Fri | Mar 23, 2018

What next for LGBT rights in Jamaica?

Published:Thursday | September 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Jaevion Nelson, Contributor

Jamaica is known as one of the most homophobic places worldwide. It is no secret that this label bothers a great many of us despite our unwillingness to support initiatives to protect and promote the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jamaicans.

We are, on one hand, so proud to denounce and reject people of diverse sexual orientations, but actively contest any association with being considered as a virulently homophobic place.

Sexuality-based intolerance is commonplace. So much so that people in certain countries can simply confess to being gay to prevent deportation to Jamaica. Many of our friends have also migrated on this basis. It is also institutionalised through the discriminatory legislation found in the Offences Against the Person Act and the absence of protection in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedom. As Diane Abbott, a Jamaica-born parliamentarian in Britain, said, "Work clearly needs to be done to affirm Jamaica's commitment to human rights."

The contravention of the rights of any person undermines human development. It retards our ambitious intention to be a safe, cohesive and just society by 2030. It is for this reason there was a great deal of excitement when my very good friend, Javed Jaghai, decided to challenge the constitutionality of the buggery law.

Now that Javed has withdrawn his case and publicly stated his reasons for this decision (see, such as his reluctance to gamble with his life or the lives of his parents and siblings, many people are questioning his motives and wondering what is next for LGBT rights in Jamaica. Is it that some of us believe the protection and promotion of the rights of LGBT people is now a dream deferred until there is another willing claimant who is empowered enough to take on the Jamaican Government?


There are some people who are disappointed in Javed. Some believe he is a coward; a pacifist who has handed over victory to the 'enemy'. I suppose the enemy is the Church, or the section of the Church that is actively protesting to retain the buggery law. I am not sure where they got this idea or why people who wouldn't take on such a challenge feel so empowered to castigate someone for making such a personal decision. It is unreasonable, unconscionable and ungrateful.

Javed returned home after graduating from Dartmouth College because of his commitment to Jamaica. While working with the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), Javed did everything he could, rarely refusing an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community. I know personally that this wasn't an easy decision for him. When he left Jamaica in 2013 to start his doctoral studies at Yale, he felt broken. Particularly troubled by combative and insensitive interviews with journalists. He was weak, disillusioned, and disappointed.

Litigation is not a common social-justice strategy in the Caribbean as it is in other parts of the world. Perhaps the problem is that some of us see the removal of the buggery law as the panacea in the pursuit of justice for LGBT peoples across Jamaica.

What many of us fail to realise (or accept?) is that while the removal of punitive or discriminatory laws is necessary to promote social inclusion of diverse peoples and protect their rights, it is not always the most efficacious strategy and has the potential of "misconstru[ing] the problem" and achieving "outcomes [that] are peripheral to the basic issues", as so eloquently proffered by Gerry Whyte in Social Inclusion and the Legal System: Public Interest Law in Ireland.

Whyte further states that "if what is sought to be achieved is radical transformation of society, then it has to be conceded that public interest litigation [while necessary] is not up to the task". Laws do not necessarily change behaviours. Therefore, litigation has to be grounded in a broader advocacy strategy to advance the rights of LGBT people.

This is not the end of the road.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to and