EDITORIAL - Obama challenges Jamaica on gay rights

Published: Friday | May 18, 2012 Comments 0

Barack Obama's declaration of support for same-sex marriage was an act of political bravery, the consequences of which will, perhaps, tell when Americans vote in their presidential election this November. It will be clear then whether it hurt, or helped, his re-election bid.

Indeed, the reverberations from Mr Obama's stance are being felt not only in America, but globally, including Jamaica. It has added fuel to the debate on gay-rights issues.

But while Mr Obama's action is politically risky, his timing surprising and the debate loud, the president is not out of step with shifting attitudes in the United States where majority opinion is now in favour of gay marriage.

Indeed, just under a decade ago, only 44 per cent of Americans said they had either work colleague, close friend or relative who was gay. In a recent poll for The New York Times newspaper and CBS television, that figure had jumped to 69 per cent.

Comparative data are not immediately available for Jamaica, but this newspaper discerns shifting attitudes, though not at the same speed, as America's, towards gay relationships here. We do not sense the same intensity of homophobia as in the past.

This change did not happen overnight. But it has been aided, we conjecture, by an act of political bravery, no less than Mr Obama's, by our own prime minister, Mrs Portia Simpson Miller.

During the campaign for last December's general election, Mrs Simpson Miller made it clear that a candidate's sexual orientation would not be a criterion in determining membership to her Cabinet. Additionally, she promised a parliamentary conscience vote on the repeal of the buggery law, the aspect of the Offences Against the Person Act that makes anal sex between consulting adults, even married heterosexuals, illegal.

This newspaper believes that this law is a piece of anachronism that should go now. There is no place for a voyeuristic state, peeking into people's bedrooms.

We, for now, reserve our position on same-sex marriage, fully aware that Section 18(2) of the new Charter of Rights of the Jamaican Constitution defines marriage as a "union of one man and one woman", but acknowledging that evolving ideas could well challenge such concepts.

Formal contract

Indeed, beyond its religious and social constructs, marriage is a formal contract in which the parties agree to a code of behaviour and the sharing of resources. The substance of Mr Obama's argument is that those legal undertakings, and the kinship of marriage, reside not only in heterosexual couples.

As the US president put it, as his position has evolved, he has observed same-sex couples "in incredibly committed monogamous relationships", and should be allowed to legally marry.

A significant issue for Jamaica is that such sentiment is shared not only by Mr Obama among Western leaders. In Britain, Jamaica's other major economic and political partner, same-sex civil unions are already recognised and Prime Minister David Cameron is in favour of gay marriage.

The bottom line: Jamaica cannot foreclose on this issue. At the very least, we have to assert basic human rights to those of our citizens whose sexual preferences are not shared by the majority. We should dump the buggery law.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.

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