As part of an awareness-raising tour of the U.S., the co-chairs of the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays ( J-FLAG ) held a press briefing in Chicago Feb. 11. The two-week visit by Karlene and Gareth ( last names withheld for security reasons ) is organized by Amnesty International USA's OUTfront program and follows a report published last fall by Human Rights Watch. Entitled 'Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica's HIV/AIDS Epidemic', the 79-page document presents a detailed look at the plight of the Caribbean nation's LGBT community.
In what may appear like paradise to oblivious tourists, homophobia among Jamaicans is omnipresent and deeply rooted in a sense of national identity. 'Being homosexual in Jamaica is considered foreign, a learned behavior,' Gareth explained. While most people are eager to adopt American products, music, styles, and attitudes, he added, they draw the line at 'gayness,' which they perceive to be an undesirable import.
State-sponsored discrimination is extremely difficult to reverse as it permeates such fundamental aspects of life as the educational system; the allocation and delivery of health care services; and the criminal code. According to Karlene, gay people are very suspicious of government, hospital staff, and the police. Of the latter she related that in many cases, 'they won't take your statement [ when a gay individual reports being the victim of a crime ] -- they will probably chase you out of the station.' Moreover, alleged incidents of police misconduct and brutality against LGBT persons are typically not investigated.
Asked about the role religion plays in Jamaican culture and the influence churches have on the social discourse around homosexuality, both speakers asserted that none of the denominations established on the island have offered any support. Some even preach fire against gays and lesbians, perhaps inspiring performers like Beenie Man and Capleton, whose lyrics graphically incite such violence. The only welcoming house of worship and spirituality is a smaller group called the Universal Center of Truth.
Because of the strong stigma attached to homosexuality, parents, siblings, and extended family members rarely embrace, or even tolerate having a gay man or a lesbian in their midst. Ostracized and denied protection, they can become prime victims of harassment and hate crimes.
Founded in 1998, J-FLAG was the first organization in Jamaica to react to this hostile climate and advocate for LGBT rights. Today it has seven full-time members, but their exact location remains undisclosed for fear of being targeted. J-FLAG offers counseling and referral services; provides documentation in asylum cases based on gay-bashing incidents; and lobbies local, national, and international officials.
'We need the support of other nations … we are seeking international solidarity,' Gareth pleaded. In their attempt to build a network of allies, the J-FLAG representatives traveled to New York, Detroit, Atlanta, and Washington D.C., where they met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Local Chicago groups supporting J-FLAG include Affinity, Center on Halsted, Equality Illinois, Gay Liberation Network, Chicago NOW, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and Windy City Media Group/Identity.
In 2000 J-FLAG submitted a proposal to the Jamaican parliament to prohibit discrimination based on sexuality. The following year, a parliamentary Select Committee recommended a review of the laws criminalizing consensual gay sex. By 2002, both initiatives had been rejected. The country's next general election is scheduled for 2007. However, while both the ruling People's National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labour Party will have undergone a change in leadership by then, all indications are that political repression of LGBT citizens will continue.
One area where discrimination is particularly devastating is in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. The Human Rights Watch report outlines the different ways in which patients' access to care and antiretroviral medication, expectations of confidentiality, and basic dignity are routinely being compromised by health care providers. Slower admission processes, isolation on separate wards, homophobic remarks, and inadequate medical care are common obstacles encountered by gay individuals in clinics and hospitals.
Karlene pointed out that a certain amount of education and training of health care personnel had been undertaken by the Jamaican government with the result that few doctors now refuse to see HIV/AIDS patients. However, transportation to medical facilities and the professionalism of nurses remain constant sources of problems. Unfortunately, there exists no complaint mechanism to potentially punish health care providers for discriminatory practices.
Acknowledging another significant achievement, Gareth mentioned that the government had acted swiftly and effectively to reduce mother-to-child transmition of the virus. Over the last ten years, the number of infected babies has dropped substantially due to early testing as well as the free distribution of medication to HIV-positive expectant mothers.
Efforts are currently under way to draft an open letter to P.J. Patterson, Prime Minister of Jamaica, urging him and his government to publicly denounce anti-gay violence; prosecute those responsible for it; repeal the sodomy laws; and implement aggressive measures to combat HIV/AIDS. It is hoped that J-FLAG will convince enough influential figures to sign onto it.
For more information on J-FLAG, see www.jflag.org . For the complete Human Rights Watch report on Jamaica, see www.hrw.org . For Amnesty International USA's Program on LGBT Human Rights, see www.amnestyusa.org/outfront.