Jamaica is beset with violence and lawlessness. The island nation has one of the highest murder rates in the world — and police, instead of being an antidote to violence, are often themselves perpetrators and accomplices.
Amnesty International confirms that among those “socially excluded communities” frequently targeted for violence are Jamaica’s gay people.
Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, Allsexuals and Gays (JFLAG) reports 43 antigay mob attacks in 2007 and claims at least 10 antigay murders in 2005 and 2006.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported on an attack on four gay men sharing a house in the central Jamaican town of Mandeville. After being taunted because they were gay and told to leave the community, their house was surrounded then broken into by 15-20 machete-wielding thugs. One man had his ear severed, arm broken in two places, and spine damaged; another apparently died, or was killed, fleeing the mob.
Such gruesome and unambiguously antigay violence understandably prompts gay people outside Jamaica to want to help. Some initiatives motivated by such compassion may prove helpful; others are wrong-headed and counterproductive.
First in the latter category are calls to censor Jamaican dancehall music because of its frequently antigay lyrics.
Egale is calling on Canadian postal authorities to restrict the use of mail by dancehall artists who use hateful, antigay lyrics. And the Stop Murder Music coalition has successfully pressured some music distributors such as iTunes to stop sales of certain dancehall artists and tracks.
Censorship is often a politically tempting solution to difficult problems; who wants to defend “hateful” (or other unpopular) expression? But censorship’s advocates need lessons in history and civics.
In both Canada and the United States, gay people have fought epic legal battles to make sure the mail remains open to all, without postal patrons — or the content of their posted materials — requiring government approval.
The question is not whether dancehall lyrics are offensive to many; they may well be. But as with stateside battles against “cop-killer” rap music, enforced silence is an unacceptable tactic.
Freedom of expression means tolerating that which we find offensive so that we can insist on our own freedom to express that which may offend others.
As gay people, ourselves frequently censored and silenced, we should be especially clear on this principle.
Just as bookstores and libraries must be free to carry literature that offends, musicians and their vendors must be free to offer music that many find repugnant.
But that doesn’t mean we have to buy it.
And that discretion is central to the tactic that may have a productive role to play in stemming antigay violence in Jamaica: boycott. Indeed, there are growing calls internationally for a gay boycott of Jamaica.
Jamaica relies on tourism dollars, and gay folk are famously prolific tourists. Undoubtedly, many gay people already avoid Jamaica as a destination, but our real clout would come in pressuring the cruise lines, air carriers and hotel chains with which we continue to do business to take a productive stand against the Jamaican lawlessness that imperils that nation’s gay community.
Central demands must be that gay sex be decriminalized and that police respond professionally to antigay violence.
Of course, there is an age-old catch to boycott as a tactic: with poverty at the root of Jamaica’s lawlessness, an economic boycott risks worsening conditions for those it purports to help.
Thus, the challenge to Jamaica boycott advocates is to effectively craft their actions to make clear that brutal violence and government complacence are the targets, not Jamaica itself.