As two friends and I were walking north on Church St one day, a man in his early 20s came up behind us. While passing he said, “I’m probably the only straight one on this street.”
“Probably,” we joked back.
“No thanks,” he muttered. “I’m Jamaican and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Feeling a burst of anger I shouted, “So am I – and I’m queer.”
Talking to my friends about the incident, we decided that this man was probably queer himself but incredibly closeted. Why else would he need to announce to passersby that he was straight?
Later I wondered to myself about why he thought it is impossible to be truly Jamaican and queer. For me, the majority of my black queer friends are of Jamaican descent. Yet heterosexist Jamaican culture seems to think that queer people don’t exist there. People are not comfortable being out and visible in Jamaica. Homophobia can be so blatant and dangerous, it’s incredibly difficult for Jamaicans to come out. People feel forced to live in the closet and so the ignorance continues.
Being born in Canada of Jamaican background, I felt linked to some Jamaican culture by listening to reggae music that my father loved. Living in a predominately white area, I looked to the music partly to connect with a part of my culture. As I began to explore and discover my sexuality, it was evident to me that I was attracted to women. Studying homophobia in different cultures, I learned derogatory terms for queer people that were used in Jamaica and I realized that some of my favourite artists were actually singing about and promoting hateful acts toward queer people – in other words me.
Elephant man, Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, TOK and Capleton are amongst the stars who have written lyrics variously urging the shooting, burning, raping, stoning and drowning of gay and lesbian people. One Sizzla lyric uses the derogatory terms “chi chi man” and “batty bwoys” to urge the audience to “kill dem, batty bwoys haffi dead, gun shots pon dem… who want to see dem dead put up his hand.”
Sizzla performed in Montreal and Toronto last year, despite much protest. On Pride Sunday the Air Canada Centre is holding an international reggae superstars concert featuring homophobic singers like Bounty Killer and Elephant Man.
The homophobic music must have some connection to the great number of acts of physical violence committed against suspected queer people in Jamaica. A recent poll showed that 96 percent of Jamaicans were opposed to any move that would seek to legalize homo-sexual relationships. One of my Jamaican queer friends told me that the police would rather chase down a robber than investigate a murder of a queer person. Amnesty International has received many reports of police failing to investigate homophobic hate crimes. In some cases they even fail to take reports.
But things can flow the other way, too. I think that a solution to Jamaica’s homophobia problem can start here in Canada, where physical harm and death solely because of one’s sexual orientation isn’t the norm.
At Black Queer Youth – a group I attend for people aged 14 to 29, funded by Supporting Our Youth out of the Sherbourne Health Centre – we talk about how coming out, being visible and taking up space is important. We need to make our voices heard in our own communities. As Jamaican Canadians and any other queer folks that come from homophobic places we need to use our voices to protect ourselves. We can educate around homophobia by coming out to family members here and back in our countries of origin and so break down stereotypes and change minds. As idealistic or naïve as it seems, I believe we can eradicate homophobia by being ourselves.
So, my closet queer on Church St, my work is partly for you.
One of my good friends just recently came out to her parents who live in Trinidad. Currently her mother is not speaking to her and has said that she does not want her to return home during Christmas holidays. How can a mother hurt her child in this way purely because of who she loves? Sometimes you have to put your community in the position where it has to ask that question. It’s not easy, but it requires an immediate response.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait for Beenie Man to come out of the closet and begin to rap about same-sex love. Wouldn’t that be fun? It might save lives that are being needlessly lost.