Gay activist: Jamaica ‘disappoints and surprises’

Maurice Tomlinson hopes for end to island's buggery law in five years

Lawyer and gay rights activist Maurice Tomlinson recalled his native Jamaica’s moniker as the most homophobic place on Earth when he received the inaugural David Kato Vision and Voice Award in January. Kato was murdered in his own country, Uganda, for doing the work that Tomlinson himself does on behalf of queer Jamaicans — documenting, educating about, and responding to human rights abuses.

Tomlinson was luckier than Kato in that he managed to flee — life intact — from Jamaica after publicity about his marriage to a Canadian led to death threats. “The fact is, the anti-buggery law makes me — at least to Jamaican police — an unapprehended criminal with few, if any, human rights,” he told those gathered to see him receive the Kato award.

Tomlinson recently spoke to Xtra about the gradually evolving landscape for gay people in Jamaica, the heavy lifting that still needs to be done to make rabid homophobia a thing of the past, and the outspokenness of Jamaica’s new prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, in favour of queer rights — a move that left Tomlinson speechless.

Xtra: How did you react to the Jamaican PM’s gay-supportive comments during the national election debate: that she’d have no problem having gays in her cabinet and that she’ll put anti-sodomy laws to a vote?

Maurice Tomlinson: To say that I was shocked would be putting it mildly, because we had been quietly expressing to members of both political parties that this is something that needed to be addressed because of the number of attacks, and we kept hearing repeatedly that no politician was going to sacrifice their political capital to address this issue. I just couldn’t believe that she would have done that. Most of the politicians from both parties, we know that privately, they are not in favour of the anti-sodomy law — the thinking ones, anyway. It’s a small minority that is still, unfortunately, very antediluvian. The majority were very, very candid with us that it needed to go.

Were you aware that she was one of those in private making those positive noises?

Oh yes. We noted, for example, the selection of some of the candidates, which would have normally raised eyebrows because they were not typically what you call macho. We knew that she had worked with gays. She’s not an intolerant person. We know that for a fact. She’s a leader who focuses on capacity and your ability. We knew she wasn’t like [former prime minister Bruce] Golding, who would be obsessing over people’s sexuality. But we didn’t think she would have done what she did.


What do you think allowed her to make such a bold statement in the middle of an election campaign?

A lot of work had been done privately to educate both parties as to the impact of the law and the attacks. We had, for example, two savage murders at the latter part of the year based on homophobia, and I don’t know, she just decided to take the lead.

What do you think of her idea to put the criminalization of homosexuality to a free vote in Parliament?

As a conscience vote. For Jamaica, it’s a landmark move, but it’s an unfortunate development for the simple reason that you are then subjecting the rights of a minority to the will of a majority, because she said the conscience vote would be based on dialogue with parliamentarians’ constituents. Research we did last year showed that over 80-something percent of Jamaicans self-identify as homophobic, and a similar percentage did not want the law to be changed, so to subject it to a conscience vote, which is based on dialogue with constituents, will confirm and perhaps reinforce the homophobic policy and give it legitimacy. She should view it as a human right, which is non-negotiable.

Do you think she’ll act on her campaign statements?

I think she will. Whether she will do it within the near future, I doubt that, because the reality is she has quite a few other pressing matters. And I personally don’t think we should have the vote soon. I think we’ve been given by her statement a clear indication that we as activists need to do our damnedest to inform and educate people, so that when the vote comes, it will actually be a true reflection of what Jamaicans understand this law to mean for their brothers and sisters, their pastors, teachers – what it means to the society. Right now they don’t. Jamaicans don’t know what the law means and the impact the law has.

Her positive statements didn’t appear to affect her electorally. Why do you think that is, considering the violence and discrimination Jamaican gays face?

It’s a curious thing. I think that Jamaicans respond differently to a maternal figure than to a gay man. There’s just a lot of sympathy for a maternal figure, and she is. She’s called Mama P. You don’t trouble a black woman, not in our culture, no. Sadly, gays are still considered to be slightly abnormal – she’s showing compassion for the less fortunate.

