Public outrage against an attack on a man who was allegedly caught having sex with another man on a university campus “demonstrated a phenomenal shift in the reaction of Jamaicans,” says Collin Virgo of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
“This is first time I can think of that something like that has happened and the public outcry wasn’t against being a homosexual or being caught in a homosexual act; the public outcry was against the person who attacked the homosexual,” he says.
A video of the attack, which occurred on the University of Technology campus, shows a young man in a glassed-off booth apparently pleading with security guards, who at various points slapped, punched and kicked him before a crowd of onlookers.
At times, disparate voices in the crowd are heard saying, “Kill the batty boy.”
Still, Virgo says, the level of tolerance for homosexuality on the Caribbean island has increased, even if the acceptance levels are lagging behind.
“Where we are today is directly correlated to where we are coming from,” Virgo explains, providing a summary of the island’s colonial past that bequeathed strong Anglican and Roman Catholic legacies.
“We are for the most part a very strong Christian nation and, for the most part as well, traditionally rather conservative in our views,” he says, adding that homosexuality is not “encouraged,” and is not something the majority of Jamaicans embrace.
Virgo was part of a delegation of Jamaican journalists and policymakers who were in Vancouver for a knowledge exchange aimed at promoting gay men’s health and fighting stigma and discrimination against men who have sex with men (MSM). He spoke to Xtra after a panel discussion held on Dec 1.
Radio host Dervan Malcolm says Jamaica has always been tolerant of gays, noting that there are people from all walks of life — from doctors, to politicians, to judges and artists — who are known to be gay. “People have looked past their sexual orientation, there is no question about that.”
Malcolm, who says he grew up in an inner city area on the island, says he like other people in that community also knew people who were gay.
“People just know that they are that, and they don’t trouble them. People don’t go around beating people because they are homosexuals in Jamaica,” he contends, despite the UTech attack.
But Jamaica-born June Francis, an associate professor at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, challenged Malcolm’s assertion. “I knew many people who were,” she says. “I went to the University of the West Indies, and I knew instances of people who were being beaten up because of their sexual orientation.”
What happens from time to time, Malcolm argues, is that some heterosexual people react when they feel their space has been “violated by one who is flaunting, or making a pass, or doing something that that heterosexual individual finds irritating.” In some instances, he adds, other people join in the response.
Some in the forum acknowledged similar occurrences in Canada.
“People are not perhaps as engaging and embracing as you have here,” Malcolm adds, noting that Jamaicans typically go about their business and are more concerned about where their next dollar is coming from.
But what about the question of social equality for gays? Francis asks. “It’s not that they are not hurt on a daily basis. Do they have equal access, are they open, can they be open? That’s what’s required; it’s that they are embraced.”
Malcolm says that’s a question of legislation and education that would help to “further soften the environment, and make it more conducive to persons coming out and publicly expressing themselves.”
Virgo says the demographic breakdown of those who tend to be more tolerant and accepting of gays in Jamaica includes those who live in more urban environments, the college educated, particularly those educated overseas, and people who travel a lot or spend time abroad.
Journalist Naomi Francis told the forum that the situation in Jamaica is a layered one, noting that socio-economic realities and poverty are major factors in determining whether people are open about being gay or have access to good treatment if they are HIV-positive.
“Quite frankly people who are MSMs in Jamaica, even in Toronto and in Vancouver, if they belong to a certain social class, they’re more comfortable about it.
“If it is that we have poor boys in Jamaica or poor girls in Jamaica who have to sell sex in order to get ahead, it is going to be an issue where they are hiding to do it,” she observes. “The primary thing for me is the issue of poverty, and what role that plays in sending people underground.”
Virgo also suggests that part of the challenge in moving towards greater acceptance of homosexuality is the way in which activists have tried to “push their message across” over the years.
“In part, the advocacy has not taken on a reasoning tone,” he explains, adding that for many Jamaicans, it has appeared to be “clandestine.”
“It has been trying to twin it with other agenda issues, and people feel they are trying to sneak in through a back door, and Jamaican people resent that.”
He recalls the public consultations in the leadup to passage of the island’s charter of rights last year, in which suspicions and resistance were expressed that it was being used as “an avenue to push the gay agenda.”
“All of the good that would have come from the charter of rights could have vanished in an instant the second people believed that you were clandestinely, deliberately, twinning the messages together.”
Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who is originally from Caribbean, says taking risks and speaking out on behalf of those who can’t are critical aspects of being in political life.
“Do we just continue to make excuses and say, ‘Well, this is where we come from, and this is how it’s going to be, or afraid to do it?” she asks. “Why go into politics if you are not going to be there to speak for the voiceless and the most vulnerable? You have the power to change lives, and that’s what you have to have the courage to do.”
“If you only look at polls and at marketing, and you say this is what people would buy, when will change occur that is important for politicians to make, and for the media to educate people to accept?”
Naomi Francis says there are Jamaican politicians who are ready to take big steps, noting that within the current parliamentary period, there will be a conscience vote on the issue of the island’s colonial-era buggery law.
Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson–Miller had raised the possibility of a review of that law during a televised debate during last year’s election.
For her part, journalist Carol Francis who has worked in the media for 20 years, says she’s beginning to see a shift in the Jamaican coverage of HIV/AIDS and MSMs.
“Especially in the last five years, you have seen a change, you have seen a shift and you are finding we are more proactive. We’re going out there, we’re sourcing the stories, we’re putting out the material,” she says.
“We just finished something last year that looked at the role of media in getting the message of HIV out in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and what were the feelings then, and what are the shifts now, what are the projections going forward, and how the media has evolved over that whole period.”
Francis says part of the challenge is the lack of resources to be able to do more of coverage.
She says viewer response to such stories has also evolved, because people now have more information from media coverage and public education campaigns.
“You still have deeply rooted fears,” she acknowledges,” and so there is some amount of stigma, there is some amount of discrimination, and that too is slowly being eroded but there is still work that needs to be done.”