Taking a Stand Against Homophobic Violence
By Zadie Neufville
KINGSTON (IPS) – Jamaican homosexuals battered by violence and discriminatory laws hope to benefit from public defender Howard Hamilton’s willingness to stand up for anyone whose constitutional rights have been violated.
With more than 38 homosexuals killed here since 1980 and hundreds of alleged homosexuals viciously beaten, driven from their homes and jobs, the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) has been lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would grant them equal protection under the law.
But that could be a long time coming. So for now, their hopes of justice hinge on Hamilton.
”Where their constitutional rights have been breached and where one’s right to life is affected,” Hamilton says, that person is entitled to the full protection of the law.
He notes that while there is no legal protection from discrimination because of sexual orientation, they can seek protection under various statutes.
”Violence of any kind, whether it be against homosexuals, cannot be tolerated in civilised society,” he says.
Under the 1962 constitution, discrimination because of race, creed, and religion is forbidden. But there is no protection from abuse because of gender or sexual orientation. Hamilton, as public defender and ombudsman, must protect the rights of all citizens but says he is unable to advocate the freedom of expression of homosexuals because homosexuality is against the law.
Prime Minister PJ Patterson vowed last year that he would make no changes to anti-homosexual legislation. This remains a significant obstacle to J-FLAG’s hopes for constitutional reform. Any amendment to the constitution is likely to take years – a freedom of information act has been in the works since 1993- and with anti-gay sentiments high, no government is willing to take the risk, says Steve, a media professional who asked not to be identified by surname for fear of coming to harm if he is known to be a gay man.
Patterson’s stance has found favour with many, but it has put Jamaica in the international spotlight. The Country’s position is in breach of United Nations human rights regulations to which the country is a signatory and according to Hamilton, the country has to uphold the regulations it signed.
Hamilton’s is a position that won’t sit well in a society where homophobia is institutionalised and where homosexuals are constantly targeted for abuse and discrimination. Donna Smith, J-FLAG spokesperson, says anti-gay statements by Governor General Howard Cooke, the head of state, indicate just how deep-rooted homophobia is in Jamaican society. Cooke has sanctioned the exclusion of gays from the boys scouts.
“Those persons are not the type of persons we wish to be a part of the scout movement,” Cooke, referring to gays, told a local newspaper.
The human rights group Amnesty International, in a recent report on hate crimes, listed Jamaica as one of three Caribbean nations with laws that promote discrimination against homosexuals.
According to Amnesty, ”Laws that treat homosexuals as criminals lend support to a climate of prejudice which increases the risk of attacks (and) other abuses.” Amnesty also highlighted the case of four men arrested on charges of gross indecency at Kingston’s International airport in November 1996 and who were held naked in full view of the public for more than 24 hours.
The men were reportedly taken to the rape unit, where they were sexually assaulted. Later, they were made to clean cells and toilets with their bare hands at the Kingston remand centre and their cells were left unlocked so other prisoners could beat them.
It is cases like these that Hamilton will most likely look at, and even he admits there is a tough fight ahead.
The police admit intolerance among their own ranks, with many arrests and illegal home invasions designed to cause embarrassment. With victims reluctant to come forward out of fear of humiliation and further violence, many won’t press charges, J-FLAG concedes.
But the first order of business for Hamilton is to find out who was responsible for the deaths of 16, and injuries to more than 40, alleged homosexuals in 1997, in the worst single case of anti-gay violence.
That was when prison officials, in an attempt to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in prisons, announced their intention to distribute condoms. In response to the allegations of sex in the prisons, inmates at the St. Catherine District Prison and Kingston’s General Penitentiary, two of the island’s largest jails, rioted after warders walked off their jobs incensed by what some described as ”a homosexuality label.” The case remains of great interest to Amnesty, the group says, because no one has been held accountable for the incident. Former prison doctor Raymouth Notice blames the riot on over crowding, poverty, and politics. Over crowding, he says, leads to rape and secret homosexual relationships.
According to J-FLAG, alleged homosexuals in the inner city are particularly at risk. Last year, one man was shot to death even as he sought refuge in a churchyard in central Kingston. In the past few weeks, a group of university students were severely beaten in central Jamaica, and in another incident, police were just on time to prevent the deaths of two young men at the hands of a mob.
The problem stems from the existence of laws that outlaw homosexual relationships and give the public “license” to abuse homosexuals, Smith says.
Pointing to section 76 of the 137-year-old buggery law in the Offences Against the Person Act, Smith notes that consenting adults can be imprisoned for to 10 years with hard labour if they are caught in the act.
J-FLAG wants the laws repealed or the constitution amended to give homosexuals the rights afforded every other Jamaican. It’s a life and death situation, Smith says, because in Jamaica, homosexuality is not only against the law, it is also seen as abnormal and wicked, and in light of highly publicised cases of rape and buggery of minors, an unwanted part of society.
J-FLAG’s actions have earned the ire of many influential locals including radio talk show host and attorney-at-law Antoinette Haughton, who says she believes that homosexuals who desire freedom of expression should live outside Jamaica.
“They want to corrupt our children and tell them it’s OK to live immoral and nasty lives,” she says. It is a view supported by the traditional churches and recently verbalised by evangelist Errol Hall when he told his congregation that homosexuals should come and have him lay his hand on them and ”cast out the demons.” ”They believe homosexuals are the way they are because they choose to be. Why would someone choose to be something that is scorned and hated?” Smith scoffs.
Jamaica’s homophobia came to international attention in 1993 with Dancehall star Buju Banton released ‘Boom Bye Bye’, promoting a bullet to the head for homosexuals.
Another musical group, TOK, has released an anti-homosexual song, ‘Chi Chi Man’, which is being promoted in the United States. It advocates killing homosexuals by ”full them with copper shots.” Until recently, fear of violence and discrimination meant J-FLAG had no face. But Smith, a lesbian, says ”Jamaicans need to see that their brothers, sisters, cousins are or can be gay.” She believes that many parents disown homosexual children because of the violence that fuels homophobia. It is also the reason local human rights groups give for not offering their support to homosexuals.
Jamaica’s acute homophobia is also stalling the Ministry of Health’s safe sex and HIV/AIDS education campaign, forcing Chief Medical Officer Peter Figueroa to call for the buggery laws to be repealed.
It is a position Notice, the former prison doctor, supports because the law prevents the adequate care and counselling of victims of prison rapes, and hampers HIV/AIDS education and prevention programmes among inmates. (END/IPS