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Gov't shouldn't let Dwayne Jones' death go in vain

Published:Tuesday | August 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM
In this August 3 photo, Dwayne Jones' transgender friend and roommate shows scars from an attack on the night Dwayne was killed in Montego Bay. Dwayne's roommate escaped, but a mob killed Dwayne after they found out he was a cross-dresser. - AP

Sheila Veléz Martínez, Guest Columnist

He was a child; he was dancing at a party; he had on girly clothes, and thus he must be stabbed and shot to death. This sentence should read as a non-sequitur. Unfortunately, not in Jamaica.

The recent savage murder of Dwayne Jones is alarming evidence of the dangerously high level of homophobia that prevails throughout Jamaican society. What is also particularly alarming in this case is that the victim was still a child and that even prominent members of society have rationalised the murder using a version of the 'trans panic defence'.

This defence proposes that murderers are somewhat less culpable because the victim provoked them either by making non-violent sexual advances or by not disclosing their non-gender conformity. Some commentators have called it 'false advertising', as if the dead teenager was a corporation selling something for profit in the media.

It is almost universally accepted that this argument is rooted in homophobia and that legal claims based on this position of anti-gay bias are morally indefensible and, therefore, should be legally uncognisable.

The growing violence against LGBT persons in Jamaica has raised concerns internationally. According to the Inter American Commission of Human Rights, this rampant homophobia in Jamaica has resulted in violent killings of persons thought to be LGBT, as well as stabbings, mob attacks, arbitrary detention and police harassment.

According to the commission, "The resulting fear in turn makes it difficult for people within this group to access certain basic services, for example, medical services, that might reveal their sexual orientation."

Defenders of the rights of LGBT have been murdered, beaten and threatened, and the police have been criticised for failing, in many instances, to prevent or respond to reports of such violence.


Most recently, on September 2011, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to two LGBT persons in Jamaica. Their identities were kept confidential at the request of the beneficiaries. The request for precautionary measures stated that both have suffered aggression, attacks, threats, and harassment on account of their sexual orientation.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch issued a seminal report, 'Hated to Death', about homophobia in Jamaica. It states that to this day, many people blame gay men for the country's AIDS epidemic. The report detailed numerous examples of assault and violence against gays, and widespread discrimination in the medical and criminal justice systems. Incidents like these have won Jamaica the dishonour of being labelled by Time Magazine as the most homophobic place on earth.

Jamaica is also high on the list of foreign countries whose nationals are seeking and gaining asylum in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom claiming they are being persecuted because of their sexual orientation. For example, in the US, one-third of the asylum cases litigated by Immigration Equality (the leading organisation concerned with LGBT immigrants in the US) were asylum cases from Jamaica. Jamaica is the only country where a US court has held that a pattern and practice of persecution against gay people exists.

And still, the savage murder of a child should serve to shock the conscience of a community that has been largely desensitised regarding violence against gay and trans people. It could be used to continue a conversation on a different tone. A conversation that does not include the demonisation of the victim but that comes from a human rights perspective.

As a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Jamaica has the obligation to ensure that all human beings below 18 enjoy all the rights set forth in the convention without discrimination. This also covers adolescents' sexual orientation. Adolescents subject to discrimination are made more vulnerable to abuse, other types of violence and exploitation. Further their health and development are put at greater risks. Therefore, they are entitled to special attention and protection from all segments of society.

There is no available justification for the homophobia that has allowed this type of violence to flourish. There is no proportion between the possible embarrassment of dancing with an unknown gay or trans and the brutal murder of a child. This is what fear causes.

The Government of Jamaica can use this event to take steps to begin changing the discourse on homophobia. In particular, the Government can start by repealing laws criminalising same-sex conduct and enacting legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

For these measures to be effective, the State also has to provide equality and human-rights training in the area of LGBT rights, for teachers, governmental officials and law-enforcement officers.

Maybe this tragedy can open the door to the opportunity of revisiting the fear of the gender non-conforming and allow an understanding to come to pass so that adults and youngsters alike can participate in the life of this beautiful country without fear themselves.

Sheila Veléz Martínez, assistant clinical professor of law, Immigration Law Clinic, University of Pittsburgh - School of Law. Email feedback to