I’m always intrigued by the differences between Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. You don’t get the sense, at least in the media, that what holds in Jamaica in terms of violence toward gays is the same as on other islands. There isn’t that level of vitriol. How would you explain the level of homophobia in Jamaica?

We actually did research on that, through the University of the West Indies. We were puzzled that we all inherited the same law, and actually Trinidad’s law is even more draconian than ours. [They] criminalize even the entry of homosexuals. We found that the major drivers of homophobia in Jamaica are the church, the evangelical church, and the music. I asked why during my sample size of one, [my mom], if she could explain to me where all this vitriol came from, because she has had a longer view of the situation, and she said when she was growing up this hate for gays wasn’t there. There were gays in every village. People knew them, nobody cared, nobody paid them any mind, but during the ’80s and ’90s we saw an influx of evangelical Christians. First televangelists, then visiting pastors, who were feeding us a steady diet of hate, and that was what led to the corrupting of the minds of many of the musicians who were still in their formative years, and that’s when the songs started to be produced, the “Boom Bye Bye.” That kind of vitriol wasn’t present in the other islands because the Catholic Church was more dominant. You didn’t have the rightwing evangelicals being as dominant, say, in Dominica or Trinidad. In those jurisdictions, it was always the more established high church, which was never as vitriolic in its preaching. Homilies were always a little more muted. But our style of preaching was always pandering towards the more vitriolic, and there was always a heavy element of homophobia, which converted into music. We already knew this, but the research confirmed that.

You had to flee because people got wind of your marriage. How would you describe your own life as a gay man in Jamaica?

I’ve had some experiences, which resulted in me not realizing that I became quite introverted. It just happened subconsciously. I just retreated into my home. I didn’t go out, and I dreaded social spaces. Before my partner and I got married, he came to visit me in Jamaica, and we went to the beach. I had been told that my voice was particularly gay, sounds gay, and I walked gay. So I told him that I’d walk in front of him; we dressed butch, I told him, Don’t speak to me until we found a spot on the beach and sat down. But when we entered the beach we were met with, ‘Bullet, bullet,’ and then someone shouted, ‘Here comes the gays.’ And I thought that I had masked my homosexuality, and clearly I hadn’t. That was a very nerve-wracking experience, because that was a beach with only one entry and one exit.

Similarly, when I worked with Air Jamaica — I got the dream job of my life, becoming a flight attendant — I thought I was doing an excellent job, got letters of commendation. My boss told me one day that I needed to stand in front of a mirror and act more macho and deepen my voice because passengers were complaining that I sounded gay, that I looked gay. Those kinds of things made me retreat into myself, and I didn’t realize I had done it until I came to Canada. I still continue the same approach. I don’t go out. I’m conscious of people looking at me. I’m always very conscious of my surroundings, and my husband has to keep reminding me, ‘No, nothing will happen to you, you’re safe.’ I continue to dread the harassment that has made me become very narrow in terms of my social environment.

Has anything changed remarkably at all since the machete death of JFLAG co-founder Brian Williamson eight years ago?

Jamaica keeps disappointing and surprising me at the same time. We had, as I told you, two murders, two very savage machete murders, last year. One Aug 2 and the other Oct 18. The last one was this 16-year-old boy who was chopped to death because of questionable relations with another man. They barged into his home in the early hours of the morning and killed him. I really thought we’d moved beyond this, but at the same time the dialogue has never been so rich about tolerance in Jamaica. You’re seeing very positive statements by the newspapers, you’re seeing more persons coming out speaking the language of tolerance, you’re seeing a politician stand up and state unequivocally that she supports the rights of sexual minorities.

As a lawyer, I’ve had to go to the police station on behalf of LGBT who have been abused and seeking to make reports, and the recording officers treat them with such contempt. A young man came to report someone who threw stones at him and called him a faggot, and the police officer refused to take the report.

