Jamaica: Queer in a Culture of Violence
Cops are deadly, politicians corrupt, the people poor, but musicians
sing, “Kill the fags, burn the sissies.”
November 7, 2003
By Kelly Cogswell
Don’t let Bob Marley’s peace and love lyrics fool you. In Jamaica,
violence is an endemic problem that erodes everyone’s basic civil liberties,
and threatens gay lives. More than 740 murders have taken place so far this
year on the Caribbean island, many of them due to reprisal killings,
gang-related violence, and domestic incidents.
In 2002, the police themselves were responsible for the deaths of at least
133 people, “many in disputed circumstances suggesting extrajudicial
executions,” according to Amnesty International. The elections that year saw
the deaths of at least 60 people in politically motivated violence.
Lesbians, gay men, and transgendered people are on the front lines,
targeted for repression and violence from the dancehalls to the pulpits, and
Against God and Jamaica
In the 1980’s, AIDS brought the issue of homosexuality out of the closet
in Jamaica, but the violent backlash drove the small lesbian and gay community
underground. Queer issues are once again in the hot seat, this time with the
first confirmation of an openly gay priest as an Anglican bishop almost two
thousand miles away.
Jamaica’s Christian pastors are united against it. Just prior to last
week’s ceremony for now Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson, Kingston’s
Anglican priests gathered to reaffirm their opposition, voting 40-0 to reject
The rest of Jamaica’s Christian pastors weighed in against it as well.
Reverend Al Miller, president of Whole Life Ministries and pastor at the
Fellowship Tabernacle, told the daily newspaper The Observer, “The scripture
calls it an unnatural behavior; therefore it cannot be something that the
church can support and condone.” He went on to say, “God created nobody to
be that way... it is reprehensible from a Christian position. It is totally
inconsistent with the Christian church.”
But in a conversation with The Observer, Father Richard Johnson, of the St.
Jude Anglican Church, may have revealed the cultural heart of his country’s
homophobia when he ended his denunciation by saying, “Jamaican society in
general is intolerant of homosexuality and homosexual behavior... there is no
way that a Jamaican Anglican contingency could begin to support such a
Blood out ah chi chi
The denunciations from the pulpits have a far-reaching effect. Most
Jamaicans are Christian Protestants heavily slanted towards an anti-gay,
anti-woman fundamentalism, with the Church of God capturing 21 percent,
Baptists 9 percent, Seventh-Day Adventists 9 percent, and Pentecostals 7.6
percent. Anglicans claim a mere 5.5 percent.
The Rastafarian religion, which emphasizes traditional gender roles, is
also no haven for lesbians or gay men. Though it is only practiced strictly by
about 5 percent of Jamaicans, it has a much broader impact. Critically
acclaimed musician Capleton has popularized a radical strain of Rastafarianism
called Bobo Dread. One of his songs says, “Blood out ah chi chi/ Bun out ah
sissy.” Kill the fags, burn the sissies. Some detractors refer to Bobo Dread
fans as “the Jamaican Taliban.”
Capleton’s not the only musician inciting homophobic violence. Elephant
Man, in A Nuh Fi Wi Fault [It’s Not Our Fault] sings, “Battyman fi dead!
[Faggots should die!] / Gimme tha tech-nine / Shoot dem like bird!” Spragga
Benz, in his song, Nuh Inna Dat [We Don’t Support That], specifically
targets the activist group, Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays
(J-FLAG), when he sings, “Why man waan wine man in front a I man? [Why does
a man want to dance with another man in front of me?] / That caan gwann inna
my land [That can’t go on in my land] / From east and west, north and south
/ Get ready and guns out / Get ready and guns out / J-Flag dem a brag and a
talk bout / Out a di closet dem a go walk out. / But man nuh inna dat, dem
betta stay inside and hide / For if dem come out, they might be shot.”
All of these songs were nominated for MOBO (Music of Black Origin) awards
in London in 2002. When gay activist Peter Tatchell turned up to protest, he
was punched, kicked and spat on until he took to his heels. His attackers used
the songs as battle cries. It is no consolation that none of the songs won.
Cops Nurture Violence
Most victims of homophobic violence in Jamaica find it’s a miracle if
anyone intervenes, especially the police. J-FLAG has been documenting cases
for the last few years.
In one case this summer, a group of gay men were assaulted by their
neighbors. It was a family affair. Both parents and children attacked using
stones, a knife and a machete. “They were calling us names and threatening
us so we ran. They chased one of us down, Lenni [not his real name], who has
now moved to another country. When we met up with him later in the night, we
saw that he was chopped on his face, neck, hand and back. He was bleeding bad,
but just bandaged it up himself. The next day, we all went back to our yard
and the neighbors tried to attack us again. We called the police. When they
arrived we told them how we had been attacked and chased, but the neighbors
began telling the police that we were battymen and that we had to leave or
they would kill us. When the police heard this, they took sides with the
neighbors.” They then arrested the gay men for using foul language.
