“ What is the fear of stones — n o, the fear of being stoned? What is it called, this expectancy some men carry in their backs that there are people out there, so righteous and exact in their hatred that they will pick up a stone and fling it after us — an accusation, a punishment, a curse for not fitting in, for not belonging to some tribe they have decided all men must belong to. Is there a name for the premonition lurking in our blood that one day friends will turn their backs and families will disown us?”
— Kei Miller, from “The Fear of Stones”
There may not be a word for the fear of stones being thrown at members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, but there is a word for what inspires it: homophobia. And for the past fifteen years the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays — better known as J-FLAG — has been working to mitigate this seemingly intractable part of Jamaica’s response to the LGBT community.
This kind of work isn’t easy to do in Jamaica. “It can be daunting at times,” admits J-FLAG programme co-ordinator Jaevion Nelson. “Jamaica has a most frightening reputation,” with incidents of violence against LGBT citizens and anti-gay rhetoric by politicians and other public figures making headlines around the world. And pressure from well-meaning international human rights groups more often than not has trigged an unhelpful backlash.
But a new J-FLAG initiative is trying to change the way the debate is framed. Launched in January 2013, We Are Jamaicans is an online video campaign in which LGBT Jamaicans and their friends share personal stories and insights, putting the human element at the forefront of what has sometimes been a heated but abstract argument pitting “rights” against “tradition.” “This is the first time so many gay and lesbian Jamaicans and their allies are featured in a campaign openly,” says Nelson. “The campaign includes two transgender women as well. The videos” — posted at YouTube — “have been viewed over 100,000 times.”
We Are Jamaicans makes the fears and hopes of the LGBT community tangible. In one video, two women — Angeline and Jalna — use hand-written cards without showing their faces. “I remember hearing my parents and their friends joke about the ‘battyman dem.’ This started ten years of self-hating. Today insults and threats don’t affect me the same way. However, I still fear violence.”
Their story goes on: “A few years ago I was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by two men because I am a lesbian. The police implied it was my fault, and told me to change my ‘lifestyle’ . . . We have been together for almost three years. We want to hold hands at Devon House, too, without the threat of violence.”
“I don’t have life easy,” says transgender Tiana Miller in her video. “I feel alienated, always being bashed by society, but that doesn’t change who I am or who I want to be. I just want respect, acceptance, and tolerance. After all, I’m only human.”
J-FLAG was born in 1998, started by “a group of twelve men and women — educators, lawyers, public relations practitioners, advertisers, and human rights activists — who saw the need to advocate for the protection of LGBT people from state-sanctioned and community violence,” Nelson says. “J-FLAG’s call was for the fair and equal treatment of gays and lesbians under the law and by the ordinary citizen.”
Politically, LGBT rights in Jamaica have been a hot potato. In a 2008 BBC interview, then prime minister Bruce Golding said there was no place for homosexuals in his Cabinet. On the other hand, in a debate before the most recent general election in 2011, current prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller said, “Our administration believes in protecting the human rights of all Jamaicans. No one should be demonstrated against because of their sexual orientation. Government should provide protection.” Simpson-Miller went on: “I have no intention of prying in the personal business of anyone.”
No one would question that Jamaica has been a dangerous place for LGBT persons. One of J-FLAG’s founders, Brian Williamson, was killed at his home in 2004, one of dozens of men killed in Jamaica over the past two decades for being, or suspected of being, gay.
In Lloyd D’Aguilar’s video Not in My Cabinet: Homophobia in Jamaica, Rebecca Schleifer, a researcher with Human Rights Watch’s HIV and AIDS Programme, described the scene after Williamson’s killing. “I was stunned by the reaction to his murder. There was a party going on. There was a celebratory mood. People were singing and laughing . . . I was shocked. A person had been brutally murdered and this was their reaction.”
J-FLAG has not sat passively by. “J-FLAG is one of the foremost organisations promoting respect for human rights” in Jamaica, says Jaevion Nelson. He lists the activities undertaken over the years: “public education, crisis intervention and support; research; rights-based advocacy; and legal assistance.” Progress has been slow and not without controversy, but Nelson believes these efforts have brought real results.
“Fifteen years ago,” he says, “there were more dancehall and reggae artistes singing homophobic songs. More persons’ right to life was being violated because of their sexual orientation.The Commissioner of Police would never instruct police officers to respect the rights of all civilians, regardless of their sexual preference.” Today, however, “more and more research is being done on homosexuality and homophobia in Jamaica, there are social and entertainment spaces that are friendly to and for LGBT people, and there are more than five LGBT-focused organisations and many support groups across the island.”
J-FLAG’s outreach to the Jamaica Constabulary Force has also paid off. “This has led to an increase in LGBT persons reporting homophobic crimes and harassment to the police,” says Nelson. “Based on J-FLAG’s intervention, the Police Commissioner instructed the police force that no police officer should discriminate against civilians, regardless of their sexual orientation.” And the Ministry of National Security has agreeing to expand the 2013 Jamaica National Crime Victimisation Survey to investigate perceptions of victimisation, safety and security among LGBT people.
In his own We Are Jamaicans video, Nelson says, “I want to live in a Jamaica that appreciates, loves, and respects difference. A place where, despite our unique qualities, we can all live, work, raise families, and conduct business, whether we are gay or straight.”
That’s the overarching message of the campaign, which also features LGBT “allies” like author, educator, and human rights activist Yvonne McCalla Sobers; author and environmentalist Diana McCaulay; human rights activist Dr Carolyn Gomes; and political and development consultant Sharifa T. Wright, project manager at the Bureau of Gender Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister.
Writer and editor Annie Paul — born in India and long resident in Jamaica — also made a video for the series. “I participated because I think what J-FLAG is trying to do is important,” she says. “In the past I’ve argued that the universalisation of ‘gay rights’ ignores local realities, and that this kind of deep cultural change cannot be legislated or campaigned for from the outside. Now that J-FLAG has launched an innovative, media-savvy campaign, I am moved to add my voice to their struggle to show that I am very much for the rights of homosexuals to exist, and to do what I can to help them assert their rights as Jamaican citizens.”
Funding for We Are Jamaicans came from the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition. “The campaign was designed following recommendations from consultations with LGBT persons, activists, and allies to show the experiences of Jamaica’s LGBT community in a more diverse way.” Nelson explains. “There is an urgent need to interrupt prevailing discourse on LGBT realities in Jamaica.”
He continues: “The campaign is a major departure from the [previous] almost invisible advocacy for the human rights of LGBT Jamaicans. We Are Jamaicans demonstrates very boldly that LGBT Jamaicans have been claiming and reclaiming their place in their homes and communities — something that has been missing from advocacy and media narratives over the years.”
“The truth is, more of us are realising that human rights belong to every one of us without exception, and more of us are promoting this concept. However, unless we know them, unless we demand that they be respected, and unless we defend our rights to love and care for each other without distinction, these rights will be just words in a decades-old document.”
Add your voice
“People are encouraged to make their own videos to send to us,” says Jaevion Nelson. To share your own story with We Are Jamaicans, or if you have ideas or would like to volunteer, contact J-FLAG at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1876 754 2130. J-FLAG is also active on Facebook and Twitter (@equality_JA)