Today's young Americans are living through a revolution.
In 1973, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked Americans what they thought about homosexual relations. 73% said these relations are "always wrong" and another 7% considered them "almost always" wrong, according to a report published by the American Enterprise Institute. The Center conducted the same survey in 2010 and found the 73% holding the "always wrong" opinion had dropped to 46% - a minority.
A 2011 Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans believed same-sex marriage should be legal. Between 2010 and 2011 alone, the number of Americans ages 18-34 holding this belief shot from 54% to 70%.
Since its inception in 2009, "Glee," a show with a storyline that includes several openly gay characters, has won four Golden Globe Awards. "Modern Family," an American sitcom that prominently features a gay couple, has won 18 Primetime Emmy Awards. In June 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
"You guys have lived through a period of cultural change that is really rare," filmmaker and Pulitzer Center grantee Micah Fink told high school and middle school students in Saint Louis, Missouri this week, calling the current period in the United States one of "unparalleled social transformation." He added that gay rights seem to be an issue this young generation is "really engaged in."
Fink's feature-length documentary The Abominable Crime was screened at the Saint Louis International Film Festival November 17 and Fink, along with two of the film's main characters, visited over 500 students in classrooms at Lindbergh High School, Hixson Middle School, Crossroads College Prep, Collinsville High School, Parkway West High School and John Burroughs School the following two days to discuss its subject: violent homosexuality in Jamaica. One Hixson student, a twelve-year-old named Isabelle, was inspired to write a note to Maurice Tomlinson and his husband Tom Decker, the documentary subjects who made the rounds with Fink. It began:
I cannot say how proud I am. I just wanted to say thank you for being so brave. It is sad that you need to be brave to be yourself. Thank you for sharing your story and teaching me so much. I'm sorry that being who you are can be a death sentence. I think that you two are so strong and it's absolutely brilliant how you never give up.
I have always tried to speak up against inequality. I have gone to rallies and speakings for LGBTQ rights, but only in the USA. I never knew how bad it was in other places around the world. Thank you for opening my eyes to this.
"My dad told me when I was seven that if he ever found out I was a lesbian, he'd disown me," another student explained. "I think it [acceptance of gays in the U.S.] is just my generation's pushback."
But in Jamaica, homosexuality has nowhere near the cultural acceptance it has gained here.
"Being gay is the worst thing you can be in Jamaica," explained Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican lawyer and human rights activist, to students at Lindbergh. He was outted by the Jamaica Observer after marrying the Rev. Tom Decker in Canada and received so many death threats he had to leave the country. The Abominable Crime follows the harrowing journeys of Tomlinson; Decker; Simone, a lesbian Jamaican single mother; and Simone's young daughter, Khayla. Tomlinson and Decker joined Fink on the class visits.
"Maurice! I know you!" exclaimed Collinsville teacher Barbara Lindauer, who recognized Tomlinson from the film, when the three speakers arrived in her classroom.
According to Fink and Tomlinson, the 1970s American televangelism exported to the Caribbean, the fact that Jamaica has the largest population of English-speakers in the region and the arrival of the first color televisions in Jamaica combined to instill an intense fear of homosexuality in the Jamaican population. Add this cultural influence to Jamaica's deeply religious beliefs and an anti-buggery law left over from the era of British colonialism, and the country has become an environment where vigilante violence is often enacted on gays, suspected gays and allies. The dominant emotions behind the hate, Tomlinson said, are "fear and ignorance."
Ironically, the chances of the United States' current "gay-friendly" pop culture affecting Jamaica's deep-seeded, religious-rooted distrust of homosexuality are slim, the filmmaker and activist both added. "Foreign gays," Tomlinson explained, wouldn't have the same effect.
"By resisting American ideals," he said, "they [Jamaicans] are kind of taking a stand for Jamaican values."
And, Fink continued, the material would likely be censored by the Jamaican government; an eight-minute clip about the film was cut without explanation from a recent Jamaican news broadcast.
Despite the U.S. media's international reach, most students admitted that their own awareness of global issues is limited.
"There's not a lot of broadcasting [in the U.S.] on international issues, so we didn't know about Jamaica," one Lindbergh student said.
"I just didn't know this was happening," another added. One student at John Burroughs said her parents had just returned from a vacation to Jamaica through Sandals Resorts, a company ironically founded by the same man – Butch Stewart – who owns the Jamaica Observer, the paper that outted Tomlinson. When it comes to homophobia in Jamaica, Tomlinson told Lindbergh students, "sanitized reports, walls – that's what people [outsiders] see."
At Collinsville, someone asked why Fink had chosen this issue to make a film about.
"Some part of me wants to say, how could you not make a film about it?" he replied.
"The international news that we're getting is really focused on our national interests," the filmmaker told Lindbergh students. "You get war on terror, troop movements. It's not an absence of a story, and it's not an absence of relevance. Our society, our media has decided to stop investing in this kind of reporting."
But in the build-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics we've heard a lot about discrimination against homosexuals in Russia, a Collinsville student pointed out. Why isn't that the case for what's happening in Jamaica? Tomlinson suggested racism was at play. Fink pointed again to the lack of a healthy dose of international news in the United States.
Many students wondered what might be the first step to change in Jamaica. Tomlinson believes the law must be changed so that gays and allies can have a legal platform on which to advocate for civil rights. Fink likened the U.S.'s shift in acceptance of gay culture and potential future change in Jamaica to the American Civil Rights Movement – a slow process, and still not completed.
"The legal unraveling of Jim Crow started in the '40s; do people still discriminate [based on race]?" he asked students. They nodded. "But at least you'll have some bases for complaint."
There was much discussion of how and when Tomlinson and Decker realized they were gay and broke the news to their families. Decker, who was gay-bashed – hit over the head with a shovel – when he was sixteen, realized how much the incident still affects him when a middle-schooler asked when he stopped "being scared."
"I'm coming away not feeling like I shared something, but feeling that I have received something," Decker said as we walked back to the car after the first visit to Hixson Middle School.
The filmmaker, activist and reverend weren't the only ones deeply affected. At Hixson, Isabelle ran up to Tomlinson and pressed the folded note into his hand. On the outside she'd written: "From a student, an ally, a friend." The last paragraph read:
I look up to both of you. Do not let anyone put hate into your heart. Do not let anyone hurt you. They can only hurt you if you let them. Be proud of yourselves. I will keep an eye on the news for you. You are wonderful. Your story is inspiring.
7th grade student
Read a story about Fink, Tomlinson and Decker's visit to Collinsville High School in the Belleville News-Democrat here: http://www.bnd.com/2013/11/19/2913367/collinsville-students-learn-about…