Opinion
2 min

Where is Portia?

Government silent after Jamaican student attacked

It seemed almost biblical.

A crowd baying for damnation and blood. Guards haranguing, then physically attacking, “the guilty one.”

Then, of course, there’s supposed to be a messiah who shows up to shame the mob with a timely adage about loving your neighbour, after which everyone slinks off, shedding their weapons and hypocrisy. Except — it’s November 2012.

In a glassed-off room on a Jamaican university campus, a slightly built young student is pleading — in mime — with a more burly security guard who is holding him at arm’s length while trying to keep a second guard at bay. A third guard walks around the small room, wooden plank in hand.

Outside, a frenzied crowd of the young man’s peers press against the glass or angle for a better view of the action inside. From time to time, there are disparate calls for the guards to “kill the batty boy.”

The second guard can’t contain himself. He unleashes a torrent of blows on the student’s head and body to the mob’s great amusement and excitement.

There was, apparently, no messiah in the crowd that day. Or in the days after.

Yes, security guards were removed from duty. There’s talk of “special” training for security and other staff at the university, which, of course, is “continuing its investigation.”

And there’s the requisite “We’re working with the attacked students to ensure they can study safely” PR.

But no Portia Simpson-Miller. Remember her?

“Our administration believes in protecting the human rights of all Jamaicans. No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Government should provide the protection.”

That was Simpson-Miller, the election candidate, during a December 2011 televised election debate mere days before Jamaicans went to the polls and handed her and her People’s National Party a landslide victory over the ruling Jamaica Labour Party.

It was nothing short of a bombshell that a Jamaican candidate would risk her political capital on an issue that is anathema in an environment notorious for its rabid homophobia.

“To say that I was shocked would be putting it mildly,” gay rights activist Maurice Tomlinson told me three months after the election. “Statements by political leaders carry a tremendous amount of weight; if we continue to see this kind of leadership, we will definitely see an eroding of virulent homophobia.”

But Simpson-Miller, now prime minister, has not walked the talk of Simpson-Miller, candidate. Mama P is missing in action.

The bloody-mindedness of the attack on that student, which could have ended in his murder, as it has with many gay Jamaicans, demanded the response of a government. It required the intervention of a leader. It still does.

Eight years after the co-founder of the gay advocacy group J-FLAG was killed by machete, a 16-year-old was slashed to death, also by machete, in his own home in October last year for having “questionable relations” with another man.

It’s more than time for a televised “address to the nation” that Caribbean leaders love so much — one that charts a way forward in the uphill fight against homophobia and goes well beyond empty rhetoric about support for gays and law reviews.

In a column titled “Jamaica, J’accuse,” Tomlinson challenges Simpson-Miller and the Jamaican government:

Are you willing to take on the homophobia spewed from religious pulpits and laced into “murder music”?

Are you willing to reintroduce a Ministry of Education manual that helps teachers create lessons for high school students about tolerance for sexual diversity?

For that matter, are you willing to challenge the indefensible view that homosexuality is a colonial import?

Or, are you content to preside over the status quo, where, as Tomlinson points out, gaybashings and murderous homophobia are seen as “a matter of almost national pride.