The Gay Debate
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
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’
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
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
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
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”
“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
“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
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
“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
Taylor also argued that because men do not feel
threatened by women, this had resulted in a less critical view of female
“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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