Their Homophobia Is Our Fault
Real liberals would realise it is meaningless to
vilify Jamaicans for attitudes that Britain created
Guardian, January 5, 2005
The prime minister of Jamaica recently cleared a week to
show an American travel show round his island. He danced for the cameras and
tasted national dishes with a smile to sell his country to tourist dollars.
During a break in filming, he gave the Guardian an interview.
How did PJ Patterson plan to remedy the damage
Jamaica’s gay rights record was doing to its image? The smile vanished.
“Let me make it very clear,” he said. “The laws of Jamaica must be
determined by the parliament of Jamaica, and that right we will maintain. We
He is perfectly aware that his country’s homophobia has
become a fashionable British liberal cause and that the Home Office has
refused entry to reggae stars known for homophobic lyrics. So why would a PM
so desperate for foreign favour that he will dance on demand flatly refuse to
Patterson was born nearly 30 before Jamaica became fully
independent, in 1962. Imperialism is living memory, and his message is plainly
legitimate: if you really believe in postcolonial independence, don’t tell
us what to do with it.
But the vilification of Jamaican homophobia implies more
than a failure to accept postcolonial politics. It’s a failure to recognise
400 years of Jamaican history, starting with the sodomy of male slaves by
their white owners as a means of humiliation. Slavery laid the foundations of
homophobia, and its legacy is still unmistakable in the precarious,
overexaggerated masculinity of many men in Jamaica.
Jamaica was one of the most scandalously misgoverned of
Britain’s colonies, and since independence we’ve been helping ourselves to
its workforce, while stigmatising it for exporting drugs and yardies. This has
left an emasculating sense in many men that the only life that counts is lived
Jamaica today is very poor. The schools are bad, the
healthcare atrocious and the police widely mistrusted, and for many the only
support comes from churches, many of which dispense a fire-and-brimstone
religion that is not merely homophobic, but designed to discourage independent
thought. The government doesn’t have enough money to make real change, and
the reason is simple. This year 69.9% of its budget went on servicing debt.
For education, there was less than 10%.
Many Jamaicans are not homophobic, but the prevailing
attitude to gays is ignorant and sometimes violent. But the fact remains that
of all Jamaica’s injustices and deprivations, homophobia cannot be singled
out as uniquely intolerable. Although activists are right to campaign about
it, it’s wrong for public opinion to seize on the issue with no thought for
A better emotion would be culpability. Every ingredient
of Jamaica’s homophobia implicates Britain, whose role has maintained the
conditions conducive to homophobia, from slavery through to the debt that
makes education unaffordable. For us to vilify Jamaicans for an attitude of
which we were the architects is shameful. To do so in the name of liberal
values is meaningless.
Real liberal values would demand debt relief, fair trade,
investment—all the boring, complicated features required for a functional
and just society. If that happened, homophobia would soon organically
Jamaicans weren’t the architects of their ideas about
homosexuality; we were. The idea that shouting at them will change their minds
is no less ignorant and irrational than homophobia itself.
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