The Black World Today, December 2, 2002
By Zadie Neufville, IPS
KINGSTON—When the United Kingdom (UK) granted asylum to three Jamaican men last month, it once again shone the international spotlight on the severe homophobia that have cost many here their homes, their jobs and even their lives.
The men were granted asylum on the grounds that “severe homophobia” in this northern Caribbean island, had endangered their lives, and that the Jamaican government failed to protect them from violence.
The three are among the first successful asylum claims for homosexuals since a 1999 House of Lords ruling that allowed “particular social groups”, including homosexuals, to qualify for refugee status.
Barry O’Leary of the London-based law firm Wesly Gryk says he was able to convince British officials that the Jamaican government “is unwilling to protect the rights of the men”.
O’Leary, also a spokesman for the Stonewall Immigration group, an organisation that lobbies for gays, says some of his Jamaican clients have suffered physical torture and have even seen their partners murdered.
Another seven Jamaican men are seeking refuge in the UK and one has been granted indefinite leave to remain there.
One of the refugees, Matthew (name withheld by request) describes being gay in Jamaica as being in “a hell house”.
“When I was walking down the streets, I didn’t know who was going to attack me. The police do nothing. I would be dead now in Jamaica,” he told reporters.
One 26-year-old, who wants to remain anonymous, told of constant verbal abuse while working as a security guard. At home, he suffered beatings that left him deaf in one ear and in one particularly brutal attack his throat was slashed and he was left to die.
“I was always looking over my shoulder, thinking someone was going to attack me or shoot me,” he said. “It is just not possible to live a normal life in Jamaica if you are gay,” the man said on British radio.
The success of the asylum seekers is welcome news in the Jamaican gay community. The Jamaica Federation of Lesbians All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) reports that 30 men are currently homeless after being forced out of their communities, while some have been driven to insanity.
Since 1980, about 40 gay men have been killed and hundreds of alleged homosexuals viciously beaten and driven from their homes. The threat of violence is so prevalent that the only known names and faces behind J-FLAG live overseas, the group’s telephone number is unlisted and its office location a secret.
In Jamaica, sympathising or associating with gays can be deadly, J-FLAG says.
The organisation has recorded dozens of incidents of violence against gay men, but says that many of those who suffer beatings or threats are simply too scared to report them to authorities.
O’Leary says many of his clients also report abuse from police, and in a 2001 report the international human rights group Amnesty International (AI) outlines police beatings, beatings supported by the police, arrests and malicious detention of gay men.
But Miguel Wynter, head of the Jamaican Constabulary’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which investigates allegations of police misconduct, says he has had no complaints from gay men claiming to have been abused by police.
Wynter does admit that the Buggery Act could deter homosexuals from making complaints.
Gay women are verbally harassed but violence against them is reportedly rare.
AI and local activists blame a 135-year-old Jamaican law—the Offences of the Person Act, which includes the Buggery Act—for promoting discrimination against gay men. Under the act, homosexual intercourse is a criminal offence punishable by up to 10 years hard labour.
“Laws that treat homosexuals as criminals lend support to a climate of prejudice,” Amnesty said in its report.
“Although not all gay men engage in anal intercourse,” says J-FLAG spokesperson and attorney Donna Smith, “it is so much a part of the essence of the intimate interaction between gay men that a law against it is, in essence, a law against male homosexuality”.
Activists say local recording stars are also to be blamed for the violence because their lyrics often call for violence, including the murder of gays. One of the most popular recordings in recent years advocated “burning and shooting ‘Chi Chi Men’” (a local term for homosexuals), while others have called for battering them to death.
According to O’Leary, “I am representing one client who has lost his last two partners to fatal homophobic attacks, one of which took place in church”.
Smith believes that constitutional protection for homosexuals could provide a buffer against some violence and discrimination. Last year, J-FLAG lobbied the Constitutional Commission to include sexual preference in the law as a protected right.
Government refused to consider the proposition saying, “homosexuality was not on its agenda”.
Public Defender Howard Hamilton is now investigating whether the constitutional rights of 16 men killed and 40 others injured in 1997 prison riots were breached.
In what is said to be the country’s worst case of homophobic violence, prisoners attacked and killed or injured alleged homosexuals after prison officials announced they would distribute condoms to counter the spread of HIV.
A Jamaican government spokesperson denies any support for homophobia, but many like O’Leary continue to point to remarks made by Jamaica’s head of state and chief scout, Governor-General Howard Cooke, when he sanctioned the exclusion of gays from the Boys Scouts.
“Those are not the type of persons we wish to be part of the scout movement,” he told a newspaper nearly two years ago.
Gay rights activists say that the failure of government to address the situation is putting even non-homosexuals at risk. Bobby (name withheld by request) says he was targeted because he “was not living with a woman”.
He told reporters that community leaders ordered him to leave his home.
And while gays living in middle and upper-class communities may escape the vicious beatings that their less fortunate counterparts in the inner cities are exposed to, they still face discrimination. Many complain of having police smash into their homes on false reports and of searches designed to catch them in compromising situations.
So the abuse continues and those who can, seek refuge abroad. Those with enough money and power, protect themselves behind security fences. According to J-FLAG, those with no recourse end up dead, others wander the streets and some lose their minds.