Anti-Gay Climate Breeding Violence in Jamaica

Times Staff Writer

When gay rights activist Brian Williamson was stabbed to death in June and jubilant crowds danced around his mutilated body, police said he was a robbery victim.

When Jamaican reggae dancehall musicians were bumped from U.S. and British concert appearances last year over lyrics encouraging the killing of gays, people here called the censure a failure to respect free speech.

When Human Rights Watch issued a withering condemnation of homophobia in Jamaica in November and accused police and politicians of condoning anti-gay violence and harassment, government spokesmen rejected the report as “lies” and “nonsense,” and a senior police official called for sedition charges to be brought against its authors.

Sexual acts between men are prohibited by law in Jamaica and punishable by years in prison. But a spate of attacks on gays, at least two of them fatal, and foreign condemnation have spotlighted this tourism-dependent country’s attitude toward homosexuality.

The stigma attached to homosexuality and those living with HIV/AIDS prevails across much of the Caribbean, where Victorian-era anti-sodomy laws remain on the books in at least 11 countries, and politicians courting fundamentalist Christian constituencies are loath to contest them. But gay activists and human rights groups point to Jamaica as the most intolerant of the lot.

Some analysts, including Richard Stern, director of the Costa Rica-based Agua Buena Human Rights Assn., see the hostility as stemming from a religious conviction that homosexuality is a sin.

Jamaicans such as Kingston taxi driver Dale Bell say they reject homosexuality “because a man is supposed to be with a woman, not another man.” Bell acknowledges that his countrymen are deeply intolerant of gays but “not to the point of killing.”

Human Rights Watch researcher Rebecca Schleifer sees the violence against gays and lesbians as one part of a neglected society lashing out at another.

“It’s important to note the context of endemic violence and the failure of police to respond adequately,” she said. “It’s a problem for many people, not just gay men. Violence against gay men is just a piece of that.”

In the report she prepared for the New York-based agency, Schleifer said violence against gay men had become so common that a culture of impunity had grown around it.

“Violent acts against men who have sex with men are commonplace in Jamaica,” she concluded. “For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse. Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women reported being driven from their homes and their towns by neighbors who threatened to kill them if they remained.”

The report, based on more than 130 interviews and investigations into recent attacks, detailed routine discrimination by police and healthcare workers. Witnesses told stories of police standing idle or even encouraging attacks on men perceived to be gay, and of medical treatment delayed or denied to those with HIV/AIDS.

The report warned that the climate of fear was discouraging Jamaicans from seeking HIV testing or education on prevention, threatening a further spread of the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. Jamaica’s HIV infection rate of 1.6% is the third-highest outside sub-Saharan Africa after Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In almost two-thirds of the cases, the virus was transmitted through heterosexual intercourse.

Jamaican authorities rejected the report as interference in their social affairs. Information Minister Burchell Whiteman, who acknowledged that he hadn’t read the full report, said the allegations were unjustified. Donovan Nelson, spokesman for the National Security Ministry, called the report “nonsense.”

Groups such as Jamaica AIDS Support, Jamaicans for Justice and the country’s only gay rights organization, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, or J-FLAG, endorsed the report and called on the government to prevent anti-gay violence. They point to the defensive response as an indication that little will change.

“We speak but we hide,” J-FLAG member Yvonne Artis said of the group, which slain activist Williamson helped to found. “What our government does is give other human beings the right to kill homosexuals.”

Witnesses to the June 18 mob killing of Victor Jarrett in Montego Bay reported that three police officers had triggered the attack. On a local beach, a young man accused Jarrett of being a “battyman,” derogative slang for a gay man. The officers reacted by beating Jarrett with batons. A crowd gathered, chanting, “Gays must die.” When Jarrett tried to flee, the officers urged the crowd to beat him also. They chased him and he was stabbed and stoned to death.

Several Jamaican reggae stars perform songs with lyrics that advocate violence against gay men. The provocative music prompted MTV to remove Beenie Man from a Miami concert in August after gay activists protested. On one CD, Beenie Man sings, “I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica -- come to execute all the gays.” Similar lines in songs by dancehall artist Sizzla prompted British authorities to deny him a visa for five concerts late last year.

“They sign lovely agreements not to do this overseas but as soon as they get back to Jamaica, they go back to it,” said Artis, the J-FLAG member, recalling an incident in late June when another popular dancehall singer, Buju Banton, took part in the beating of six gay men and threw their belongings into the street as a crowd cheered on the attackers.

J-FLAG maintains a website and telephone hotline but doesn’t publish its address for security reasons. Artis, one of the few gay advocates who appear on radio and TV talk shows, says her partner dresses as a man in public so they won’t attract attention as a lesbian couple and endanger their families.

Stern, head of the Agua Buena group, predicted that the recent spotlight on abuses in Jamaica eventually would prompt reform after a face-saving period of denial.

“I have a hunch that the government, rather than doing something dramatic as a backlash, will decide to reverse its policy,” he said. “They want to save face but at the same time not get singled out by the international press. They know that will be bad for tourism.”

Stern said few Jamaican gays dared to get tested for HIV. “No gay person in his right mind is going to admit they’re gay to a health worker,” he said, noting reports that patient confidentiality was often violated in Jamaica.

Stern has researched the plight of gays in other areas of the Caribbean. In places such as St. Lucia and the British Virgin Islands, he found some too fearful to go public, but said the situation in Jamaica was far worse.

“The small islands are less violent,” he said. “You don’t see the kind of mob violence there that you get in an anonymous big city like Kingston.”

Health officials from Caribbean Community nations and Britain gathered in St. Kitts in November to discuss reducing the stigma and discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS, taking note of some positive steps in the region, including laws prohibiting discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS in Bermuda and the Bahamas.

Referring to recent events in “one state” -- unnamed but clearly Jamaica from the context -- the St. Kitts conferees put the burden on the government to investigate and prosecute acts of violence against gays.

“The failure to do so may reflect institutionalized homophobia, as well as a general lack of state capacity to ensure order and security,” the officials said.

The prevailing sentiment against gays in the Caribbean surfaces when the rare suggestion is made that laws criminalizing homosexuality be repealed.

In Barbados, Atty. Gen. Mia Mottley set off a social uproar a year ago when she suggested that the country’s anti-sodomy law was counterproductive to combating HIV/AIDS because those engaged in homosexual relationships feared prosecution.

At the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies, law faculty dean Simeon McIntosh contends that former British colonies that have criminalized homosexuality lack any constitutional basis for those actions.

He predicted that the regionwide Caribbean Court of Justice, expected to open its chambers this year to serve as the high court for at least eight island countries, eventually would be called upon to decide whether the nations have the right to prohibit citizens from consensual sexual relations.

No constitutional challenge has been made yet, he said, because the religious people of the region have succeeded in keeping the debate on a theological level, deeming same-sex relations an “abomination.” Penalties for offenses are typically severe, including life imprisonment.

“There is a conception of democracy at play in the Caribbean that the majority should decide certain questions,” McIntosh said.

“People say there should be a referendum [on repealing sodomy laws] knowing full well that the people in favor of criminalization will always win. They don’t understand that certain fundamental rights are not held at the sufferance of the majority.”