It is tempting, and perhaps easy, to be sympathetic to Public Defender Earl Witter's suggestion to gays in Jamaica not to flaunt their tendencies to avoid being victims of violence.
Mr. Witter's advice is particularly arresting, given his uncharacteristic retreat, in a speech on Tuesday, to the Jamaican vernacular, to tell homosexuals to "hold your corners".
But while appreciating Mr. Witter's intent we believe that his statement was unhelpful and his prescription unfortunate. Or perhaps more accurately, what Mr. Witter perceives to be his delicate balancing act is a rather ungainly and ungracious tilt into the arms of the vulgarians. He should instead be using both the real and symbolic authority of his office in breaking new legal ground in the expansion of individual rights and freedoms, as well as the promotion of tolerance.
As we understand it, the job of the Public Defender is to help in the protection of people's constitutional rights, especially when these rights are infringed by the state. And to be fair to Mr. Witter, in his speech to Rotarians in Mandeville, he did abhor violence against gays and stressed the right of every single individual to protection under the law.
But Mr. Witter also made two other points that are of considerable significance. The first is that buggery, the main act of sex for homosexual males, remains an illegal and punishable offence in Jamaica; the other is that "tolerance has its limits".
So, in the context of Jamaica's homophobia and the legal sanctions against buggery, as Mr. Witter's argument goes, gays should keep their behaviour to themselves and in their bedrooms so as not to "provoke disapproving reactions".
That's the easy way. For the question to be raised is what, in Mr. Witter's view, constitutes provocative behaviour by gays. As the Public Defender should well know, this 'provocation' needs not be a public display of affection or anything which the courts would deem to be acts of public indecency.
It is enough for an individual to be assumed to be gay for that person to be subject to physical attacks, as happened to three young men recently at a Kingston mall. They found refuge in a store against a baying mob and had to be rescued by the police. Then there was the case of alleged male cross-dressers being attacked at a funeral service at a church in the same town in which Mr. Witter spoke.
The fundamental test of a democracy is not merely its tolerance of its minority, but how well that democracy protects their rights and freedoms - no matter how much the majority abhor the views and/or lifestyles of the disparaged group.
What we would have preferred and expected of Mr. Witter, therefore, is his insistence that not only should the state have no voyeuristic place in people's bedrooms, but that anachronistic laws ought to be removed from the books.
He should have insisted, too, on the courage which he suggests is lacking in legislators. Mr. Witter should have demanded, too, that the police, even at this late stage, charge those who attacked the alleged gays at that Kingston mall.
The first stage of compromise is usually the rights of those we abhor, or of the vulnerable, but we don't usually stop there.
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