When you talk to the senior members of the police force, they will all tell you, to a person, that they think the law has to go, because it’s totally unenforceable, because you can’t get into people’s bedrooms without breaching the constitutional protections to the right to privacy. At the entry level, the police are not there, and that reflects the societal divide.

Once we had a training session for LGBT, and one of the participants, who was from a higher social class, said gays need to protect themselves better; they need to make sure they drive a different route every time they go home. One of the other participants put up his hand and said, ‘But what about us who take bus?’ Those who walk the streets and have to rely on public transportation, they are the ones bearing the brunt of it — unless you can pass, and like myself, you may think you’re passing. There’s a code of conduct – I’m not an anthropologist, so I’ve never studied it – where it doesn’t matter if you have braided hair, pants below your waist and earrings in both ears. Jamaicans know what defines you as gay and what defines you as straight. If you are not on the right side of the divide, you are vulnerable. If it’s not a physical attack, it’s likely you’re going to be exposed to some sort of verbal abuse.

Are you seeing anything happening locally that gives you hope that things can change?

The voices at the table certainly have increased. I used to write most of the letters to the media, with a few others, and that was very distressing. But now almost every other day, there’s a new letter. We’re also seeing in relation to social media like Facebook, people are discussing the issues more intelligently.

When you say “we,” you’re talking about AIDS Free World, or JFLAG?

The role of AIDS Free World is to support JFLAG. In my role as legal adviser of marginalized groups, I was responsible for designing and executing public service advocacy strategies. We work in partnership with JFLAG and other groups, such as Representatives of Jamaicans for Justice, Families Against State Terrorism and other human rights allies. It’s a broader group of persons than just JFLAG.

You received the David Kato Award, and there is mention that you were planning to give the $10,000 grant toward Caribbean police officers’ anti-homophobia training. Where have you reached with that plan?

That is what I want to do, because having been a victim of police homophobia, I have a passion for training. We’re still trying to find the best vehicle. There was a program that was piloted in Canada by Egale, and my husband actually worked on developing that program because he was a police officer, so we’re looking at that as one model.

Any outreach to schools, or way too early for that?

Way too early! I’m still trying to get people to treat gays as human beings. Once we cross that hurdle . . . it’s an important issue because the fact is we do have quite a few LGBT youth who’ve been kicked out of their homes, who are being subjected to abuse, and we’re not tracking it in the same way it’s happening in North America, but we know that outreach needs to happen. But right now, I don’t think realistically we would be able to do it without putting the movement back.

Stephen Lewis sat down with Xtra, and he was talking about the Coca Cola-sponsored concert last April in Montego Bay when Sizzla advocated the killing of gays, and Lewis was saying AIDS Free World went after Coca Cola, wrote the board of directors asking for an apology and the sponsorship of a gay-friendly concert. Do you know if this plan to hold Coke accountable is proceeding?

Oh yes, we are certainly proceeding with those plans. They have taken out the full-page ads — six months later — after our request. The fact is that Coke’s response has been woefully inadequate. We are gathering the information to show the impact of their concert, the attempts we’ve made to engage them on this issue, and their lack of response in any kind of meaningful way. There’s just no excuse for what they did. There’s no way you can recruit someone like Sizzla and not know the kind of music he sings. Basic due diligence would require you to look at what these people sing, and he’s notorious.

How far is AIDS Free World willing to go in holding Coke accountable?

I’m not at liberty to say all the plans, but the fact is we find their response so far has been totally inadequate, and we’ll certainly be requiring from them a much more fulsome response that underscores the gravity of what they’ve done. They haven’t demonstrated they understand what they’ve done.

Tying aid to countries’ progress on queer rights. Do you agree with such an approach?

