LGBT Jamaicans – what the research says

James Patrick Carraghan
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As LGBT+ rights improve at home in the UK and USA, our focus turns increasingly to the rights of our LGBT+ brothers and sisters in the rest of the world. We’ve written before on the rights of LGBT+ people in the Commonwealth, for instance.

On 21 October, Human Rights Watch released an 86-page report analysing the situation of LGBT+ individuals in Jamaica. The report, Not Safe at Home: Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People in Jamaica, features explicit testimony from LGBT+ individuals in Jamaica who have faced violence from both the citizenry and the police, and points to many issues within the Jamaican social structure which allows for this form of abuse.

Even though the Jamaican Constabulary Force developed a Policy on Diversity aimed at training police on how to interact with LGBT+ people in 2011, it is clear from the evidence assembled that there has been no serious attempt to implement it and that there is no way to find out whether or not officers have been held accountable for non-compliance.

While there have been positive developments through the work of activists in Jamaica and international organisations, it is hard to see real change from disdain to systemic apathy as the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying LGBT+ rights were not a ‘top priority’. This report calls out abuses against the human rights of LGBT+ people in Jamaica, but sadly the report does not give the reader any idea of what they can do to help.

The report begins with the details of the Dwayne Jones Case, which occurred just over a year before this report was published. On 21 July 2013, Jones was at a party, wearing ‘female’ clothing. When it was discovered that she was biologically male, she was beaten, stabbed, shot and finally run-over with a car. She had been homeless since she was 12. Her family initially refused to claim her body. No one has been arrested or charged in this case as of December 2014. This is a harsh reality check to those who believed in the tourist vision of Jamaica, where threats against LGBT+ people are followed through with acts of violent retribution. Not every case is as aggressive as it was in the Jones case, but the threat of being the next victim is very real.

Not Safe at Home makes many references to the 42-page Sexual Offences Act of 2009, which is the most important law related to sex crimes currently on the books. It is a law which is intensely heteronormative and limiting, defining ‘sexual intercourse’ as ‘the penetration of the vagina of one person by the penis of another person’. This creates a problem—the complete absence of any mention of homosexual intercourse. Rape is defined on strictly heterosexual terms in Part II, Section 1 3. (1) :

‘A man commits the offence of rape if he has sexual intercourse with a woman

(a) without the woman’s consent; and

(b) knowing that the woman does not consent to sexual intercourse or recklessly not caring whether the woman consents or not.’

Under the law, men who are convicted of ‘buggery’ (same-sex intercourse between women is not technically illegal in Jamaica, though it is still treated as a crime) they must register as sex offenders. To register as a sex offender for being gay is to be thrown in the same boat as rapists and paedophiles, and can only compound the negative social perceptions of gay men as sick or perverted.

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J-FLAG (Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays), an organization which greatly helped with the research of the report, documented 231 attacks against LGBT+ people between 2009 and 2012, including but not limited to ‘home invasions, physical assaults, and mob attacks’. Only 19 of these crimes were reported to the police. In the cases documented by the Human Rights Watch, only four resulted in arrests. Of the cases reported in Not Safe at Home, only one lead to a conviction—which was later overturned on appeal.

It is clear that LGBT+ people are not well-served by their police force – in a country where there is now wide-spread distrust of the police, LGBT+ people have even more reason than anyone else to be weary of officers and the legal system.

Even with the aforementioned attempt to address diversity, the police force is unwilling to address the violence against LGBT+ people head-on. A young lesbian couple referred to as Winnie and Nadine went to the police to report that their house had been broken into and that they had both been raped – a case of what has been terrifyingly termed ‘corrective rape’.

‘You’re sodomites,’ a police officer said, ‘look at her, a sodomite them, why did you come to the police station? A fuck you want, a fuck you get.’

The same officer is later quoted as saying, ‘Sex you want sex is what you get. Dirty lesbian girl deserve what you get.’

We are told that Winnie and Nadine were unable to file a police report. There have been no arrests in the case. In another case, we read of a transgender woman whose house was burned down while she was away. Other people have had their houses stoned or routinely have threats made against them.

Both the general population and the police force routinely engage in derogatory language to describe LGBT+ people, explained in the opening ‘Note on Jamaican Language’: ‘Battyman’ is a pejorative term to mean a man who has sex with men, where ‘Sodomite’ refers to a woman who has sex with women. Effeminate men are referred to as ‘fish’. These terms are commonplace in Jamaica, both among the general population and among the police force. As if this weren’t enough, there are also several reports of LGBT+ people being blackmailed by police officers – giving them money in exchange for not being taken into custody.

In a 2006 Time article headlined ‘The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?’, Tim Padget discussed the violent murder of two prominent activists, Brian Williamson and Steve Harvey, which occurred in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The culture of police apathy contributes to a larger cultural problem.

Reports of Buju Banton’s ‘Boom Bye Bye’ – a song about murdering gay men – being sung outside the homes of murdered gay men points to a larger cultural problem. In the cultural realm, like in America, it appears that there is a battle between continuing to make a career off lyrics which embrace homophobia and ignorance or to make a call towards understanding. Unfortunately, it looks as though the majority of progressive artists from Jamaica tend to be based outside of the country.

