Black and Gay and Hunted
In Jamaica, lesbians and gays are the victims of violent
persecution—often murder. Fuelling this gay-bashing are popular reggae
lyrics. Peter Tatchell takes on their singers
New Statesman, October 4, 2004
By Peter Tatchell
It is like living in Afghanistan under the Taliban,”
says Richard, a 28-year-old gay Jamaican. “I wake up in the morning not
knowing whether today I will live or die.” Richard is lucky. He is still
alive. But he bears huge scars from a machete attack by a homophobic mob.
Jamaican police stood by and allowed the crowd to chop at him like a piece of
Amazingly, Richard survived. Others are less fortunate.
The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper reported a gay man being chased by vigilantes
into a Baptist church. Cornered near the altar, he pleaded for his life. They
pumped him full of bullets.
In June, in Montego Bay, a man was beaten to death—with
police acquiescence. He was accused of “looking” at another male. There
was no proof that he was gay, but mere suspicion was justification enough for
A few years ago, the Jamaican media reported that a Gay
Pride march was scheduled in the capital, Kingston. Hundreds of people
wielding guns, machetes, clubs and knives turned up at the starting point.
They had come to kill the “battymen” (a patois term of abuse meaning
“queers” or “faggots”). The police turned up, too—not to protect the
marchers, but to help murder them.
Under Jamaican law, homosexuality is a crime punishable
by ten years’ hard labour. Men who sexually abuse girls in their early teens
face a maximum of seven years in jail. Queer-bashing victims cannot go to the
police for help, because officers are likely to abuse, assault and arrest
them. Amnesty International confirms that gay men and lesbians have been
“beaten, cut, burned, raped and shot on account of their sexuality”.
Jamaican police, instead of assisting the victims, are often themselves guilty
of homophobic “violence and torture”, says Amnesty.
Gay people taken to hospital after being queer-bashed
sometimes have to face the ordeal of hostile doctors and nurses. Badly injured
victims of gay-bashing have been insulted by hospital staff and made to wait
nearly 24 hours for medical treatment.
P J Patterson, Jamaica’s prime minister, refuses to
speak out against the murder of gay people. His police chief has failed to
crack down on homophobic violence.
Homophobic hatred and violence is whipped up by
Jamaica’s eight leading performers of dance-hall reggae, including Beenie
Man, Vybz Kartel, Buju Banton and Elephant Man. Their hit tunes urge listeners
to shoot, burn, stab, hang and drown gay people. Buju Banton’s song “Boom
Bye Bye” exhorts listeners to shoot queers in the head, pour acid over them
and burn them alive. A track by Elephant Man, “A Nuh Fi Wi Fault”, goes:
“Battyman fi dead!/Shoot dem like bird.” And Beenie Man’s “Han Up Deh”
includes the incitement: “Hang chi-chi gal [lesbians] with a long piece of
These murderous lyrics get prime-time airplay in a
society where real-life homophobic violence is a daily occurrence. They
reinforce and stir up anti-gay prejudice. This prejudice fuels queer-bashing
attacks. The Jamaican gay rights group J-Flag says the popularity of new
“kill gays” songs often coincides with a rise in homophobic violence. Yet
even though incitement to murder is a criminal offence in Jamaica, the
government and police refuse to prosecute the singers. Likewise, no one
appears to have been convicted of any homophobic murder.
Buju Banton, meanwhile, is wanted by the Jamaican police
on gay-bashing charges. This vividly demonstrates the link between homophobic
lyrics and homophobic assaults. Despite the arrest warrant, Britain’s two
principal black newspapers, the Voice and New Nation, went ahead and sponsored
Buju Banton’s recent concert in London.
To challenge this bloodthirsty homophobia, Jamaican gays
asked the British gay group OutRage!—which I chair—for help. We have no
office, no staff and no funding, but we organised an international solidarity
campaign, involving 150 local groups in cities across Europe and the US. The
first phase is targeting “murder-music” singers. Our intention is to
challenge lyrics that reinforce and perpetuate homophobic violence. Cancelling
dozens of concerts across Europe and the US has cost the singers and promoters
millions in lost income, and we hope to force them to abandon their murderous
This strategy is working. Two months into the campaign,
dance-hall reggae chiefs held a “crisis” summit. They are now talking
about “ridding reggae of homophobia”.
Sections of the British black community and the left
(mostly members of the Socialist Workers Party) are trying to undermine our
campaign, attacking us as “racists” and “cultural imperialists”. They
say we should “engage” with the performers—but we have tried that for
ten years. It has not worked. These armchair critics have never lifted a
finger to help gay Jamaicans, but they attack our solidarity campaign, citing
their perverse notions of anti-racism. How can it be racist to support black
victims of homophobia and oppose violent homophobes in the music industry?
The real racism lies not in our campaign, but in most
people’s indifference to the persecution of gay Jamaicans. No one would
tolerate such abuses against white people in Britain; it is racist to allow
them to happen to black people in another country—whether Jamaica, Zimbabwe
or anywhere else in the world.
Our critics also accuse us of “hijacking” a black
issue. They demand to know why this campaign is not being fronted by black
organisations. Good question. Why are black groups in the UK silent about
murders of gay Jamaicans? Sadly, Jamaican gays cannot lead this campaign. If
they were identified, they would be murdered. Their Kingston office is at a
secret location. If its whereabouts became public knowledge the office would
be razed to the ground within 24 hours.
Even in Britain, black gay men and lesbians are
intimidated into silence and invisibility. OutRage! wanted black gay people to
lead this campaign. Many support what we are doing, but plead that they cannot
get involved because they fear “retribution” from within the black
community. What are black leaders doing to challenge this climate of fear?
Nothing, it seems.
The persecution of gay people in developing countries
such as Jamaica is the front line of the global battle for queer human rights.
Fearful of being accused of racism, however, sections of liberal and left
opinion are prepared to abandon gay people in poor countries to a grisly fate.
Where’s the morality in that? What happened to the honourable tradition of
Protest to: Maxine Roberts, High Commissioner, Jamaican
High Commission, 1-2 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ (e-mail: email@example.com)
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