Last edited: December 05, 2004

The Gay Debate

The Jamaica Observer, December 5, 2004

By Petre Williams, Observer staff reporter

Gay backlash coming, academics warn—Rex Nettleford sees homosexual debate as waste of time. The increasing pressure for Jamaicans to accept homosexuality and homosexuals may trigger a terrible backlash against gays, local academics have warned.

“Even middle-class persons who were previously very tolerant of homosexuality are becoming offended and energised and sensitised. That is where the danger for them lies,” cautioned Dr Orville Taylor, a sociologist with the University of the West Indies (UWI).

The latest round of the long-running debate on homosexuality was sparked by the stepped-up activities of local gay group J-FLAG, the Jamaicans for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, and Outrage!, their British counterpart.

The seeming target has been dancehall deejays who spout anti-gay lyrics and advocate violence against gays, though entertainment industry sources suggest that Jamaican buggery laws are the ultimate goal and musicians are merely being used as cannon fodder. In the past year, Outrage! has gone after big names such as Beenie Man, Vybz Kartel, Elephant Man and several other deejays, gaining support from the UK-based rights group Amnesty International as well as America’s Human Rights Watch (HRW).

But there is a danger, Taylor warned, that constantly focusing on the issue might backfire. “As opposed to getting support for their minority opinions and their moral behaviour, I think what they are going to end up with is a very strong, negative backlash,” he cautioned.

UWI’s urban anthropologist Herbert Gayle agreed. While Jamaicans will never accept homosexuality, they may eventually learn to become more tolerant of it—but only if those pushing for tolerance play their cards right, he said.

“I have said to people abroad, if you want Jamaicans to be more tolerant then don’t present homosexuality as an option of sexuality, appeal to the human side of people,” he said. “The tolerance will grow, but (homosexuality) as a sexual option? No. Because it goes right through the politic of who we are.”

But weighing into the debate, Professor Rex Nettleford, former UWI vice-chancellor believed too much time was being spent on an issue which ran the risk of detracting from productive endeavours in the society.

“I think there are far more things to worry about in this country in terms of mutual respect, and self-respect and finding a place and a purpose rather than spending so much time on this,” he said.

Nettleford added: “A great many productive people throughout the world are supposed to have that (homosexual) preference. What is the big thing? The wasting of time on the discussion is what will deflect us from (other important issues)... We certainly don’t stone our adulterers—and we have them aplenty.”

Heated discussions have followed the November 16 release by Human Rights Watch of an 81-page report entitled ‘Hated to Death—Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic’. In it, HRW accused the Jamaican government of facilitating the abuse of gay men and called for constitutional changes to legislation which now makes it illegal for two men to engage in anal sex—buggery.

HRW also called for an amendment of the anti-discrimination clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Jamaican Constitution to include ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ and ‘sex’.

The group also argued that the island’s homophobia was hampering the treatment of people with HIV/AIDS, a point which critics have seen as “a slick way to squeeze homosexuality in through the AIDS back door”.

Such arguments against Jamaica have come not only from organisations like HRW. For instance, at a recent conference in St Kitts on HIV/AIDS, Britain’s junior minister for international development Gareth Thomas launched a broadside against Jamaican dancehall deejays for their anti-gay lyrics, claiming that it helped drive both homosexuality and AIDS underground.

Like HRW, he and others at the conference urged Caribbean governments to remove their buggery laws.

“We need to change legislation that legitimises stigma and discrimination and which, in turn, makes tackling AIDS more difficult, such as the legislation prohibiting sex between men,” Thomas said. However, the government has blasted HRW for a similar call, telling the group it had no right to tell a sovereign nation what laws it should or should not have on the books. There were also strong denials that there was widespread discrimination against gays.

But the HRW report has gained traction and in an editorial last week, The New York Times—the well-respected US newspaper—parroted the group’s claim that Jamaica’s fight against AIDS “cannot become fully effective until the government can summon the courage to attack the virulent anti-gay prejudices that are driving this epidemic by making people at risk fearful of seeking treatment”.

But for the average man on the streets of Jamaica, the HRW report is just a storm in a teacup. There is no widespread discrimination against gays, most insist, even as they strongly denounce homosexuality.

Sixty-four year-old Lloyd Byfield, who lives in the Kingston 8 area, was clear. The outsiders who had intervened were talking nonsense and they should fix their problems at home before trying to “fix” Jamaica.

“Some a dem people de a total idiot,” he said. “Some of dem a come yah and a talk ‘bout it (the treatment of homosexuality) and it worse inna fi dem country. Dem shouldn’t a come yah come tell wi what we should do and should not do. First yuh must clean-up yuh own backyard before yuh come clean up a next man own, and fi dem backyard more dirty than our own.”

This type of reaction fits with Dr Taylor’s assertion that if there is ever to be a change in how Jamaicans perceive homosexuality, that change will have to come from those who live here.

“If that is going to happen, then it has to happen from within. Let us face it, every society has a right to determine what it considers to be normal and abnormal behaviour,” he said. Like Taylor, Gayle argued that Jamaicans have actually become more tolerant of gays over the years.

“Yes, we have strong prejudices against gays but it is nowhere near (the levels) as it has been (portrayed),” Gayle said. “In fact, there are persons who are frightened at the degree of tolerance. People who work with the street children will tell you we have a situation where we are finding kids who literally act as male prostitutes with homosexual males in the night.

“Plus, we are now at a stage where we are having freaky sex in these go-go clubs and there has been some amount of open anal sex on stage. How homophobic are we?” asked Gayle.

