MAURICE TOMLINSON is no stranger to headlines. The former University of Technology lecturer fled Jamaica in 2012 when news of his marriage to a Canadian man hit local press, resulting in several death threats both from within the campus and among his fellow Jamaicans.

And while he’s now openly gay, and today is one of the Caribbean’s leading gay rights activists, few are aware that he once sought out a Christian group in an attempt to cure his homosexuality.

Fewer know that he was actually married to a woman – doing “everything possible” to suppress his urges – before admitting that he was unable to ‘cure’ himself after four years of trying to live as a straight man.

For Tomlinson, his experience has convinced him that it is impossible for a gay man to be anything but attracted to the same sex. And it is from this standpoint that he is now fighting anti-gay laws in his native Jamaica, Trinidad and Belize in the name of human rights.

But Tomlinson is up for a fight. A renewed Christian lobby has roared in the Caribbean; buoyed by the case of Professor Brendan Bain, who was fired in May as Director of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Network, for comments deemed supportive of anti-gay laws in Belize.

In a campaign staged across several islands, the Christian Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society (JCHS) stormed the media with ad spots declaring “Speaking Truth is Not Homophobia”, which centred on the main assertion that HIV disproportionately impacts gay men, and therefore, that the rejection of homosexual behaviour was “common-sense.”

Speaking exclusively to AMG, JCHS advocacy officer, Philippa Davies, says:

“Every Caribbean citizen must consider whether the values under-girding [anti-gay laws] remain valid—notwithstanding the age of the legislation—and what values will be imposed on Caribbean society if the law is repealed” – Philipa Davies, Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society

And while Davies sees a “philosophical, public health and instructive role” for the buggery law, Tomlinson counters that the Church has infused homophobia into the debate, leaving the law court as the only place for a real discussion on the repeal of the laws.

To this end, Tomlinson is supporting a challenge to the constitutionality of Jamaica’s law before the country’s Supreme Court in November. He has also been granted leave by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) to sue the governments of Trinidad & Tobago and Belize for the expression of their own anti-gay laws within their Immigration Acts, on the basis that these laws contravene free movement rights of CARICOM nationals within the Caribbean Single Market and Economy.

With the possibility that these laws – which predominantly criminalise sex between men – now stand to be removed, many have literally taken to the streets to protest the legal challenge.

Credit: @Love_MarchJA

In Jamaica this past June, over 25,000 protesters (estimated as high as 35,000, based on multiple media reports),  demonstrated their support for the current buggery legislation in a protest dubbed as the “Love March Movement.”

Says Davies, the march demonstrated the public’s “growing awareness of the LGBT agenda, its implications for society and the strong public support for preserving our Christian heritage.”

The march itself was the culmination of a six-week-long silent protest at the UWI following Bain’s dismissal. Davies tells us that it was considered to be the longest running public protest in Jamaica’s recent history.

Protesters wore black and taped their mouths over with the inscribed words ‘freedom of speech’ […] they were symbolically mourning the death of the expression of independent thought, in the very place where it ought to be encouraged – Davies

Yet Tomlinson says that the LGBT groups have no desire to undermine freedom of religion. “We just want to be left alone,” he says, adding that the law in Jamaica has done nothing to reduce HIV/AIDS infection or to manage any public health issues.

In its advocacy arsenal, the JCHS cites several medical studies asserting that the sexual health of men who have sex with men (MSM) has not improved “despite considerable social, political and human rights advances.”

Tomlinson readily agrees with the science that sex between men carries the highest HIV transmission risk, but he adds that “blaming gay men who engage in anal intercourse for their vulnerability to HIV is as illogical as blaming women for their vulnerability to the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer.”

Tomlinson further notes that despite the buggery law, Jamaican gay men have the highest prevalence (33%) of HIV in the western hemisphere:

“In criminalized contexts such as Jamaica, gay men are forced to have sex with women in order to mask their true orientations.  This allows for HIV to bridge between the two populations.  The solution is clearly to decriminalize same-gender intimacy and allow gay men to form authentic relationships in which they can protect themselves and their partners.” – Maurice Tomlinson

“This law has to go,” he pleads. But in similar form, the JCHS, the Church and others believe that the law should remain, and they are prepared to do battle to ensure that that happens.

“Public policy should be informed by factual statistics on public health data, particularly by the medical and harmful outcomes of the practice of buggery to the individual and society. As such, the active discouragement and prohibition of buggery by way of the law serves as a guide to society on what should be considered as healthy, intimate behavior” – Davies

“Their stance is ridiculous”, Tomlinson says. “The Churches have worked themselves into a frenzy about what it is we’re after.”

But the church insists that they are not on a witch-hunt. Davies says her organisation “strongly and unambiguously affirms the inherent dignity and worth of every human being as being made in the image of God.” “LGBT persons are not exempt from this affirmation of worth.”

This debate is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. For Tomlinson, the challenge is clear, “we as an LGBT community need to be visible. We need to be given access to speak to people.”

Meanwhile, the JCHS is fervently appealing to lawmakers, power-brokers and Jamaicans to keep the buggery act in place.

Update – August 29, 2014: The constitutional challenge to Jamaica’s buggery law, slated to be heard in the Supreme Court in November 2014, has been withdrawn by the appellant for fear of violent reprisals”

Both sides of the Caribbean debate on anti-gay laws

Jovan Reid

Jovan Reid is AMG's consultant advisor on public policy and media advocacy, focusing on issues in public health, sustainability and climate change.

Category: Identities
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