This week, two gay men were murdered in the Flanker community of St. James in Jamaica. Media reports indicate that the men, reputed to be lovers, had earned the ire of thugs in the community, who stormed the victims’ house on Tuesday before unleashing a barrage of gunshots.

Apathy reigned in the wake of the vicious attack. According to a resident quoted in the Jamaica Gleaner, “we don’t know nothing about it… a just two fish (homosexuals) get fry over there.”

Residents of the community have walled up and said little to police about the crime, its motives or the people involved. “This is going to be one of those unsolved murders because the police will not get any information from anybody,” a man told the Gleaner. “You must write that is a fish kill, but we don’t know what cause it.”

And while the individuals responsible for the murders must be condemned, the incident must be viewed in the broader context of the criminalization of the LGBT community in Jamaica and the complicity of the state in such acts of violence.

“We really not into the fish thing around here … you don’t see seh nobody not crying about it.” – St. James resident

The state and the law: Jamaica has notorious “buggery laws” which criminalize sex and all physically-intimate acts between men. In 2011, the Portia Simpson-Miller government promised a parliamentary conscience vote to repeal the law, but due to intense pushback, the vote never occurred.

The newly-installed government of Prime Minister Andrew Holness has similarly rejected recent recommendations from the United Nations to repeal the law. Instead, the government has indicated that it will take the issue of a repeal to a national referendum which, given the extreme opposition of 2011, is anything but certain. The mere idea of dispensing with the law last saw thousands of Jamaicans rallying in the streets in protest.

Two sides of the buggery law debate: At left, Maurice Tomlinson, exiled Jamaican rights activist. At right, one of many anti-gay protesters at a recent rally in Jamaica. Credit: Reuters (L) / James Poremba (R)

To its defenders, the buggery law is not a violation of human rights because it does not criminalize being gay — it just criminalizes homosexual acts. When the law is taken literally, it is not illegal to be gay in Jamaica;  it is only illegal to behave in a certain way.

Put simply, it is legal for gay men to exist, but it is not acceptable for them to act in accordance with their identity. 

Within this context, gay men must keep an integral component of who they are hidden for fear of adverse ramifications. Criminalization arguably contributes to a political and social climate that fosters antipathy and hatred toward gay men.

Acts of violence like the St. James murders do not occur in a vacuum, and are not the result of rogue lone actor. They are expected outcomes of a political and social climate that vilifies sexual identity. Put simply by Foucault, state regulations over behavior create categories for normality and deviance through which individuals then define themselves, and others. The law sets the boundaries of abnormality and normality in societies, and in turn shapes people’s actions and beliefs. 

macey at t pOne of three men branded as homosexuals had to be rescued by police in 2005 in Jamaica, after an angry mob surrounded them, some calling for their deaths

By outlawing homosexual behavior, successive Jamaican (and other Caribbean) governments establish homosexuality as a form of deviance, and suggest that the LGBT community should understand itself as abnormal. They are also viewed as abnormal by other members of the public, putting them at a higher risk for violence. The law itself, while hardly enforced by the state to punish consensual homosexual acts, remains dangerous when acts of violence against homosexuals are legitimized in its name.

On access to justice, Human Rights Watch published a damning report about violence inflicted on the LGBT community in Jamaica. Between 2009 and 2012, J-FLAG, a Jamaican LGBT rights organization, recorded 231 incidents of attacks against LGBT people, including home invasions, physical assaults, and mob attacks. Not only do these horrific acts of violence occur, perpetrators are rarely arrested and held responsible.

Of the 71 members of the LGBT communities who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2013, 44 reported being victims of violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  19 of these reported the crimes to the police, and in only 8 cases did police take formal statements.

A shelterless gay man makes a home in a gully in Jamaica. Credit: Human Rights Watch

Victims interviewed were aware of arrests by police in only 4 of 56 cases documented by Human Rights Watch. 26 of those who had experienced violence did not report the crimes due to fear of retaliation from the perpetrators, or because reporting the homophobic hate crime would “out” them to society. 

While it would be naive to suggest that a repeal of the buggery law would suddenly end the violence against the LGBT community in Jamaica, it is a vital first step to ending state complicity in the cycle of violence. Not only is it uncertain whether the forthcoming national referendum will pass, but gay men’s basic human right to act upon their sexuality without fear of repercussion is not an issue that should be put up for a majority vote. History repeatedly shows instances of the majority denying marginalized communities basic human rights in order to reinforce the status quo. 

It is the responsibility of elected public officials to pass legislation that protects the basic rights of all citizens. While putting the issue to a national referendum would be an easy way for Jamaican politicians to shirk responsibility if it fails to pass, such an excuse is unacceptable to the LGBT community in Jamaica who must continue to live in the shadow of the law and the acts of violence that the law helps to inspire.

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Kimberly Engels, Identities Fellow

Kimberly is an AMG academic fellow, and a doctoral candidate in philosophy. Her research interests include the social and cultural self, philosophy of race and gender, and philosophy and public policy.