Thu | Aug 16, 2018

Editorial | PM has advanced, but must do more on gay rights

Published:Thursday | April 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness deserves credit for his obviously evolving views about gay rights and whether homosexuals were to be ministers in Jamaica's Government.

Asked in a leaders' debate seven years ago whether he endorsed his predecessor, Bruce Golding's, position of not having gays in his Cabinet, Mr Holness largely waffled, before concluding: "My sentiments reflect the sentiments of the country. The Prime Minister has discretion, but that discretion cannot be exercised in a vacuum."

Mr Holness, at the time, apparently felt that it was to his political advantage to cozy up to the strong homophobic sentiment that, at the time, was perceived to be pervasive in Jamaica. He lost the election anyway.

This week in Brussels, the prime minister was again asked if he supported Mr Golding's stance on gays in his Cabinet. His answer, this time, on that specific issue, was markedly different from his response of December 2011.

He said: "Absolutely not. Firstly, it's not my business (whether a prospective Cabinet member was gay); neither is it my interest. Whatever is in my discretion to distribute politically, a person's sexuality or sexual orientation is not a criteria for the use of my discretion."

That's very much the argument of Portia Simpson Miller, his debate opponent, who, when in government, despite the hope she had raised, did nothing to expunge Jamaica's law against anal intercourse, which, essentially, criminalises homosexuality.

Neither are we sanguine that much will happen, in the near term, under Mr Holness' leadership, if the prime minister is left to his own devices. For, again, on the broader issue of gay rights, the PM waffled and very much pleaded for international understanding of Jamaica's failure to afford to some of its citizens the rights and protections that are guaranteed to all under the Constitution.

First, Mr Holness drew parallels between Jamaica and where some European and other developed countries were half century, or two decades ago and argued that even in the Church, formerly a monolith of conservatism, differing attitudes have emerged towards gays. He also insisted that the Jamaican State protected the right of all citizens, regardless of sexual preferences.

But he added: "As it relates to civil rights, I think the culture needs to evolve; the conversation needs to be had - and it can't be stoked or pushed. It is something that will evolve over time."

On this analysis, we disagree with the prime minister. Respect for human rights, in a liberal democracy such as Jamaica, doesn't "evolve over time". You adhere to them, or you don't.

 

Buggery Law Offensive

 

Further, the buggery law is offensive on several fronts: it presumes a voyeuristic state that peeps into people's bedrooms to criminalise the sexual behaviour of consenting adults on the basis of a fundamentalist interpretation of Old Testament texts, thus weakening the foundation of a secular state. Moreover, the law attacks the protection from discrimination based on gender as well the "respect for and protection of private and family life and privacy of the home".

Mr Holness, as prime minister, has an obligation to protect the rights of all Jamaicans, not only heterosexuals. Indeed, a fundamental test of a democracy is how well it delivers on the rights of its munities, including gays, lesbian and transgender people. The protection of human rights is among the matters on which we expect a leader to stoke and push.

Mr Holness is perhaps shy of a parliamentary repeal of the buggery law. He should, therefore, instruct his attorney general to concede the point of its unconstitutionality in Maurice Tomlinson's challenge of the legislation in the courts.