On another occasion, a group of victims sought refuge in a police station
from an armed crowd only to report to J-FLAG, “When the police realized it
was a ‘batty judgment’ they began to call us battymen and told us
‘battyman fi dead’ [Faggots should die] and shouted at us to leave the
compound. We were terrified for our lives as the group of armed men were
waiting for us across the street from the gate to the police station.”
The police also instigate problems, using sodomy laws as justification to
harass, and beat up perceived sexual minorities. One group of AIDS activists
trying to hand out condoms and promote safe sex reported that after being
accused of promoting homosexuality and taken to the police station: “The
other police officers told us we should be dead and that the policemen should
have killed us instead of bringing us into the police station.”
Lesbians: Women At Risk
As women, lesbians get a double whammy of violence. According to a UNDP
report, in 1998 some 100 women were murdered in Jamaica, most of the deaths
occurring “as a result of domestic violence.” In that same year 109 rapes
were reported and almost 4,000 cases of assault against women.
The gender power imbalance can also be measured by HIV statistics. The
Inter Press Service reported in 2001 that Jamaican women were being infected
with HIV at nearly twice the rate of men. They cited a statement released
shortly before by the Caribbean Group for Cooperation in Economic Development
that “women are economically and emotionally dependent, and are expected to
defer to the male demands and decision-making.” Those males are demanding
women not use condoms. In 2000, a UNAIDS report suggested additional causes of
infection throughout the Caribbean were “rape, incest, domestic violence and
‘sugar daddies’” who extract sex in return for financial support.
In this context, any woman refusing the advances of a man may be punished
with violence and rape regardless of her sexual identity. It’s worse when
they actually are lesbians. Families use violence on their sisters and
daughters to enforce traditional female behavior, including marrying and
producing children. Ditto for gender variant people.
In 2001, J-FLAG managed to document the case of one woman who was attacked
by a co-worker she had often rejected. After finding out she was a lesbian, he
accused her of being “unfriendly,” and insulted her. When she made
retaliatory comments about his wife, he punched her in the face several times,
then hit her with a vase and a metal paper punch.
Taking Back the Night—and Days
The AIDS backlash in the 80’s not only closed the five gay bars in
Kingston, but pretty much shut down the Gay Freedom Movement dating from the
70’s as the stakes of being out were raised.
J-FLAG was founded in 1998 in response to calls for public input into
constitutional reforms. Their first act was to submit a proposal to include
sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clause. That was denied, but the
group continues to push for the repeal of sodomy laws even though the major
political parties continue to affirm them. Some reportedly even used anti-gay
songs as campaign themes during the last election.
J-FLAG relies on a three-pronged approach of legal reform, education, and
support within the community. They offer sensitivity training seminars, run
support groups and hotlines, record abuses, and assist with asylum cases, in
at least four cases meeting with success. AIDS is also a priority. There are
more than 20,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. Activists trying to
hand out condoms and promote safe sex are routinely harassed by police. Worse,
those who may have HIV/AIDS are too ashamed or afraid to be tested and seek
Tony Hron, J-FLAG’s Programme Director, says one of the challenges is
financing. Because of threats of violence, “Most Jamaican gays are so far in
the closet, they don’t even want to write a cheque with our name on it, for
fear someone at their bank will expose them.” His most promising news was
that doors were opening for collaboration with the human rights organization,
Jamaicans for Justice, which “up to this point have declined to support
us.” J-FLAG is also receiving support from Black Gay UK which is sponsoring
an online signature drive at http://www.blackgayuk.com/gay-rights/petition.htm
for the sodomy law repeal.
The Same Boat
Spragga Benz sets out the real issue, the future of Jamaica, in his musical
claim-staking quoted before, “Why man waan wine man in front a I man? [Why
does a man want to dance with another man in front of me?] / That caan gwann
inna my land [That can’t go on in my land] / From east and west, north and
south / Get ready and guns out”.
The fight for gay rights truly is a battle of national proportions because
the problems of LGBT people in Jamaica are intrinsically linked to those
facing the entire country: violence, poverty, disenfranchisement. Thirty-four
percent of the population is below the poverty line. Elections are marked by
violence. The police make their own laws. Vigilante violence not only targets
“battymen,” but anyone perceived as criminal or deviant.
Instead of claiming ground for a minority, those fighting for gay rights,
like non-discrimination, equal protection under the law, and the right to
participate in the political process are actually working towards a better
future for all Jamaicans.
[Home] [World] [Jamaica]