Last edited: November 10, 2004

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

The 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 butcher’s meat.

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 killing him.

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 rope.”

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 incitements.

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 international solidarity?

Protest to: Maxine Roberts, High Commissioner, Jamaican High Commission, 1-2 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ (e-mail:

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