Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-JAMAICA: Gays Living in Fear

Dionne Jackson Miller

KINGSTON, Jun 16 2004 (IPS) - Going to a party is a normal activity for most people. For a homosexual in Jamaica, it can be a dangerous pastime.

“I’m still shocked it happened. Some layabouts obviously stayed up the whole night and stoned (our) cars at about 4 am,” Lawson Williams (not his real name) told IPS.

To be gay in Jamaica is to risk verbal and physical abuse, say members of the community. So much so that when one of Jamaica’s leading gay rights activists was found murdered, friends feared the worst.

Brian Williamson, who was the leading voice and public face of J-FLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays, was found murdered in his New Kingston apartment last week, with his throat cut.

The police, who are still investigating, have surmised the motive was robbery, and that Williamson knew the killers.

But given his high profile as an openly gay man living in an admittedly homophobic society, friends and human rights advocates are suggesting robbery may have been a secondary issue.

Unlike most other local spokespersons on gay issues, Williamson regularly wrote letters to the newspapers advocating those issues using his full name, and appeared on television and radio programmes without hiding his face or disguising his voice.

Human rights group Amnesty International has urged the police to not dismiss any possibilities.

“We don’t know why he was murdered,” Amnesty’s Piers Bannister told IPS. “We do know that there’s a high level of homophobia in Jamaica, so there was a possibility that it was a hate crime. Many hate crime victims are robbed afterward. We’re not saying it wasn’t a robbery; we just want a full investigation.”

Jimmy Robertson, (not his real name) a spokesman for J-FLAG, said the group immediately feared a hate crime because of past experiences.

“We said that it could have been a hate crime because of the general atmosphere of hostility towards gays in Jamaica, and the reports we receive within the gay community of abuse and discrimination, often violent, that attest to the fact that Jamaica is a hostile environment,” Robertson told IPS.

“I was outside his house on the morning of Brian’s death and there was a huge crowd of people laughing and celebrating. I heard ‘let’s kill all of them’.”

The Jamaican police say they are unable to provide statistics about violence against homosexuals.

While gays regularly speak about violence or threats of violence, Williams says many incidents against the community go unnoticed.

Both he and Robertson told IPS that the majority of the incidents are not reported, because previous bad experiences with the police have made gays wary of trying to seek redress from the authorities.

Williamson himself wrote to the ‘Jamaica Observer’ newspaper last May: “We who are homosexuals are an insult to our families and insulted daily. We are (seen as) ‘the devil’s own children’ … and passed by on the other side of the street or beaten to death by our fellow citizens,” he wrote.

It is the fear of such retribution that makes both Williams and Robertson refuse to give their names for this interview, providing their ages only as “in the 30s,” and refusing even to identify their professions.

“The society will quash you; you’re physically or verbally abused, you can lose your job,” says Williams. “I’m speaking to you using a pseudonym, that’s infra dig (beneath one’s dignity).”

Several gay Jamaican men have been granted asylum in Britain over the past few years on the grounds that they were in danger here because of their homosexuality.

This hostile atmosphere is fostered by the church, say gay activists.

“Christians and their God of fear keep up a constant verbal and physical abuse to people who dare to disagree, think differently or refuse to accept the doctrines and forms of the Christian Church or have a difference of opinion concerning the interpretation of the scriptures,” said Williamson in a letter to the ‘Jamaica Observer’ in January.

Garnet Roper, a minister and columnist for Jamaica’s ‘Sunday Herald’ newspaper, stresses that violence is wrong, and suggests that people who attack homosexuals physically use the teachings of the church to excuse their own behaviour.

Roper is one of many church leaders in Jamaica who steadfastly believes homosexuality is wrong.

“Heterosexual marriage is the only way for the human family to survive. Even if we are inclined to grant homosexuals the right in their own personal space to be that, it is different to intrude on society,” he told IPS. “A homosexual marriage is essentially a contradiction in terms.”

There are also legal implications for homosexuals in Jamaica, where homosexuality per se is not illegal, but buggery, anal intercourse, is a criminal offence.

Although not common, it is also not unknown for homosexuals to be arrested for the act.

Amnesty International wants the buggery law taken off the books.

“We need (the government) to speak out against homophobic violence and to repeal the laws related to homosexuality,” said Bannister.

Roper does not necessarily think buggery should be a criminal act, but says he is concerned about the signal that could be sent by removing it from the books.

But retaining laws related to homosexuality and allowing the stigma of homosexuality to continue, says Robertson, drives people underground, and increases the chance of risky sexual behaviour.

Lawson Williams is confident the laws will eventually be changed.

“It will happen in spite of the howls. The move to actualise rights for gay people is an international movement and it’s legitimate. There’s an inevitability to the movement that I’m heartened by. There is an AIDS crisis in Jamaica and the Caribbean that will force the discussion,” he says.

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