HRW had also complained that Jamaican police officers often trivialised the complaints of gays who had been attacked because of their sexuality, a claim the police force has firmly rejected. According to Dr Taylor, there is little or no institutionalised discrimination against homosexuals in the island.

“We don’t ostracise homosexuals in the professions. There are people who are almost openly gay and people don’t (discriminate against them),” he argued. “So this whole thing about widespread and rampant discrimination is (untrue). Acts of discrimination may take place at lower levels of the society; I don’t know that there is any serious bit of discrimination in the middle class.”

He added: “There are popularly-held views that there are gay people in the island’s two major political parties, in the youth arms of the parties, in academia, in commerce and there are even people in the church who are suspected of being homosexual; but I don’t think there is any widespread discrimination against them.”

But there is no denying that many Jamaicans—brought up on the teachings of the Bible and able to quote chapter and verse about the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah—have strong views about homosexuality.

Tavares Gardens resident Annette Cunningham, 33, was adamant that Jamaicans must be allowed to express these views. She believes that homosexuality had become all too prevalent. “We have a right fi feel a way ‘bout it because right now the whole a Jamaica full a homosexuals,” she said. “So wi need fi get rid a dat completely.”

Nadine Bailey, 29, also of Tavares Gardens, thinks outsiders are to be blamed for what she sees as the island’s homosexual problem.

These negative responses and others like them, according to Gayle and Taylor, have their genesis in the days of slavery when some black men were sodomised by slave masters who simultaneously owned and controlled their (black) women—all as part of the process of dehumanising the race.

The experience has left Jamaican, and Caribbean men as a whole, with a fragile sense of self so that today any perceived threat to masculinity will be rejected, the academics said. Homosexuality is among those threats, with the homosexual male referred to in Jamaica and elsewhere in the region as “anti-man” or “batty man”, indicating that he is less than a man.

“Men here were basically breeders (during the days of slavery),” Gayle said. “You were not treated as a man. Manhood is something you claim by your ability to have a woman, to take care of that woman, which you weren’t able to do during slavery. ‘Backra’ took care of your woman. ‘Backra’ owned your woman. ‘Backra’ gave your woman one-eye rooster (penis).”

He added: “That is what we are coming through, where we don’t have control. Now that we have left slavery, the more woman you have, the more manly you are because you are now claiming property. It is deep psychology. Our masculinity is extremely fragile with massive implications for even homosexuality.” Dr Taylor agreed.

“In Jamaican society, homosexuality has always been something seen as abnormal,” he explained. “Somewhere on the plantation, we might have developed these anti-homosexual feelings. I personally feel that it has to do with the whole process of dehumanisation, which took place, especially those acts of violence, which were visited upon our men—those acts of sodomy to bring men into subjection.”

It is this fragile masculinity of the black male that has also been credited for the double standard in how Jamaicans view male homosexuals versus women who sleep with other women. “Lesbianism is not a threat to our fragile patriarchy or our fragile masculinity,” Gayle said simply.

Taylor also argued that because men do not feel threatened by women, this had resulted in a less critical view of female homosexuality.

“A man doesn’t feel threatened by a woman; but a man who is doing something to another man is taking away his masculinity,” he said. “In any event, female homosexuality is probably seen as something that is attempted but does not really work. So a man probably doesn’t feel that his woman is being violated by another woman.”

For Nettleford, that double standard on how lesbians and gays are perceived is just a part of the hypocrisy.

“The hypocrisy is rampant everywhere,” he said, “but that’s part and parcel of the thing because views on homosexuality in a male-dominated society are that a man is feminised if he is expected to participate in homosexual male relations. The women can do anything.”

Dr Taylor pointed to the issue of money and class. “I have always noticed, though, that the tolerance of homosexuality in this country—and not just homosexuality but any kind of act outside of what the society considers to be normal sexuality—varies according to socio-economic background. So the further up the ladder the individual goes, the more likely he is to be more accepting,” he said.

Gayle shared his view: “If you live uptown, you don’t need to knock down a man to prove you are a man,” he said. “Your masculinity is not threatened. It is threatened downtown where a guy feel say him a man more than you.

Uptown, everybody is a man. Downtown, you have guys who are (more) man than other man. And homosexuality is anti-man. It is against your macho; it is an attack on your macho.”

However, Professor Nettleford suggested that perhaps it was not so much that persons at the higher end of the socio-economic strata were more accepting, but that homosexuals from that group had the resources to protect themselves from prejudice and discrimination. One could never be sure, he said, as there had never been any research done on the issue.

“Like anything else, if people have money and position they are able to protect themselves. But the truth of the matter is that there is a lot of hot air about this without any real knowledge,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gayle has predicted that the outside pressure for Jamaicans to accept homosexuality would not ease any time soon as it was seen as a major challenge to be won. Jamaica, he said, was being targeted by gay rights groups because it had a powerful popular culture—one that was potently heterosexual—that extended beyond its shores.

To get Jamaicans to accept homosexuality, he said, would be like David slaying Goliath. “There is a campaign. If they can achieve this in Jamaica, then who else can they not tear down ‘cause we sell this image of ‘badman nuh bow’, which is the image every working-class youth around the world wants, in terms of their own survival,” he explained.

“If you go to England, people drive with Jamaican flags in their cars—even if they are white—as a symbol to say, ‘the state mustn’t mess around me’. A lot of us don’t understand this but the point is, we sell a culture of resistance.”

He added: “Jamaica has to be a target because you want the culture that is most visible on this issue to bow. We, here, underestimate our power; but believe me, if you can get Jamaica to accept something, you have not (simply) made a dent, you have literally closed a chasm.

And that is what it is about; it is not primarily about so many people being mistreated, because it is not true.”

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