remarkable to see them recognising the glimmer of hope in their lives and communities. Undoubtedly, there is still a long way to go, but we must appreciate how far we have come as a society. The question then is, what point do we recognise how we miss the opportunities to do more by being so narrowly focused on buggery repeal as a sign of progress? Progress is possible even where there are laws that encroach on some aspects f your privacy, humanity and rights. Let's not be married to one notion of how to do progress but instead forge paths of our own while learning and borrowing from our brothers and sisters elsewhere.