A Jamaican gay activist living in Toronto is speaking out against a US-based boycott of Jamaican tourism and products.
Gareth Henry, who fled Jamaica to Canada last year because of antigay violence, attempted a similar boycott in 2008. But because of what he calls “lessons learned,” he tells Xtra he does not support the current boycott, launched Mar 28 in San Francisco.
Henry says boycotts against Jamaican tourism and products are counterproductive, leading to a backlash and an increase in antigay violence. In the past three weeks, he says, four lesbians in Jamaica have reported being raped by men who referred to the boycott during the attacks.
Henry also says that the activists behind the US boycott did not heed the advice of gay activists in Jamaica, including members of the group he used to cochair, the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (JFLAG).
“These activists went to JFLAG and were told that this was not the right time for a boycott but they went ahead and did it anyway,” says Henry. “What gives them the authority to say that they think they know what is best for gay Jamaicans? That’s insulting.”
The controversy over the boycott began after US activists — including San Francisco-based Michael Petrelis and Wayne Besen decided to take action in light of a Feb 25 report released by the US State Department detailing human rights abuses in Jamaica over the past year.
The report details abuses “including arbitrary detention [of gay people], mob attacks, stabbings, harassment of homosexual patients by hospital and prison staff and targeted shootings of homosexuals. Police often did not investigate such incidents.”
Jamaican law prohibits “acts of gross indecency” between men, either in public or in private. Such “crimes” are punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (The full report can be read at State.gov/g/drl/-rls/hrrpt/2008/wha/119165.htm.)
The report led Petrelis, Besen and others in the US to launch a boycott of tourism to Jamaica as well as boycotts of Jamaican-produced Myers’s Rum and Red Stripe Beer.
In a statement posted on HuffingtonPost.com, Besen explains his reasons for joining the boycott. Under the headline “Jamaica: A Killer Vacation for Gays,” he writes, “Why boycott? Because Jamaica is on a downward spiral and suffers from collective cultural dementia on this issue. There is clearly a pathological panic and homo-hysteria that has infected this nation at its core.
“The second reason to boycott is because traditional activism has failed,” continues Besen. “I first read about Jamaica’s horrific violence against gay people in a 2004 New York Times editorial, ‘Hated to Death in Jamaica.’ In 2006 Time magazine had an article about the island headlined, ‘The Most Homophobic Place on Earth.’”
JFLAG and others say Besen is wrong and that on-island activism is working. Jason McFarlane, programs manager for JFLAG, released an open letter on Apr 14 opposing the boycott, specifically as it targets Red Stripe Beer.
“In April 2008, Red Stripe took the brave and principled stance to cease sponsorship of music festivals that promoted hate and intolerance, including that against members of the LGBT community,” he writes. “The naming of Red Stripe, therefore, as a target of this boycott is extremely damaging to the cause of LGBT activists in Jamaica.”
No one from JFLAG was available to talk to Xtra before press time.
Henry wants Besen and others to call off the boycott and work with JFLAG and international organizations on finding a common course of action.
“They need to focus their energy on being part of a coalition geared to helping gay Jamaicans,” says Henry. “We have to move forward as a team.”
But that may be difficult given that the US activists refuse to call off the boycott. Plus, Besen and others are blaming activist groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) for inaction on the Jamaica file. Besen says HRW, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Metropolitan Community Church are opposing his boycott because they want to launch their own campaigns against Jamaica.
Scott Long, head of HRW’s LGBT Rights Division, told Xtra that his organization has not taken any position on the US-led boycott. However, he says the tactics of the boycott’s backers are “ill-advised.”
“Human Rights Watch has worked with JFLAG and tried to support them and we will not endorse anything that they don’t support,” says Long. “It is simply ill-advised to launch an action without talking to the activists on the ground.
“JFLAG has taken small, but significant steps to open up a dialogue with police. Why has it taken so long? Well, in the US, it took 16 years for the Supreme Court to strike down sodomy laws. In Romania, it took 11 years. So it’s not going to be a quick and easy process. Regardless there must be cooperation with and respect for the activists on the frontlines.”
Diageo North America, the makers of Myers Rum and Red Stripe Beer, sent the below statement to Xtra on May 5.
“Diageo has an extremely strong record of supporting LGBT issues, including in Jamaica. Given this, it is highly disappointing, indeed ironic, that the boycott advocates are targeting one of the most gay-friendly companies that operates in Jamaica. Diageo has already taken positive action in areas that are within our realm of influence and is the only company to take such a strong position against anti-gay violence in Jamaica, as commended by leaders in the Jamaican LGBT community.
“Diageo is also proud that it has a perfect score of 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. We have global non-discrimination policies in place that apply to all of our operations, including Jamaica, and our global Human Rights Policy includes an explicit prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Diageo’s global poli cy is to extend benefits to domestic partners on the same basis as we extend them to married spouses, where permitted by law. Diageo also covers HIV retrovirals and treatment for employees in Jamaica; most insurance providers in Jamaica do not cover HIV medications or treatment. In 2005, Diageo sponsored an HIV/AIDS education campaign in Jamaica.
“We have seen no impact on our business in the U.S. as a result of this boycott, and we believe that our record in the LGBT community demonstrates that Diageo is the kind of company that the LGBT community should and will want to support.”
Diageo North America