Vancouver
6 min

Is Jamaica changing?

Rekindling the island's one-love culture

Jamaica keeps disappointing and surprising gay son- of-the-soil and activist Maurice Tomlinson.

There’s the Jamaica we all seem to hear about where two men were murdered by machete last year, including a 16-year-old chopped to death for “questionable relations” with another man. The Jamaica that Time magazine called the most homophobic place on earth in 2006.

And then there’s the Jamaica in which Tomlinson can glimpse “the one love that used to define us.”

The Jamaica where he’s beginning to hear more intelligent public discourse that is richer in the language of tolerance. Where islanders respond more or less positively to public advocacy on behalf of their gay brethren.

The one where Tomlinson recently witnessed a politician stand up in a televised debate in the midst of a national election and say unequivocally that she supports the rights of sexual minorities — and still become prime minister just over a week later.

“To say that I was shocked would be putting it mildly,” Tomlinson says of the “bold statement” made by Mama P, the affectionate moniker reserved for Portia Simpson-Miller.

Activists’ quiet requests to decriminalize homosexuality in order to curb the murderous attacks had previously gone nowhere: no politician was going to sacrifice his or her political capital on the altar of decriminalization.

Then Mama P spoke up and survived. Though, as Tomlinson observes, you don’t “trouble” a black woman seen as a maternal figure. “Not in our culture.”

Those who dared protest, like the evangelicals, only helped her win, he suggests. “I think she was able to actually convert what would have been an electoral disaster into a substantial electoral win because it showed empathy; it showed all the things she’s touted to be — caring and compassionate.”

Next steps: human rights training for the island’s roughly 8,000 police officers and more funding for advocacy campaigns to undo the homophobia that is in large part a legacy of colonialism, still fuelled by religious evangelicals, primarily from the US, now replicated in Jamaica.

Without a hint of facetiousness, Tomlinson says Jamaica probably holds top spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most churches per square mile. It’s an easy way to make a living because prospective pastors don’t have to demonstrate any kind of interpretative rigour where the Bible is concerned. The more rabid you are, the more congregants you attract, he says.

Still, Tomlinson is hopeful. Because Jamaicans are increasingly rejecting the evangelical posturing. Because — privately at least — most politicians and even police higher-ups say the anti-sodomy law is way past its due date. Because these days there are more letters to the editor advocating for gay Jamaicans, instead of the rare missal written by the same one or two souls.

And because he never expected a Jamaican leader to say out loud what Mama P said. A statement that’s more in tune with the essence of the “One Love” culture that Tomlinson’s own mother remembers as a youth. One without homophobic “marauding mobs.” Where everyone knew at least one gay in the village, but no one cared.