By Joe Contreras
Updated: 5:52 p.m. ET Sept 7, 2007
Sept. 8, 2007 - While governments in a number of Latin American countries and elsewhere begin to recognize the legal rights of same-sex partners, Jamaica is bolstering its image as one of the most virulently anti-gay societies in the Western Hemisphere. Between February and July of this year, 98 gay men and lesbians were targeted in 43 different mob attacks, according to the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays. Four lesbians were raped, four gay men were murdered, and the houses of two gay men were burned down. On Valentine’s Day the police took two hours to reach a Kingston pharmacy where a crowd shouting anti-gay epithets had cornered three men; then the constables allegedly attacked an activist who had tried to help the men, striking him in the abdomen with a rifle butt and slapping him repeatedly in the face.
Those grim tales don’t square with popular notions of Jamaica as a laid-back Caribbean paradise whose unofficial national motto reads “No problem, mon.” Human-rights activists fault gay-baiting recording artists, fundamentalist Christian church groups and mainstream political leaders who dare not antagonize some of the island’s more prominent men of the cloth, like W. A. Blair, the head of Jamaica’s New Testament Church of God, who has called for the public flogging of so-called Sodomites. Jamaica also has the world’s third-highest per capita murder rate, behind South Africa and Colombia, and the blend of widespread violence and anti-homosexual prejudice creates a ripe climate for hate crimes targeting gays and lesbians. “We’ve become increasingly violent as a society generally and increasingly tolerant of violence as a solution to our problems,” says Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the human-rights organization Jamaicans for Justice. “It is quite a toxic brew.”
In 2004, Human Rights Watch published a devastating report that linked the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS cases in Jamaica to the rampant bigotry on the island. The report found that some gay men were reluctant to seek medical treatment because they feared disclosure of their sexual orientation in such a hostile environment, and in some cases health workers at public hospitals and clinics flatly refused to treat HIV/AIDS patients. Even today homophobia is tacitly condoned by some political parties and companies. The Jamaican-owned Sandals chain of resort hotels refused to lodge same-sex couples as recently as three years ago, and the country has retained a colonial-era law that criminalizes anal intercourse long after the former colonial power, Britain, struck down such statutes. During the country’s 2001 election the opposition Jamaican Labour Party adopted as its jingle the song “Chi Chi Man,” which celebrates the burning and killing of gay men.
Among the musicians spotlighted in the July-August issue of Air Jamaica’s in-flight magazine SkyWritings is Buju Banton, a dreadlocked singer who in 1992 recorded the hit song “Boom Bye Bye,” egging on listeners to use their Uzis on “faggots.” He was later charged with spearheading a 2004 attack on six gay men at a house near his recording studio. (A judge dismissed the case on grounds of insufficient evidence.)
Spokesmen for the country’s ministers of justice and national security declined repeated requests from NEWSWEEK for interviews. The one official who did agree to talk was public defender Earl Witter, a London-trained barrister who in an interview stated that the three men who were trapped in the Kingston pharmacy in February had been seen “displaying their feminine disposition” and urged homosexuals “not to go out of their way to display their sexual orientation.” In fact, almost no Jamaican is prepared to proclaim his or her homosexuality in public, and the menacing conditions on the island have been recognized by officials in the United States and Britain, who have granted asylum to some gay and lesbian applicants.
The political climate isn’t likely to change as long as evangelical Christian churches, whose congregations already outnumber those of the mainstream Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, continue to grow in size. “They claim to see sex as solely for procreation, and they are bullying the politicians into toeing the line,” says University of the West Indies senior lecturer Horace Levy. “There would be bloodshed if there was going to be a gay-rights march in this country.” On this, the land of reggae and Rastafarians just can’t seem to relax, mon.