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There is another cultural issue here: censorship. The opponents of LGBT+ rights have appropriated the language of anti-censorship campaigns to claim that LGBT+ people are censoring speech and ideas. A poster replicated in the report says ‘Speaking Truth is Not “Homophobia”’ over a picture of a man with duct tape covering his mouth. The poster continues to list selectively-worded ‘facts’ about LGBT+ people – gay men especially – which promote bigoted attitudes.

The Stop Murder Music campaign – which asked artists to sign an agreement not to use anti-LGBT+ lyrics in their songs – was milquetoast at best and ill-conceived at worst, falling right into the hands of those who want to claim that LGBT+ groups are intolerant, while masking their own intolerance in the language of freedom. This is very dangerous territory.

The stigmatisation of LGBT+ people in Jamaica’s cultural and legal spheres has carried over to the healthcare sector, where LGBT+ people are often subject to horrible treatment or are denied assistance and care until it’s too late.

Jamaica has the highest HIV transmission rate in the Caribbean. Many men and women living with HIV are stigmatised. Even though the predominant mode of HIV transmission in Jamaica is through heterosexual activity – according to the Jamaican government’s own statistics – the idea that HIV is a ‘gay disease’ still sticks with the general population and even within the healthcare services. This means education around HIV remains poor.

HIV positive patients’ privacy is not respected, even by people who work in clinics. A psychologist, David M., told HRW:

‘There are some physicians [that] are wary of LGBT in their [private] practice… my clients have told me this. They [doctors] have no problem seeing them outside of their private practice, [but] they fear that LGBT coming to their practice might turn normal patients away and would rather see them in the public health system or JASL [Jamaica AIDS Support for Life]. The discrimination has to be considered as fear of association.’ [Italics mine]

If doctors are afraid to have LGBT+ patients because it creates a social problem, what hope can there be for nurses and hospital aides to treat these patients with dignity? Transgender patients are often subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment at the hands of the medical community. Anne L., a transgender woman who was seeking treatment for knife wounds after being attacked, described the experience as follows:

‘The doctor asked me what happened. I told him the story. He called the porter and said, “You have to look at this.” He called various people to look at me. He pulled down my pants to look at my sex organ. He said, “You should not let man [men] sex you.” He called about three porters and another man [a patient] to look at me.’

The report has its flaws. HRW had previously published a report in 2004, Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic. It becomes clear in reading Not Safe at Home that some of the information builds from what was stated in the previous report. One should really read the two together and synthesise the information to form a richer portrait.

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In the 10 years between the two reports, so little has changed, and it is clear that LGBT+ Jamaicans are still afraid to come forward to report crimes committed against them. If nothing else, it makes one realize how much ground has to be gained.

The source material for this report also should be looked at, and there are moments when one questions the over-reliance on information collected by J-FLAG. Attempts to access links to the J-FLAG website were thwarted – the site has been hacked by a group calling itself ‘Team System Dz’, who put up a YouTube video with contact information as of this writing. The J-FLAG Facebook page, however, is still functioning. Another organisation, Quality Citizenship Jamaica, works to help ‘lesbian, bisexual and other women who have sex with women’, and can also provide information.

There is enough information mentioned in these reports to be expanded into a three-volume study. It is sad to see that these abuses are still routine, and that in a nation where almost 2% of all citizens are living with HIV there can be such ignorance of the virus and how to treat it. What creates this situation and what can fix it? We, in a position of relative privilege in our countries, must find ways to show solidarity and support to our comrades who are still living in the hell we have managed to escape.

The toxic stains of colonialism, as well as the brutal disgust that can be wrought by ultra-conservative religious mania bare a majority of the responsibility for creating this situation. The laws which punish sexual acts between same-sex individuals are descended from the anti-buggery laws put in place by the English when they colonized Jamaica. They have been rewritten over the years with vaguer wording, but the purpose is the same.

Given the situation we have as outsiders and our – assumed – status as members of nations which have been the colonisers, how can we best assist in the change which has to happen for the sake of LGBT+ lives?

We cannot come in with the same ‘saviour’ mentality that was the apologia of the colonial system which brought the laws and religious values that caused this situation in the first place. Instead, we must hear what it is that those who are living under this situation need.

The summary of Hated to Death includes a section which gives recommendations for ‘Donors and International Organizations’ to give them an idea of how to best help those facing violence and discrimination. No such recommendations exist in Not Safe at Home. Instead, HRW lists things that the Jamaican government should be doing. No call to action is made on the part of the reader. I feel that rather than leaving you with nowhere to go, it is a better idea to give you a running start.

To learn more about the situation in Jamaica and to learn what you can do to show solidarity, please contact J-FLAG on Facebook, QCJ, or JASL.

About James Patrick Carraghan

James Patrick Carraghan is an award-winning activist, writer, librarian and student at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. He spends his free time gardening, hording books and flirting. You can follow him on tumblr at