KINGSTON —First dubbed by Time magazine as “the most homophobic place on Earth” in 2006, Jamaica’s evolving attitude to sexual minorities has, by 2015, caused even Time to question whether the country was turning around.

This past week, the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), an organization that self-identifies as “the foremost organisation advocating and lobbying government and policymakers for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons”, made history with the unprecedented staging of Jamaica’s first-ever LGBT pride celebrations from August 1-5. Five days of well-planned events to celebrate the LGBT community and its allies took place during the period between Emancipation Day (August 1) and Independence Day (August 6); a symbolism that J-FLAG said was deliberate “to celebrate our freedom, independence, and pride as LGBT Jamaicans”.

According to J-FLAG, the staging of “PRiDE JA” marked the fact that, even though progress was slower than desired, attitudes towards LGBT communities and LGBT people’s perceptions of their place in Jamaican society were positively evolving.

And contrary to popular belief, J-FLAG said, the evolution was not solely due to the importation of “American gay culture” or external pressure from other countries or international human rights organizations, but from factors within Jamaica itself. Increased visibility of LGBT people, advocacy for equal treatment, and the expression of support by influential Jamaicans were just some of the internal factors that J-FLAG identified as assisting with Jamaica’s transition to a more progressive and inclusive society.

Latoya Nugent, J-FLAG’s Education and Training Manager, said that the tremendous amount of local and global support via email, social media and participation at the PRiDE events was inspiring. But she also revealed that several Caribbean people reached out to her directly, stating that the notion of LGBT Pride celebrations in Jamaica was both startling and puzzling, with many saying that they could not even conceive of the celebrations happening in the first place.

Anti-LGBT sentiments fueled by law

Jamaica has a long history of anti-LGBT sentiments that would understandably make a Pride celebration seem unlikely. A common justification for negative feelings towards LGBT people is the nation’s anti-sodomy laws — vestiges of British colonial influence. The Offences Against the Person Act was imposed by Britain in 1864, and four of its articles specifically make some reference to anal sex — described as an “abominable crime” or “gross indecency”– punishable by imprisonment.

LGBT sexual orientation itself is not illegal in Jamaica, but J-FLAG’s director, Dane Lewis, says that in addition to Jamaicans’ personal, religious, and moral beliefs, much of the persecution and violence towards LGBT people in Jamaica has been validated by the antiquated law.

It can be said that anti-sodomy laws serve to reinforce cultural hostility toward gay men, and  they have also been known to embolden those with pre-existing prejudices. The anti-buggery law is often seen as representative of the moral position of the country with respect to the legitimacy or propriety of LGBT identity.  

—Dane Lewis, J-FLAG Executive Director

Jamaican attitudes towards same sex partnerships

In 2012, researchers at the University of the West Indies, Mona conducted a study to explore perceptions of same sex relations in Jamaica. They found that, in a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Jamaicans, 88% considered “male homosexuality” to be immoral, compared to 83.7% for lesbianism and 83.5% for bisexuality.

They also found that while 76.7% of those surveyed disagreed with changing the buggery law, 37% of survey participants admitted that they did not think the government was doing enough to protect the rights of LGBT Jamaicans.

The study also found that while negative views towards same sex relationships persisted throughout Jamaica, religious people were becoming more tolerant, and young people had less negative views than older Jamaicans.

Still not safe at home

The fact that the law – even if not officially or consistently enforced – has not changed, and that most Jamaicans have negative views towards the LGBT community, demonstrates the precarious social environment in which LGBT people in Jamaica live, particularly if they publicly identify or present as LGBT.

On October 21, 2014, the Human Rights Watch nonprofit published “Not Safe at Home”, a report on violence and discrimination against LGBT people in Jamaica. The report included the story of sixteen-year old Dwayne Jones, a transgender teen who was brutally murdered on July 21, 2013. Her death served as the catalyst for public debate within the country, having received national, regional, and international attention.

Situating Jones’ story as a snapshot of how people in the LGBT community are sometimes treated in Jamaica, the report detailed human rights violations against LGBT people between 2006 and 2013 by both citizens and the state. It also included findings from over 70 interviews of Jamaicans who identify as LGBT, government agents, civil society and academia interest groups and health care workers.

This report called for accountability on the part of the Jamaican government, with HRW making several recommendations urging public officials to translate words into action, and to ensure the equal rights of all persons, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

The importance of PRiDE JA

Jamaica’s Pride is the first public LGBT celebration in the English-speaking Caribbean, after threats forced the cancellation of Pride weekend in The Bahamas in 2014. That the celebration happened at all is a coup for Jamaica’s LGBT lobbyists.

Maurice Tomlinson, one of the Caribbean’s leading gay rights activists, lauded the organisers of PRiDE JA, and defended its value to the Jamaican LGBT community:

Pride celebrations, no matter how small or clandestine, are incredibly important to build community and empower LGBTI people to claim their rights. In turn, an empowered LGBTI* community will be inspired to be more visible.

Research has shown that it is visibility that will undo homophobia. That is why PrideJA is so important.  It will encourage greater visibility of, and thus greater tolerance for, same-gender loving members of the Jamaican family. The fact that Jamaican LGBTI people feel confident enough to mount a Pride event certainly shows that there is greater acceptance by some elements of society, particularly members of the intelligentsia. Sadly, there is still a lot of work to do in changing the hearts of minds of the still largely fundamentalist population.

While advocates note that there is still quite a bit of work to be done to achieve full equality for LGBT Jamaicans, many are hopeful that PRiDE JA 2015 will go a long way towards turning the tide from tolerance to acceptance of LGBT Jamaicans.

*LGBTI is an alternative acronym to the more common one of LGBT. One iteration of LGBTI stands for “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex”. Acronyms to represent the diversity of sexual minorities come in many forms with multiple meanings. 

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on PRiDE in Jamaica. Check out Part 2 and Part 3 for the full story.

Image Credit: J-FLAG

Jamaica’s first LGBT Pride celebrations signal turning tides

Sherine Andreine Powerful

Sherine Powerful is a Diasporic Jamaican and public health practitioner specializing in global health, sexual and reproductive health, sexual violence prevention, and health promotion and communications. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MPH from Columbia University.

Category: Identities
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