'Anti-gay sentiment is on the rise in Jamaica - but there are signs of hope'

2017-01-16
For over two decades, attorney-at-law and lecturer Maurice Tomlinson has been at the forefront of LGBT+ and HIV+ activism in Jamaica. He is one of the few men to challenge the country’s colonial anti-sodomy law, which criminalises gay sex with carries a jail sentence of up to ten years imprisonment with hard labour. Attitude magazine caught up with Maurice after a year which saw him mount another successful Montego Bay Pride, conduct police LGBT sensitivity trainings across the Caribbean, and host two ground-breaking public forums on religion and homosexuality... After some fairly intense scrutiny from the international press, has the situation improved at all for Jamaica’s LGBT population in the last few years? Yes and no. Research by the Caribbean’s premier university, The Univeristy of the West Indies, found that the level of anti-gay sentiment in Jamaica has risen from 82% in 2012 to near 91% in 2015.  However, drilling down we find that there are signs of hope as attitudes in some respects are changing for the better, even while there is still an overwhelming societal rejection of homosexuality. We have certainly seen Jamaican politicians tone down their anti-gay rhetoric and in some very limited cases they have even publicly shown support for LGBTI people. Having said that, the new Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, campaigned on a platform of “family values” and attended blatantly anti-gay rallies before his surprise victory in February 2016. Do your friends and family back in Jamaica support your work? My family in Jamaica are completely supportive. Only my mother and father are still on the island as my two brothers and I have all migrated to the global north. I am most pleased with the support of my father, who is an Evangelical Christian and he has done a complete 180 degree turn. He was originally very upset about the fact that my Canadian same-gender marriage was made public in Jamaica after a local newspaper published an unauthorised photo of our wedding on their front page. This effectively caused me to flee the island for a period and my dad initially blamed me for the unwanted exposure as he thought that I was jeopardising him and my mother. Sharp words were exchanged born out of fear and anger and we did not speak for a long time after this. However we are now fully reconciled and he even insists on driving the Montego Bay Pride bus decked out in two huge rainbow flags! He also insists on accompanying me whenever I travel around the island to show The Abominable Crime documentary that chronicles some of my anti-homophobia work. My mother is also very supportive although she worries for my safety, as do most of my friends and extended family. What are some of the most pressing issues Jamaica’s LGBT groups are facing? The fact is that there is not one LGBT community but several communities, and so their needs will differ. There are class, orientation, gender, and other stark differences between the groups.  So, for example, some LGBT youth from lower socio-economic backgrounds are thrown out on the streets as young as 10 years old because their parents believe that they are biblical abominations. The island’s powerful pastors regularly preach that “harbouring” these kids could cause the “cause the wrath of God” to befall a household. Many of the kids end up living in sewers and selling sex to survive. They are also paid extra for condomless sex, often by men with female partners who are with women as “masks” or “cures” for their homosexuality. The last time we tested some of these kids a significant number of them were HIV positive. For these youngsters their most pressing need is somewhere to live. Although lesbians are not criminalised (our anti-sodomy law only criminalizes male same-gender intimacy) they are still victims of horrendous abuse in this highly patriarchal society. Lesbians are seen as threats to the social order and some have been subjected to violent “corrective rape”. Among other things, these women need the enactment and enforcement of hate crimes legislation to offer them some safety and protection. Some gays are privileged enough to live in gated communities, own private cars, have more secure employment, and self-select into the types of entertainment that insulate them from homophobic attacks. However, even these “rich queens” as we are called (because I number myself among them) are not totally immune from homophobia. For example, we have to pay a premium for accommodation and transportation and the precarious Jamaican economy means that we are vulnerable to losing our insulation at any time. So, we need effective anti-discrimination legislation, and the repeal of the anti-sodomy laws, so that we can enjoy the rights of full citizenship, regardless of our financial situation. Have you made much progress in abolishing the anti-sodomy law and are you confident it will eventually happen? I filed a constitutional challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law in 2015.  I was the attorney for the original claimant who withdrew his claim in 2013 after receiving threats to his life and that of his family.  I am being supported by local and international groups, such as the Canadian HIV/ADS Legal Network where I now work. This is very important because the 2011 Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms is based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and so Canadian jurisprudence will be very helpful to my case. The case is still at the pre-trial stage and the court recently allowed 10 religious groups to join in order to defend the law which they deem necessary to prevent the extinction of mankind(!) In the meantime, I am waiting on a next court management date to settle the trial date, etc. Unfortunately, the court system moves very slowly in Jamaica and so it is difficult to say when the next court date will be. We are hoping early in 2017.  A legal challenge to the anti-sodomy law is the most viable way to get rid of this British colonially-imposed relic because Jamaican politicians are simply too scared of the powerful anti-gay religious leaders to propose a legislative change. Even the current Prime Minister has proposed that the anti-sodomy law be put to a referendum, which would be pointless as nearly 91% of Jamaicans support the law. What about the LGBT community’s relationship with the police? The Jamaican police force has instituted an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, and there have been attempts to provide LGBT sensitivity training to officers. But their response to anti-gay attacks remains inconsistent (officers have told LGBT victims that they must come with the names and addresses of their attackers before the police will even begin an investigation) and investigations of anti-gay hate crimes are woefully inadequate, if they happen at all. We are also seeing more opinion leaders, such as clerics and media personalities, publicly express pro-gay sentiments, but equally we are seeing a ramping up of homophobic right-wing religious extremist rhetoric in response to the local and international advances for LGBTI human rights. Are you still receiving death threats and do you still have security concerns when you return? I still receive email death threats, but I no longer report to the Jamaican police because of their failure to do anything about the ones that I did in fact report.  I also have a special security protocol when I return home that in many ways makes me feel like a prisoner in my own country. However, these are necessary as on one of my trips home I decided to go visit friends and I was identified at a stop light by a windscreen washer who started calling a crowd to attack the car. Thankfully the light changed and we were able to get through before anything worse happened. Maurice Tomlinson is a senior policy analyst at Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. He is coordinating the third annual Montego Bay Pride and you can find out more here. Photography by Gordon Nore More stories: Former Eastenders str Jonny Labey nails Cheryl rountine on ‘Dance Dance Dance’ Model Matt Waters leaves nothing to the imagination in new Garçon Model shoot – WATCH