You have to approach countries like Jamaica as equals if you want to get the change you are seeking. These kinds of threats will backfire. I think a much more pragmatic approach would have been for the United Kingdom to acknowledge that the source of the law is Britain, which would immediately deflate the argument of the religious right that homosexuality is imported. We need to point out that as far as our culture is concerned, we never had this homophobia as a function of our culture. Homosexuality existed in African cultures, homosexuality existed in the native Indian culture that was here, the Taino. So what was imported was homophobia. You need to acknowledge that you were the ones who sent it to Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, and you must also acknowledge that it caused irreparable harm when you had it, and you since have done away with it because of the harm it has done to your development, your society, your peace and order and good governance, and suggest in a much more respectful, collaborative way that you would like to assist Jamaica to undo the harm caused which you helped cause. You don’t threaten, because you’re hurting the very cause you want to assist. The United Kingdom has certain human rights challenges that it is not addressing, so it can be seen to be hypocritical that you’re picking on a country that is at a lower stage of its development and expecting them to address an issue that is very sensitive and took you several years to undo even with your superior jurisprudence.

Hillary Clinton’s address to the UN, what’s coming out of the Commonwealth from Kamalesh Sharma, Ban Ki-Moon of the UN has made several gay-positive statements. Do these help or hurt the fight for queer rights in countries like Jamaica?

Yes, they do help. Jamaica is very sensitive to international opinion. We are heavily dependent on tourism, and we have a very open society; our borders are very porous. When I heard Hillary Clinton’s speech, I thought her approach was far superior to [UK Prime Minister David] Cameron’s. She reiterated that word respect. But what she fails to do is acknowledge the source of Jamaica’s homophobia is religious evangelicals from the North, primarily from the United States. We have, as you may know, possibly the Guinness Book of World Records record for the most churches per square mile. And this is a sad fact; most of these churches are led by people who have minimal theological training. It’s an easy way to make a living. Just being able to read the Bible, without being able to interpret in terms of cultural context, is all that’s required to become a pastor. The more rabid, the more virulent you are, the more likely you are to attract congregants.

There is a feeling that countries of the Global South that have made some positive strides in pushing for queer rights, like South Africa and India, should be more outspoken on this issue.

Cuba is very interesting to me. They’re on the verge of approving gay marriage. I think it’s easier for countries like Jamaica to take their cue from Cuba, from Brazil, India and South Africa. Even in South Africa, there is still a level of dissonance. Right after apartheid, the philosophy that those who were discriminated against should not be discriminating, that has long since ebbed, and the spirit of homosexuality being un-African is taking root, so they’re not as vocal, unfortunately, as they could be on this issue. And most of these countries that have made these tremendous strides for human rights and LGBT rights are so preoccupied with other developmental issues that this is just not priority, so they are very unwilling or unable to speak up because they’re more concerned about bread and butter issues than about the rights of a minority.

What’s your prognosis for Jamaica?

I’m more hopeful than not. I think the extraordinary leadership by Portia in just saying what she did — because in our context, statements by political leaders carry a tremendous amount of weight — if we continue to see this kind of leadership, we will definitely see an eroding of virulent homophobia, and also with the aggressive public education campaign which is ongoing, I think we will see the tide turning.

In five years, I am hopeful the issue of Jamaican homophobia will be no more, and we will have in place not only an end to the buggery law, but a very strong anti-discrimination law.

That’s a pretty short time frame.

The fact is we never thought that within two years of doing aggressive public advocacy work that we would have got a Jamaican leader to say what she did. So that has caused us to recalibrate very quickly and say, you know, it is possible. I monitor the social media discourse, and the discourse is becoming a lot more “live and let live,” the one-love culture that used to define us. That’s what people are remembering, and the more evangelical posture of the church is being increasingly rejected by Jamaicans, because there’s so much hypocrisy involved in it, and people are rejecting that level of intolerance because it’s hurting them.

Natasha Barsotti is originally from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. She had high aspirations of representing her country in Olympic Games sprint events, but after a while the firing of the starting gun proved too much for her nerves. So she went off to university instead. Her first professional love has always been journalism. After pursuing a Master of Journalism at UBC , she began freelancing at Xtra West — now Xtra Vancouver — in 2006, becoming a full-time reporter there in 2008.

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