Under Article 8 (18/1) of the Immigration Act, homosexual men and women are not allowed to enter the country. Section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1986 criminalises “buggery”. This Section provides a penalty of up to life imprisonment, if committed on a minor; up to 10 years’ imprisonment if committed on an adult (18 years) by another adult; up to 5 years’ imprisonment if committed by a minor on an adult. Section 16, relating to “serious indecency”, provides a penalty of up to 20 years’ imprisonment for homosexual acts between men and between women.
This is one of those topics that I have long sought to write about and never quite succeeded. I have drafts saved on this very subject dating back to 2002. What’s changed? Very little, and therein lies the rub.
And then there were these comments from Bruce Golding, the Jamaican Prime Minister, during an interview on the BBC’s Hardtalk program:
BBC: Do you in the future want to live in a Jamaica where a gay man or a gay woman could be in the cabinet?
BG: Sure they can be in the cabinet – but not mine.
BBC: Do you want to live in a Jamaica where they can be and they should be and it would be entirely natural for them to do so?
BG: I do not know that that is the direction in which we will go.
So far, so straightforward, right? No. It is more nuanced than that, because here’s the exchange that preceded those quotes:
BBC: What are you doing about [the violence toward homosexuals in Jamaica]
BG: Well, we have given instructions that crimes against persons because of their sexual orientation must be pursued with the same vigour of any other crime.
BBC: But they are not, are they?
BG: Generally speaking they are – they are now. We do have a long-standing culture that is very opposed to homosexuality. I think that is changing. I believe there is greater acceptance now that people have different lifestyles, that their privacy must be respected.
BBC: Are you more accepting now … because in 2006 you were quoted in the Sunday Herald newspaper: “Homosexuals will find no solace in any cabinet formed by me.”
BG: In appointing a cabinet, a PM exercises judgement. That is his exclusive responsibility. There is no right to be in a cabinet.
BBC: But you have just told me that Jamaica is on track to give equality before the law to homosexuals – but you yourself have said that “homosexuals will find no solace in a cabinet formed by me?” That has nothing to do with equality before the law? Do you not have a duty to consider people on their merits – for cabinet positions indeed in any part of government?
BG: No. I consider people in terms of their ability and the extent to which they are going to be able to exercise their function, their independence.
BBC: You also clearly and patently consider them in terms of their sexuality.
No. That’s a decision that I make. That’s a decision that every prime minister makes. A prime minister must decide what he feels would represent to the Jamaican people a cabinet of ministers who will be able to discharge their function without fear, without favour, without intimidation. I make that choice.
BBC: What kind of signal does that send about Jamaica to the outside world? Indeed, to potential investors, to countries that look at Jamaica.
BG: One signal that it sends is that Jamaica is not going to allow values to be imposed on it from outside. We are going to have to determine that ourselves and we are going to have to determine to what extent those values will adopt over time – to change in perception and to change in understanding as to how people live. But it can’t be on the basis that lobby groups far and away from Jamaica will define for Jamaica how it must establish its own standards and its own morals.
And that, in a nutshell, is why homophobia in the Caribbean is so difficult to understand, so easy to misconstrue, and so challenging to confront – it is a morass of Victorian prudishness and religious fundamentalism combined with an extreme interpretation of masculinity and imbued with a sense of developing-country nationalism and a post-colonial assertion of sovereignty.
And it is everywhere. The Barbados Underground blog, for instance, is apoplectic that the “homosexual agenda is gaining ground in Barbados,” noting:
The issue of homosexuality will predictably evoke a flurry of comments which will seek to label the Barbados Underground household as homophobic. By now it should be evident that the BU household is firmly moored to a traditional set of values which has served our household well. The unwillingness of Barbadians to be proactive in structuring the kind of society which it wishes to adopt on a moral front is disappointing and regrettable.
Unfortunately certain core values which have guided our society very well through the years are being diluted. We appreciate that we have to respect the sexual orientation of all of our people. However, there is nothing to say we have to agree with it. We may appreciate in the so-call free world market the need for Barbados to operate in a common economic space. What we don’t appreciate is the willingness by Barbados to prostitute its value system for thirty pieces of silver.
The argument there is similar to Mr Golding’s in its appeal to “core” values, the rejection of any attempt to superimpose an alien (read: non-Bajan) and “dilutive” set of beliefs onto the “traditional” way of doing things.
Still, there is one aspect of these positions with which I do agree – any change in attitude or legislation cannot merely be a response to political or economic pressure from the UK or the US.
The Caribbean, in asserting sovereign rights, needs to take some sovereign responsibility.
So where to start? One suggestion comes from James Marchand, in a letter to the Jamaica Gleaner:
Put reasonable laws in place
The gay people of Jamaica do not need the permission of churches, Government or public figures to live our lives and have sex with whom we choose. However, we do want the Government to put its policy where its mouth is and ensure that violent acts against people of different sexual orientation and also other vulnerable members of society, such as the disabled, mentally ill and even people living with HIV and AIDS, are punished to the full extent that law provides.
This should be done with the creation of a hate crimes law which would serve specific penalties for persons accused of harming or murdering people because of their differences, whether perceived or otherwise.
In reality, it only takes an assumption or a suspicion of being homosexual in some Jamaican communities for someone to be attacked and brutalised. Of the many cases that have come to public attention of ‘gay’ men being beaten and even killed, very few have been as a result of these said men being caught in compromising positions. Yet, they are set upon and, in what might seem like sanctioned events, the all too familiar scene unfolds.
- ‘What Jamaica wants‘ – Church, gays divided on PM’s BBC interview – Jamaica Gleaner
- Homophobic silliness and a failure of leadership– Jamaica Gleaner (Editorial)
- Preparing for the World’s Backlash – Francis Wade/Moving Back to Jamaica
- “Jamaica is represented in our imaginations as a space in which heterosexuality is homogenised national identity” – Tino Pinnock / Raw Politics Jamaica Style