The tourist boycott of Jamaica has been called off despite an official response from the island’s government that barely mentions homosexuality.
Stop Murder Music Canada (SMMC), the group organizing the boycott, cancelled the action after receiving an official response from Anne-Marie Bonner, the Jamaican consul general.
The response refuses to specifically recognize gays and lesbians as a protected group in Jamaica’s constitution and doesn’t even mention repealing laws against homosexuality.
But Akim Larcher, the founder of SMMC, says the response was enough to call off the boycott. The response was dated May 15, three days after the deadline set by SMMC.
“The letter may not suffice in every respect but it is definitely a step forward that they see a responsibility to protect their citizens,” says Larcher. “There are quite a number of positive things, especially around police and law enforcement.”
SMMC — a coalition of groups including Egale Canada and the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto — had demanded that the Jamaican government immediately denounce homophobic violence in the country and begin work on repealing laws criminalizing homosexuality, including sexual orientation in the Charter of Rights and developing education campaigns for the country and for the police.
Bonner’s response doesn’t specifically address any of those demands, although it does address questions of police accountability and structural reform. She writes that she wants to “draw attention to some of the relevant actions being taken by the government of Jamaica:
“A bill for consideration by Parliament at this session to establish an independent authority to have statutory responsibility for investigating instances of abuse by members of the security forces;
“A bill to establish a special coroner to conduct speedy inquests in cases where a citizen dies at the hands of agents of the state…
“Budget provided for continuation of the Citizens Security and Justice Program (CSJP), which had a positive impact on community strengthening and crime reduction.”
The Jamaican Ministry of National Security describes CSJP as a “national crime and violence prevention strategy.”
Bonner writes that “The government is focused on the need to dramatically reduce the incidence of crime in the country, regardless of cause…. You would be aware of the public statement issued by the government on Apr 14, 2008 reiterating its strong condemnation of ‘mob attacks and violence against any individuals or groups for any reason whatsoever,’ whilst underscoring the obligations of the state, in particular the police in such cases.
“In the context of your specific concerns it is to be noted that the constitution and laws of Jamaica provide protection for the rights of all. There is not an intention to write into the constitution specific reference to any particular group, as all groups and individuals have equality under the law.”
Larcher says he is not disappointed by the letter’s failure to mention homosexuality.
“That was totally pretty much expected,” he says.
Larcher admits that the defiant response of Jamaican prime minister Bruce Golding also made SMMC think twice about a boycott, as has the possibility Golding may soon call a snap election.
On Apr 23 Golding told reporters asking him about a possible boycott that he had “seen nothing yet to convince” him to repeal Jamaica’s antisodomy laws, saying, “There is a road down which I’m not going to allow this country to go under my leadership.”
But Larcher says the boycott call has had positive effects.
“It has not left us where we were,” he says. “It’s forced the Jamaican government to face the issue head-on. It’s put them on alert. In terms of the international support it has raised the level of support.”
Larcher says SMMC will try to force the Canadian government to use its trade relationship with Jamaica to effect change.
“We will continue to raise the education level here in Canada,” he says. “We will continue putting pressure on the government here to raise human rights and sexuality in the current situation in Jamaica.”
Bonner’s letter also makes reference to the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, Allsexuals and Gays (JFLAG) — the country’s queer lobby group. It is, in fact, the only time the letter uses any words to do with homosexuality.
“You would, I am sure, be aware, that the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, Allsexuals and Gays does not support your strategy for a boycott of Jamaica’s tourism and trade….” she writes. “It is to be assumed that, naturally, the views of the persons whose interests are ostensibly being promoted will be respected.”
“We are continuing to have an ongoing dialogue with JFLAG,” Larcher says. “We are going to try to provide more strategic support for them.”
The program coordinator of JFLAG says the boycott proposal has led to additional homophobic violence.
“We’ve had about four cases [of attacks attributed to the boycott] which have come to us,” says Jason MacFarlane. “Our perspective is still the same. A boycott is not helpful, especially since the prime minister has made a statement that he won’t be going down that road.”
Travel agents say that a tourist boycott was not likely to have a major impact anyway.
“I’m not sure if they’re getting a lot of queer dollars so I’m not sure how much impact a boycott will have,” says Deb Parent of Toronto’s Conxity travel agency.
Parent also says a boycott might have hurt gay Jamaicans more than it helped them.
“There are many poor countries around the world where poor queers are part of that tourist economy,” she says. “It might be better to actually make a point of going and hanging out with queers who are on the front line in a way that I, as a Canadian, am not.”
John Tanzella, the president of the Florida-based International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, agrees a boycott would accomplish little.
“Zero,” he says. “If anything it’s going to hurt the gays and lesbians in Jamaica who are trying to survive on visits from gay and lesbian visitors. It wouldn’t be proper for us to go against the wishes of the local gay organization. It would be kind of arrogant.”