The repeal of Jamaica’s long-outdated sodomy law, a relic of British imperialism that defines homosexual acts as “the abominable crime” of buggery and sets a maximum of 10 years of hard labor as punishment, will be debated during the current parliamentary session.
While the 1864 law itself is rarely enforced, it is widely viewed in Jamaica to be the lynchpin of a national ideology that embraces homophobia and violently rejects the idea of gay rights.
“Members of parliament will be asked to have discussions with members of their constituencies,” Senator Sandra Falconer, the government’s information minister, announced last week. “And I’m sure some of those discussions will be ugly.”
Ugly may be an understatement.
A survey published in 2011 found that 82 percent of Jamaicans consider homosexuality “morally wrong,” and 85 percent do not think it should be made legal.
Jamaica, a nation heavily dependent on tourism, is facing a defining moment.
“No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation,” Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, said during the lead-up to elections in 2011, when she first called for a review of the buggery law.
This expression of tolerance, mild as it may seem from an American perspective, represented a radical break from the openly homophobic previous administration of Prime Minister Bruce Golding.
When asked by a BBC reporter if he would allow gays officials to serve in his cabinet, Golding replied, “Sure they can be in the cabinet, but not mine. Not mine.”
Golding later explained that Jamaica’s attitude towards gays is rooted in its religious traditions. “We are predominantly a Christian country—we are a fervently Christian country,” Golding told the website Big Think. “It may not be reflected in terms of how we live sometimes, but we are passionately committed to certain Christian principals, which eschew homosexuality.”
Golding was referring to a fundamentalist form of Christianity that interprets the Bible literally and is very popular in Jamaica. The ease with which schoolchildren quote the Bible verses from Leviticus that describe gay sex as an “abomination” and call for gays to be killed reflects how often it is preached from Jamaica’s pulpits.
Golding’s remarks are a reflection of how homophobia has permeated the culture and is generally accepted as a core part of the country’s national values.
The Reverend Lenworth Anglin, executive director of the Church of God in Jamaica, reacted to news that the government would review the buggery law by shouting from his pulpit that he was prepared to die to ensure that Jamaica does not succumb to pressure from homosexual activists.
The Reverend Al Miller, another leading religious voice, announced that “a group of concerned pastors and leaders” were mobilizing and would “resist any attempts to tamper with the country’s Constitution as it relates to the buggery law.” And he denounced efforts to "foist on our nation, in any shape or form, the gay rights agenda which is alien to our culture as a people."
“It’s not a social norm to be gay,” a young high school student told me during one of my first trips to the island. “They are saying that you’re supposed to accept it and it doesn’t matter what you do. I’ll be in your face, I am gay and there’s nothing you can do about it. People in Jamaica don’t like that. If you are against something, the ignorant people are going to get very radical and people are going to start dying.”
Over the last six months, two high profile lawsuits have propelled the issue of gay rights onto the front pages of Jamaica’s newspapers and splashed it across the national airwaves.
Both are led by Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer with AIDS Free World and a human rights activist who fled his country after being publicly outed last year.
Tomlinson dramatically returned to Jamaica in May to argue a case before the Supreme Court that charged the three main Jamaican television broadcasters with violating Jamaica’s new Charter for Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms.
This charter, which amended the Jamaican Constitution and passed in 2011, includes the “right to freedom of expression,” and the right “to seek, receive, distribute, or disseminate information, opinions and ideas through any medium.”
Tomlinson argued that this right to disseminate information “through any medium” was violated when TV spots depicting straight Jamaicans showing support for gay friends and relatives were rejected for broadcast by the three stations.
Lawyers for the stations countered Tomlinson’s claim by asserting that broadcasting expressions of tolerance for gays could be viewed as promoting homosexual behavior, which remains illegal in Jamaica.
“Many Jamaicans are thinking Maurice Tomlinson, the claimant, is pushing a 'foreign agenda' and trampling on our freedoms to disagree with homosexuality,” noted a guest columnist in The Gleaner, Jamaica’s leading newspaper. “[They fear] that by supporting the human rights of LGBT Jamaicans we, including the TV stations, would be aiding and abetting an illegal act.”
Tomlinson believes that stirring the pot by public debate and legal activism are necessary to advance tolerance for gays in Jamaica.
On June 25, Tomlinson appeared before the Jamaica Supreme Court to attack the anti-sodomy law from another constitutional perspective.
Justice Carol Edwards, overseeing the case, gave the attorney general, named as defendant in the case, until mid-September to file a response and the first hearings are scheduled to begin October 4, 2013.
In this case, Javed Jaghai, a young gay Jamaican activist, claims his landlord evicted him because of his sexual orientation and concern that he would be engaging in illegal activities on her premises.
While being gay is not technically illegal in Jamaica, the anti-buggery law does criminalize acts of sexual intimacy between men, even if they take place behind closed doors.
Tomlinson is arguing that the sodomy law infringes on the right to privacy, which was granted under the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. If the court recognizes that gays share in the right to privacy, Tomlinson plans to argue that these rights trump the terms of the sodomy law by making it impossible to act against private behavior between consenting adults.
“Right now it’s to get the courts to acknowledge that at least in private same-gender loving individuals have the rights of everyone else,” explains Tomlinson.
At the heart of both cases is the sense that the time has come to confront Jamaica’s homophobia – and the law that gives it legitimacy.
“We can sit patiently while our humanity is denied and wait for the paradigm to shift in a generation or two, or we can aggressively agitate for change now,” Jaghai recently wrote in a Facebook post picked up by Huffington Post. “I choose to do the latter.”
See the video by Javed Jaghai on youtube.
Micah Fink is the director of The Abominable Crime, a new feature documentary that tracks the consequences of homophobia through the lives of two gay Jamaicans, a young mother and a leading activist, who are forced to choose between their love for their country – and their lives. The film had its world premiere at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. It was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Editor's note: This article was updated on June 28, 2013.