Lorri L. Jean, CEO
L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center
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Jamaican police don’t compile statistics on attacks against gays and lesbians, but leaders of J-FLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays, www.jflag.org, the only gay organization in the country, say that they know of 30 gay men who were murdered in Jamaica between 1997 and 2000. J-FLAG cannot publish its address and its staff uses pseudonyms for fear of attacks and killings. “Verbal and physical violence [against LGBT members] ranging from beatings to brutal armed attacks to murder, are widespread,” wrote Rebecca Schleifer, a Human Rights Watch researcher in a report on HIV and LGBT life in Jamaica. “For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse.”
When Schleifer visited Jamaica in 2004, Brian Williamson, the country’s leading gay activist, was violently chopped to death with a machete in his apartment in Kingston. Schleifer walked to his street shortly after the murder and found a crowd of people gathered outside Williamson’s apartment singing and celebrating his murder and shouting the chorus of “Boom Bye Bye” a popular Buju Banton dancehall hit about shooting gay men: “Boom bye bye, in a faggot’s head. Rude boys don’t promote nasty men, they have to die.” Others were laughing and yelling, “Let’s get them one at a time,” and, “That’s what you get for sin.”
Schleifer said, “Without a doubt it absolutely was a homophobic killing.” Williamson was the only publicly out gay man speaking for LGBT rights in Jamaica. Since his death no one has come out publicly on a national scale.
There have been more attacks in the past year, including a mob that attacked gay men who were attending a funeral on Easter Sunday. Gay men and women are sometimes forced out of their homes and shootings and murders continue to occur. The violence has prompted hundreds of LGBT Jamaicans to seek asylum in other countries. “The government’s failure to take strong measures to protect gay people has made life hell for many in Jamaica. Its failure to educate the broader public has endangered many lives,” wrote Schleifer in her report. The homophobia and rejection of gays and lesbians is prevalent at many levels in Jamaican society. The Prime Minister recently told a BBC reporter that he would never allow an out LGBT member to be in his cabinet.
Thomas Glave, a Jamaican professor and writer now living in the US, was a co-founder of J-FLAG along with Brian Williamson. “When we came out to the public, we were facing an enormous amount of opposition,” he said. “There was a ferocity we encountered, scathing is not enough to describe it—more like horror. Yet, we had a powerful and growing micro-community. From that core we did an enormous amount of work.” Glave did not speak out publicly as a gay man in Jamaica like Williamson did, so he was not widely known as gay. Still, he experienced homophobic violence. Glave was attacked by a group of men on the streets of Kingston and pinned to the wall with a knife against his throat by a man who thought he was gay. “I’d never seen that hatred before in black men.”
Glave says homophobia and homophobic violence in Jamaica is driven by the church, dancehall music, rigid ideas about gender, and the vigilante justice pervasive in the country. Jason MacFarlane, the current director of J-FLAG (his name is a pseudonym) agrees with Glave. “Homosexuality challenges gender roles and ideas. If you don’t conform, you don’t appear to be everything that man should be, you are other than a man, less than a man, which is seen as against the natural order of gender,” he said. He also attributes the widespread homophobia to some dancehall lyrics that promote violence against gays, which he calls murder music. Artists such as Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, T.O.K., and Shabba Ranks, write and perform songs that advocate attacking or killing gays and lesbians. “‘Boom Bye Bye’ is an anthem to some people,” he said. Many Jamaicans who come to J-FLAG for help after attacks say that assailants sang the lyrics to homophobic dancehall songs as they beat or attacked them.
According to Glave, “The music exacerbates public homophobia. We don’t need this kind of advocacy of violence in Jamaica, which is already very violent.”
Groups such as Outrage! a UK-based LGBT activist organization, and J-FLAG have led protests and awareness campaigns targeting record companies and concert sponsors in a Stop The Murder Music Campaign. Some of their efforts have been successful, Beenie Man had to cancel a number of concerts because of protests and a concert sponsor dropped out thanks to Outrage! complaints. A few statements and promises not to promote homophobic violence have been signed by artists, but these have generally not been abided by. Homophobic dancehall is still being made and distributed, played and performed. J-FLAG advocates against the music but spends most of its limited resources counseling and aiding LGBT Jamaicans who are victims of anti-gay violence. It is a small organization, with a staff of two and a country-wide case-load. “We are funded through the goodwill of friends overseas,” said Jason MacFarlane, noting that information on how to make donations is on the J-FLAG website.
Jamaican officials largely ignore homophobic attacks. The Senior Superintendent of Police in Jamaica rejected the idea that members of the LGBT community face violence. He said, “We haven’t had any reports about violence against homosexuals. Most of the violence against homosexuals is internal. We never have any cases of gay men being beaten up. I know that there is a sort of revulsion against homosexuals and lesbians, but evidence does not substantiate that there is any level of violence perpetrated against them.” Activists in Jamaica say that there is some inter-class violence within the LGBT community but the majority of the beatings, attacks, and murders are perpetuated on the LGBT community by others.
Jamaica is not exceptional. The US still has homophobic violence, as do many other countries, especially in the Caribbean. In fact the Jamaican laws outlawing sodomy are about as authentically Jamaican as the British lilt with which many Jamaicans speak, which is to say, not Jamaican at all. The laws began in Victorian England and were inherited by Jamaica from colonial rule.
The LGBT community in Jamaica exists in spite of the laws against them and prevalent homophobia. “Even when you are there you find ways to negotiate the space, and ways you can live that you think are safe,” said Deann Fontaine, a filmmaker creating a film on LGBT life in Jamaica. “You live with what you have.”
