Growing Up Gay in Jamaica
The homophobic lyrics of Jamaican reggae stars have
hit the headlines, but what is the reality of being gay in a society where it
is illegal to practise your sexuality?
News, September 15, 2004
Michael is verbally abused, threatened and spat at every
time he leaves his home in Kingston, Jamaica, but the 20-year-old student
considers himself lucky.
He has friends who have been beaten and stabbed because
they are gay but, as yet, he has not been attacked. He knows it could happen
“My friends have been chopped up and all of that,
you’d think they were a piece of meat in the slaughter house. It is
terrible,” he says.
Every time he goes out he is called a “battyman”—an
abusive term for a gay man—and says the general attitude in Kingston is if
you are homosexual you may as well be dead.
“There is always someone who says ‘battyman, beat him
up, chop him up, kill him’. I fret and check if they are coming to get
me,” he says.
Jamaica has a history of entrenched homophobia and
violent attacks on gay men and women.
The situation hit the headlines in the UK earlier this
month when two controversial Jamaican reggae acts—Elephant Man and Vybz
Kartel—were dropped from the British Music of Black Origin (Mobo) awards for
refusing to apologise in writing for homophobic lyrics.
“The church is saying homosexuality is wrong and
the entertainers are saying ‘kill them’—how are we going to be able to
live openly as gays in Jamaica?”
The row also resulted in an event, flagged-up as the
biggest reggae festival in the UK for almost 20 years, being cancelled earlier
this month. But homophobia in Jamaica goes far beyond songs lyrics, with gay
men and women “beaten, cut, burned, raped and shot on account of their
sexuality”, according to Amnesty International.
It says while no official statistics are available,
according to published reports at least 30 gay men are believed to have been
murdered in Jamaica since 1997.
And at least five Jamaicans have been granted asylum in
the UK in the last two years because their lives had been threatened as a
result of their sexual identity.
“We have talked to people who have been forced to leave
their communities after being publicly vilified, threatened or attacked on
suspicion of being gay. They face homelessness, isolation or worse,” says
Lesley Warner, Amnesty International UK media director.
The country’s law makes any act of physical intimacy
between men punishable by jail, with the possibility of 10-years hard labour.
Few people are openly gay as once their sexuality becomes
known they are at risk of attack and often have to move.
Reporting abuse and harassment to the police is not an
option for many as officers are frequently known to standby or even join in
attacks, says Amnesty.
Michael has not told his family, who live in a parish
just outside Kingston, that he is gay as he knows he will be ostracised and
“My aunt is the co-founder of our local church and it
preaches that homosexuality is a sin,” he says.
“If my aunt or any member of the church found out about
my sexuality they would just tell everyone and I wouldn’t be able to come
around any more. I would get hurt.”
The church has traditionally been a major force in
Jamaican society and plays a significant part in people’s daily lives. Many
preachers use the Bible to support homophobic sentiments.
Another major influence in people’s lives is dancehall
music. Its stars, including international artists such as Beenie Man and Buju
Banton, are regarded as “teachers” by the young, says Michael.
The music is steeped in homophobia, with lyrics from Buju
Banton’s Boom Boom Bye Bye, threatening gay men with a “gunshot in ah
head” and Beenie Man’s stating “I’m a dreaming of a new Jamaica, come
to execute all the gays”.
The chance of attitudes changing towards the gay
community is small, says Michael.
“Many gay men and women in Jamaica are too afraid
to go to the authorities and seek help.”
“Everybody just listens to the church and dancehall
music. The church is saying homosexuality is wrong and the entertainers are
saying ‘kill them’—how are we going to be able to live openly as gays in
Jamaica?” Concern among human rights groups has intensified even further
following the murder of the country’s most prominent gay activist in June
Brian Williamson, 59, was one of the few gay Jamaicans
willing to stand up in public and be seen talking about homosexuality as a gay
The motive for the murder was officially given as
robbery, but the gay rights group he founded, J-Flag, believes the killing was
a hate crime.
Campaigners say Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law also has
wider implications in the fight against HIV and Aids in the country.
In 1997, when prison authorities attempted to distribute
condoms to inmates at Kingston’s main prison, it led to riots in which 16
allegedly gay men died and 40 more injured, says Amnesty.
J-Flag says the law inhibits people from revealing their
sexuality to doctors. As a result they are not getting access to appropriate
But despite the difficulties and discrimination Michael
faces in Jamaica as a gay man, he loves his country and is not prepared to
“I have to stay and try to build my country into a
better place,” he says.
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