The country of Jamaica is almost as well-known for violent homophobia as it is for dreadlocks, reggae and Bob Marley. In 2006, Time magazine named Jamaica the most homophobic place on earth. The country is certainly living up to that title.
On Monday, Feb. 28, a man believed to be gay was found raped and murdered, with his throat slashed, in downtown Kingston. Last December, a J-FLAG (Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays) activist was stabbed to death. His name was never released to the public, but he was only 26 years old.
Most famously, in 2004, a father encouraged a schoolyard mob to attack his son, whom he believed was gay. The teen's fellow students tore boards from benches and beat him until he was unconscious. He was in the 11th grade. Allegedly, his father watched with a smile.
One would think that the police would protect the people, regardless of sexual orientation. Not in Jamaica. Within the past month, gay bars in the tourist area of Montego Bay were raided by the police. A letter to the editor of the Jamaica Observer stated, "About 20 heavily armed officers jumped from the vehicles, kicked in doors, aggressively accosted patrons, indiscriminately beat and pistol-whipped them, and chased everyone from the venue. During the operation, homophobic slurs were hurled and this seemed to have encouraged patrons of nearby clubs to join in the melee by throwing bottles, stones and other missiles as individuals fled for their lives." This sounds like a scene from Mississippi Burning.
The illogical rage at gays in Jamaica is popularized by contemporary reggae music. Buju Banton is considered a "pioneer" of sorts with his song "Boom Boom Bye." Released in 1992, the dancehall track is an anthem for burning, shooting and killing anyone who does not fit into the rigid constructs of male-female gender roles.
There is also Beenie Man, whose signature song, "Bad Man Chi Chi Man," meaning "bad queer man," is a crowd favorite. Beenie enthusiastically tells his audience to kill gays: "Some bwoy will go a jail fi kill man tun bad man chi chi man/Tell mi, sumfest it should a be a showdown/Yuh seem to run off a stage like a clown/kill dem DJ."
Why is Jamaica so deeply and proudly homophobic? The obvious answer would be religion. Regardless of the stereotypes of marijuana use, steamy dancehalls and island rendezvous, Jamaica is heavily Christian, a legacy of colonization. However, when homophobia in Jamaica is looked at from a historical point of view, sodomy laws, which also apply to heterosexuals, and several other oppressive laws that Jamaica upholds were colonial laws from the British.
The Brits have done away with these statutes. The Jamaican government, though, selectively holds on to some of these colonized rules, conveniently ignoring others. Artists like Beenie Man and even Jamaica's prime minister, Orette Bruce Golding, argue that homophobia is synonymous with Jamaica. On the contrary: Jamaicans are not adhering to Jamaican culture; the country is adhering to colonized culture.
Nonetheless, if you believe the argument that homophobia is the fabric of Jamaica, that does not mean it is acceptable. Not all things that are part of "culture" are positive. For example, black Americans protested against white Southern culture, which relished dehumanizing African Americans through music, literature, film and Jim Crow laws. This hate was protected by the government in the name of culture.
Yes, I know some folks will object to the insinuation that there is any link between homophobia and racism. The truth is: All forms of oppression — sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism — have a link. You cannot advocate for an end to racism but be a proponent of homophobia.
Another sad result of homophobia in Jamaica is the island's high HIV/AIDS rate, tragically increasing under the stigma associated with homosexuality. It's a challenge to prevent HIV/AIDS when sexuality cannot be discussed. This striking homophobia in Jamaica is affecting not only gays but also heterosexuals.
Is there some taboo in Jamaica that people are ignoring? In any area where there is a deeply oppressed culture, there is a vibrant subculture (for example, the blatant homosexuality in the anti-gay black church). Furthermore, why the outrage against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jamaica? Gays in Jamaica are not the cause of mass corruption in the government. Lesbians in Jamaica cannot be blamed for the massive drug trade. One cannot point the finger at transgenders for the astronomical poverty rate, which, according to the prime minister, hit a six-year record in October.
I'm not saying that every Jamaican wants gays lynched, but homosexuality should be a nonissue for the people of Jamaica. Even so, every government needs a scapegoat to make them look as if they are properly serving the people.
In 2004 I went to Montego Bay, Jamaica. I met a gay man who was living a horribly lonely life. This wasn't the trite, media-hyped story of "down low" American men; this was a man who knew that his life was at risk if he ever attempted to be his authentic self. I asked him, "Why not move to Europe or the States? You shouldn't have to live like this."
He calmly answered, "This is my island. This is where my family is. I love my island. I deserve to be here like anyone else. I don't want to run somewhere else to be gay." I couldn't argue with that.
Regardless of religious beliefs about homosexuality, hopefully we can agree that stabbings, rapes and murders are all unacceptable. Jamaica once had a history of denouncing injustice but, sadly, is now known as a nation that upholds an injustice.