Successive governments have failed to promote the human rights of our people, including the poor and most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. Unfortunately, legislative reform has not been short on guaranteeing that, as a secular society (not a theocracy), our laws are designed to “engender a sense of belonging in our citizens [and] ensure equality of opportunity and equal rights for all” (PIOJ, 2009:13-14).
Despite our motto, ‘Out of Many One People’, Parliament has neglected to provide any guarantee for non-discrimination based on health status, whether you are HIV-positive or mentally ill, for example, disabled, or of a non-heterosexual orientation. The recently passed Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms provides the perfect lens through which we can determine how biased we are as a people.
Within this context, I wish to respond to a news article titled ‘Lesbianism a concern for educators’ and a letter ‘Gay campaign must be spurned’ that were both published in The Gleaner on May 25. According to the article, “There is the growing challenge of lesbianism in the education system.”
The article exposes the reality that far too many persons, including our guidance counsellors, are incapable of separating their religious and personal beliefs from their professional roles. Additionally, there seems to be a gap in the training of counsellors to sensitise them about sexuality, including sexual orientation, from a scientific and human rights-based perspective. It is necessary that we all understand that everyone has some kind of sexual orientation, which is the sexual or emotional attraction to others.
According to the American Psychological Association: “Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality.” Contextual factors such as homophobia or teachers warning students they will be punished for “unchristian-like” behaviour incapacitate an individual from actively participating in his or her community or utilising services provided by the State.
Such an outlook can also ostracise persons and the groups to which they belong, result in antisocial behaviours, poor academic and work performance, force homosexuals into heterosexual marriages, among other things.
The writer of the letter, which was published in The Gleaner, argues that homophobia is not prevalent in Jamaica and that it is a medical term. Homophobia is an irrational hatred, intolerance, and fear, which has religious, legal and medical underpinnings. In our case, antipathy is expected of every Jamaican by an engrained cultural sanction. Furthermore, with more than 200 reggae and dancehall songs promoting social exclusion, hatred, harassment and violence against gays and lesbians, there is no doubt that Jamaicans are homophobic.
In a recently published study on attitudes and perceptions of Jamaicans towards same-sex relationship, Professor Ian Boxill, using two homophobia scales to develop an instrument for Jamaica, found there is a high level of homophobia among Jamaicans. Furthermore, the incidents of violence meted out to homosexual and bisexual men and women are evidence of the pervasive bigotry which exists. Since January 2011, there have been more than 20 reports of abuse on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender expression. Last year, more than 40 were reported.
It is clear that we have far to go in understanding issues of gender and sexuality, particularly within the context of our laws, religiosity and morality. Nonetheless, it is critical that Parliament, with the support of organisations like The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays, create a space for dialogue so Jamaicans can recognise that homophobia does exist, is affecting the lives of many, most of whom suffer in silence, and, most important, appreciate the principles of human rights for all.
Corbin Gordon is the programme and advocacy coordinator at the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays