HOW DO YOU MOURN A MASSACRE, but not its victims? Such was the awkward diplomatic dance for Caribbean politicians who were faced with the competing political imperatives to mourn with a foreign ally, but to maintain the same distance abroad as they do at home towards LGBT people.
Whether by deliberate design or omission, condolences from public offices for the murder and wounding of over 100 gay, lesbian and trans* people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub have been careful to delink the crime from the homophobia that spurred it.
President Anthony Carmona of Trinidad & Tobago — a country which defended an archaic law barring the entry of homosexuals past its borders — likened the Pulse massacre to far-removed slayings at Virginia Tech in 2003. For Prime Minister Keith Rowley, it was an “attack on a nightclub”; an “unspeakable horror” which no nation should ever have to face.
In Jamaica, where officials withheld condemnation for a recent double murder of two homosexuals (presented as a brutish report in the island’s press), Prime Minister Andrew Holness was similarly reserved. For him the attack was a medley of terrorism and gun violence, “two scourges which continue to scar the quest for peace and brotherhood among peoples”.
But death is never mourned abstractly: it is commingled with the faces, the stories and identities of those that it claims. We also know that if ever there were a silver lining in death and loss, it is that we come to a better appreciation of life, and the privilege of freedom for those who are still living. And it is this twinning of mourning with the LGBT victims being mourned, that led to President Obama’s decree to lower the American flag to half-mast, and the decision of some US Embassies abroad to pair the Rainbow Flag with it.
Nuanced mourning is not novel. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Press Association of Jamaica mourned the loss of life, calling it an attack on democracy and freedom of the press. The identity of the victims as journalists was material to the attack, and central to the mourning of those lost.
The Press Association stood in solidarity “with (our) colleagues in France” as they condemned those attacks, and emphasized the importance of the protection of the press from intimidation.
Caribbean leaders also universally expressed their condolences to the victims, in the fullness of the victims’ identities as journalists, and dubbed the attack as one on free speech and the free press.
But to express condolences to the United States, while avoiding the reality that the attack was targeted at the LGBT community, is a necessary condition for states that maintain LGBT people as outliers of law and policy.
When the Rainbow Flag flew in Jamaica — one of twelve Caribbean states which maintain laws that criminalize same-sex intimacy — its Attorney General struggled to reconcile the imagery at the Embassy’s Kingston compound, with the abstract message that emanated from the Prime Minister’s Office a few miles away.
Doubling down on the script, Attorney-General Marlene Malahoo Forte expressed strong condemnation for the Pulse massacre, and equally strong condemnation for the Rainbow Flag, saying that it offended Jamaican laws which she couldn’t name.
Jamaica’s law, in fact, criminalizes sexual acts between men: being gay, as the government’s argument goes, is legal. Puzzled, the US Embassy initiated what would become a firestorm of debate and criticism over Malahoo’s remarks.
Malahoo went on to call for meaningful gun control, as she framed the murders simply as an act of terror. She defended her opposition to the display of the Rainbow Flag, saying “when we ask each other to respect our differences, we should do so in all areas where we differ”— presumably in respect of the differences in rights accorded to LGBT citizens under Jamaican and US laws.
“If one’s expression of difference evokes anger and hatred in u, why do u presume ur expression of difference may not do the same in others?”, she concluded.
The story made international press. Malahoo stood silent as both social media and her peers ridiculed her stance. Her Prime Minister began a salvage mission: “The terrorist bullet does not discriminate”, he said, “It does not know gender, class, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
Several hours later, Malahoo made and deleted a sardonic retraction, before issuing a statement to attempt to recant her messages entirely.
Unwittingly, Malahoo initiated a difficult, but necessary conversation on the right to life, freedom and visibility for LGBT people. The implication that, even in death, lesbian, gay and trans* people should be less visible and less mourned, speaks to the same toxicity that undervalues and endangers LGBT lives.
Also worth interrogating is the Attorney-General’s interpretation of Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws, which she has seemingly extrapolated beyond sex, to criminalise and marginalize LGBT sexual identity, human rights and visibility — all of which are symbolized by the Rainbow Flag.
Caribbean governments have expressed resolve for change at the international level in the wake of this and other acts of terror. Perhaps Orlando’s grief could be the impetus for them to take action against the antipathy towards LGBT people within their own governments.