Every time Junior Harrison goes back to Jamaica for a visit, he has to “butch-ify” himself.
“I wear a shirt and I don’t tuck it into my pants,” he says. “When I land at the airport, I don’t make eye contact with a man.” As a gay man, Harrison is fearful for his safety in a country where the threat of violence against the LGBT community is constant.
That’s one of the reasons he and a small group of activists protested in front of the Jamaican consulate in Toronto Aug 6. Their action was just one of many taking place across the world to coincide with Jamaican Independence Day.
Lawyer Maurice Tomlinson, the organizer of the protest, says it’s important to call attention to the fact that not all Jamaicans are independent. “Gay Jamaicans are not independent,” he says, pointing to an anti-sodomy law enacted in 1876 when Jamaica was still under British colonial rule. The law, which is still on the books today, sentences those found guilty to up to 10 years in jail.
Violence and stigma against the LGBT community has become a major problem in Jamaica. A University of the West Indies study about the attitudes of Jamaicans toward the LGBT community found that more than 80 percent believe homosexual relationships are immoral. And in recent years, a number of shocking gaybashings in the Caribbean nation have made headlines worldwide.
Lee Patience faced that fear when he was kicked out of the closet, as he puts it, by his church in Kingston, Jamaica. “Unfortunately, when the community knows you’re gay, what tends to happen is that you can lose your life,” he says. After fleeing Kingston for Montego Bay in the hope of living without fear, he found the stigma had followed him. It’s what led him to move to Canada two years ago as a student and eventually make a refugee claim.
He went to the protest because he now feels a responsibility to stand up for those who can’t. “[They] can’t have a voice of their own because of what is happening and what the risks are,” he says.
Though fewer than 10 people attended the protest, Tomlinson says he’s happy with the turnout. “We have a saying in Jamaica: we’re little but we’re tallawah, and that means we might be small, but we are mighty,” he says.
The little band of protesters did get a significant amount of support from passing drivers, who honked as they drove along Eglinton Avenue past the Jamaican consulate.
“I think we have sent a clear message today that we believe, as the few Jamaicans here, we stand for all Jamaicans standing for repeal of the anti-sodomy law,” Tomlinson says.