Young people in Jamaica are increasingly willing to come forward and make spaces where they can be out, even in the face of violence. They can’t be out safely in their own communities but they travel for parties and to meet together, often armed with knives in case they encounter fights.
“Some of the kids feel like, ‘enough is enough,’ but they don’t have the time to wait for change, and they can’t leave,” said Glave. As the LGBT community becomes more visible, it faces increased violence, but visibility also brings hope for awareness and change. “There is more talk about gay people in communities in Jamaica. And the reality is, people have to deal with it,” remarked Glave. “You can only maintain so much hatred for so long.”
Though familiar to Americans primarily as a laid-back beach destination, Jamaica is hardly idyllic. The country has the world's highest murder rate. And its rampant violence against gays and lesbians has prompted human-rights groups to confer another ugly distinction: the most homophobic place on earth.
In the past two years, two of the island's most prominent gay activists, Brian Williamson and Steve Harvey, have been murdered — and a crowd even celebrated over Williamson's mutilated body. Perhaps most disturbing, many anti-gay assaults have been acts of mob violence. In 2004, a teen was almost killed when his father learned his son was gay and invited a group to lynch the boy at his school. Months later, witnesses say, police egged on another mob that stabbed and stoned a gay man to death in Montego Bay. And this year a Kingston man, Nokia Cowan, drowned after a crowd shouting "batty boy" (a Jamaican epithet for homosexual) chased him off a pier. "Jamaica is the worst any of us has ever seen," says Rebecca Schleifer of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and author of a scathing report on the island's anti-gay hostility.
Jamaica may be the worst offender, but much of the rest of the Caribbean also has a long history of intense homophobia. Islands like Barbados still criminalize homosexuality, and some seem to be following Jamaica's more violent example. Last week two CBS News producers, both Americans, were beaten with tire irons by a gay-bashing mob while vacationing on St. Martin. One of the victims, Ryan Smith, was airbused to a Miami hospital, where he remains in intensive care with a fractured skull.
Gay-rights activists attribute the scourge of homophobia in Jamaica largely to the country's increasingly thuggish reggae music scene. Few epitomize the melding of reggae and gangsta cultures more than Banton, who is one of the nation's most popular dance-hall singers. Born Mark Myrie, he grew up the youngest of 15 children in Kingston's Salt Lane — the sort of slum dominated by ultraconservative Christian churches and intensely anti-gay Rastafarians. Banton parlayed homophobia into a ticket out of Salt Lane. One of his first hits, 1992's Boom Bye-Bye, boasts of shooting gays with Uzis and burning their skin with acid "like an old tire wheel."
Banton's lyrics are hardly unique among reggae artists today. Another popular artist, Elephant Man (O'Neil Bryant, 29) declares in one song, "When you hear a lesbian getting raped/ It's not our fault ... Two women in bed/ That's two Sodomites who should be dead." Another, Bounty Killer (Rodney Price, 33), urges listeners to burn "Mister Fagoty" and make him "wince in agony."
Reggae's anti-gay rhetoric has seeped into the country's politics. Jamaica's major political parties have passed some of the world's toughest antisodomy laws and regularly incorporate homophobic music in their campaigns. "The view that results," says Jamaican human-rights lawyer Philip Dayle, "is that a homosexual isn't just an undesirable but an unapprehended criminal."
Meanwhile, gay-rights activists say Jamaican police often overlook evidence in anti-gay hate crimes, such as the alleged assault by Banton in 2004. His accuser, Brian, says cops excised Banton's role from their reports of the 2004 beating. A police spokesman denies that. But in dismissing the case earlier this year, the judge in the trial warned Banton to avoid violence and "seek legal recourses" when he has complaints against gays in the future. Banton refused TIME's request for an interview. His manager, Donovan Germain, insists that the singer is innocent and that "Buju's lyrics are part of a metaphorical tradition. They're not a literal call to kill gay men."
There are some signs that Jamaica may soften its approach. Jamaica's ruling party last month elected the nation's first female Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, a progressive who gay-rights supporters hope will eventually move to decriminalize homosexuality. She hasn't yet said that, but Jamaica's beleaguered gays say they at least have reason now to hope their government will change its tune before their reggae stars ever do.
|Buju Banton Charged With Assault Of Six
Men Accused Of Being Homosexuals|
Granted $50,000 bail
September 23, 2005
REGGAE artiste Buju Banton was on Wednesday offered bail in the sum of $50,000 after he pleaded not guilty to a charge of assault in the night court section of the Corporate Area Resident Magistrate's Court.
The police alleged that Banton was among a group of men who barged into a house on Carlisle Avenue in Kingston on June 24 last year and beat six men who they accused of being homosexuals.
On Wednesday, the rastafarian entertainer was ordered to report to the Constant Spring Police Station every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, between the hours of 6:00 am and 8:00 pm as a condition of his bail.
The case against Buju Banton will come before the court on September 30.
Buju Banton, whose name is Mark Myrie rose to prominence almost 15 years ago with hardcore dancehall lyrics. One of his early hit singles, Boom Bye Bye, drew great criticism from gay rights groups, which claimed the song incited the murder of gay persons. Buju Banton is one of eight dancehall artistes who have come under pressure from gay rights lobby groups in Europe and the United States for their gay-bashing lyrics. In fact, several of these artistes have had a number of their stage shows cancelled as a result of the pressure.
Buju Banton was banned from travelling to the United States for one year after he was found guilty of possession of and cultivation of marijuana in the local courts and ordered to pay a fine of $9,000 or serve 60 days in prison in April last year.
In March this year the travel ban was lifted by the United States Embassy and the singer was given back his visa.