Protect the rights of all Jamaicans
Karen Carpenter, Contributor
IN JAMAICA, when it comes to the sexual orientation of minority groups, we are perhaps most familiar with the terms 'homosexual', 'bisexual', and 'lesbian'. Same-sex attraction and activities have not generally been accepted as part of the sexual culture of the country. Additionally, how Jamaicans view themselves sexually - as opposed to how they are viewed by the world media - differs.
Rebecca Schleifer of United States Human Rights Watch produced a report after three weeks of extensive interviews with members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, non-governmental organisations and government officials. She dubbed Jamaica "the most homophobic place on earth" (November 2004, Vol. 16, No. 6 (B)). It seems this label has been accepted by the foreign press without much consideration for Jamaica's cultural norms, or the history of the LGBT movement in Jamaica.
In contrast to Schleifer's comments, former Assistant Commissioner of Police Les Green of the Scotland Yard Police asserted, after three years of working in law enforcement in the island: "I think Jamaica is far more tolerant than the public hype. There is a vibrant community in Jamaica, and there isn't the sort of backlash that some people say." The gap between what is often given media coverage and what obtains on the ground is large. Few attempts have been made to provide a balanced argument that considers both the perspective of the local community and the foreign press.
Jamaica's reputation for being irrationally fearful of, or aversive to, persons who are same-sex-attracted, or 'homophobic', is not supported by the statistics regarding the numbers of such persons living undisturbed in communities. That Jamaica, as a society at large, does not support, condone, or accept same-sex attraction and activities is indeed true. Evidence of this is easy to find in numerous public opinions published in the newspapers and broadcast on radio and television; however, it is important to distinguish between a fear of homosexuals and a negative attitude towards homosexual behaviour.
Jamaicans are generally homo-negative. The attitude towards same-sex activity is that it is biologically unnatural, medically unhygienic, and it goes against Christian values. A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio discussion about Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's comments on same-sex-attracted persons serving in Parliament and the nature of same-sex attraction. One of the most impassioned remarks came from a Christian woman who described my neutral approach as "demonic".
The truth is, in a democratic society, people are entitled to their opinions and to have these opinions heard. What we are certainly not entitled to is denying the rights of others in the pursuit of our own beliefs. All citizens must enjoy the rights and share in the responsibilities of a nation.
Curious to find out what exactly are our rights and responsibilities as Jamaicans, I visited several websites. The first search for 'gays in Jamaica' turned up over 34,200 results and 'homosexuality in Jamaica' 15,200 results. Several of these were captioned with Ms Schleifer's now-infamous comment.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
The civics section of the National Library of Jamaica provides a very user-friendly and easy-to-understand definition of citizen: "Citizenship is defined as membership in a state, nation, country, with guaranteed rights, privileges as well as duties and responsibilities. Citizenship of Jamaica is acquired through birth, marriage, or naturalisation."
The section goes on to outline 12 rights shared by all citizens of Jamaica:
1. Protection of right to life;
2. Protection from arbitrary arrest;
3. Respect for private and family life;
4. Protection to privacy of home and property;
5. Protection of freedom of conscience;
6. Protection of peaceful assembly;
7. Protection from discrimination;
8. Protection of expression;
9. Right to fair trial;
10. Right to vote;
11. Freedom of worship;
12. Freedom of movement.
There is a much shorter list of four responsibilities:
1. Pay his/her share of tax that is levied for the good of the community;
2. Obey the laws of the land;
3. Serve as a witness in the court if summoned;
4. Serve on a jury if called.
These rights are not subject to the approval of one group of individuals over another, but neither are the responsibilities restricted to any one group of persons, and certainly not on the basis of sexual orientation. The section goes on to cite that "one of the greatest rights of citizens is to share in the government of the country". (http://www.nlj.gov.jm/?q=jamaican-civics)
Supporters of the LGBT community here and abroad point to the archaic Offences Against the Person Act, Sections 76, 77, 78, which speak to "the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal". I suspect that few persons actually know that the so-called 'buggery law' does not actually constitute a law against same-sex activity. Further, according to an interview carried out by The Gleaner Company's Western Bureau with attorney Clayton Morgan of the Cornwall Bar Association, attempts at prosecuting men for violation of the same law have been unsuccessful due to the practical and legal requirements for proving that the law has been breached.
Advocates further point to the international conventions, which have been signed by the Jamaican Government, supporting full human rights for all members of the society. What has not been made clear by these proponents is that the laws and constitution of a country have priority over international conventions.
What, then, are we left with 50 years after the Constitution, given its shortcomings?
The current prime minister of Jamaica came in for considerable criticism for her public support of persons of all sexual orientations being part of the business of the country. More public information is needed, not on the international conventions which may not be reflected in the country's Constitution of 1962, and which cannot supersede the Constitution, but on the basic guidelines that allow us to maintain civility and agree to disagree, even where our personal beliefs may not support the lifestyle.
Recently, we witnessed the rather civil statements made by dancehall king Beenie Man when he, too, demonstrated his respect of and tolerance for all persons regardless of sexual orientation, which he deems a private matter. Beenie Man's declaration shows that he, too, has 'evolved' away from the anti-homosexual vitriol to a more reasoned acceptance of the right of others to be different. And while this has not stemmed the tide of anti-gay pro-gyalist lyrics emanating from dancehall, it is a step in the right direction. Many other artistes need to take a page from his book if they are to regain international respect and the privilege of working abroad in societies where these rights are observed.
What started off as the Gay Freedom Movement of 1974 has evolved, and new groups have been formed to protect and lobby for the rights of LGBT and persons affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS. The most well known of them are the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays and Jamaica AIDS Support for Life.
These organisations have worked hard to secure the rights of sexual minorities in Jamaica. The challenge is to uphold the responsibilities and to protect the rights, not just of the community, but of all Jamaicans. It is the responsibility of the LGBT support groups to participate fully in the life of the country - in those areas of public life that affect sexual minorities as well as all aspects of citizenry. It is short-sighted to believe that any real justice could be had by speaking out only when there is violation of the rights of the LGBT community.
We need to examine the real, or imagined, aversions and fears of the larger society, and address these honestly. Some of these include the belief that same-sex-attracted persons prey on underage boys and girls, and that same-sex practices are inherently more likely to increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. Other objections include what some see as inappropriate public displays of affection, displays which heterosexuals themselves do not perform in public. If the first thing a person knows about you is your sexual orientation rather than who you are or what you do, you may also be inviting public commentary on and reaction to your private life. This is indeed a challenge which immature heterosexuals and homosexuals alike face.
The myths and misconceptions surrounding the practices of the community can only be dispelled if those organisations that advocate for LGBT rights also advocate for the protection of the child, the encouragement of safe-sex practices, and all other behaviours that support the human rights of all citizens.
There used to be a Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement that had as its slogan, "You've come a long way baby". The same is true of the LGBT community. The very fact that this article and so many others exist is testament to that fact. There is a bigger picture and perhaps we need to return to public education on civics if we are to behave in a civilised manner.
US Human Rights Watch has emphasised in its recommendations ways in which the Jamaican Government could better meet external criteria for guarding the rights of all sexuals. However, other than the suggestion for the repeal of the commonly termed 'buggery law', little attention has been paid to the existing laws, statutes, and civil agreements that ensure the human rights of all citizens and how these can be upheld. More focus needs to be placed on these to ensure that the rights and responsibilities of all Jamaicans are protected.
Karen Carpenter, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona.