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Story Publication logo March 13, 2012

Jamaica: Baby Steps Towards Tolerance

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Jamaica has the reputation of being one of the most violently anti-gay countries on earth.Male...

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A video, called “Unconditional Love,” featured Christine Straw, a former Miss Jamaica Universe beauty queen, expressing support for her gay brother, Matthew Straw. Jamaica, 2011.

A gay-friendly public service video about tolerance was rejected last year by all television broadcasters in Jamaica.

The video, called "Unconditional Love," featured Christine Straw, a former Miss Jamaica Universe beauty queen, expressing support for her gay brother, Matthew Straw.

"I'm very, very proud of my brother, and his sexuality has nothing to do with how much I love him or how little I love him," Straw says in the short video which was supposed to be broadcast in Jamaica in August 2010. "At the end of the day, you love the person. Who cares what their sexuality is?"

"Unfortunately, it didn't air in Jamaica," said Dane Lewis, the executive director the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), which sponsored the video along with two other local groups, Jamaica AIDS Support For Life and Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition.

"TV Jamaica (TVJ) was the only network that actually responded to us," Lewis explained. "They told us they wouldn't be able to air it because from a legal standpoint it could be seen as promoting something that was illegal."

"Apparently," said Lewis, "love is illegal these days. The goal was to present a more family-oriented perspective on tolerance, but there was kickback from the media and the religious community."

Gary Allen, the managing director of TVJ's parent company RJR Communications Group, later told the Jamaica Observer that opposition by pastors was a factor in their decision not to run the paid spot. "There has been significant public opinion to consider, particularly the response of the church to the prospects of the ad being aired," Allen said.

Several days earlier the Observer had run an article titled "Gay TV advert angers clerics" in which leading religious leaders had denounced the video. "The ad itself can become repulsive for many people in society," Milton Gregory, executive secretary for Jamaica Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists told the paper. "From a Biblical perspective, where homosexuality is concerned, the Bible says that God is against it."

Mark Dawes, the associate pastor of the Tower Hill Missionary Church in Kingston, told the Observer, "As innocuous and as innocent as that public service announcement might appear, it is part of a wider plan by militant homosexuals to gradually desensitize Jamaicans to homosexuality, so that homosexual behavior and practice can become mainstream in Jamaica."

TVJ was also concerned the video might violate Jamaica's anti-sodomy law by openly promoting a gay life style. The law, which reaches back to when Jamaica was a British Colony, is known as Article 76 of the Offences Against the Person Act, and makes "the abominable crime of buggery" punishable by "imprisonment and hard labour for a maximum of ten years."

"We attempted to seize an opportunity," Lewis said, explaining the genesis of the video. "Matthew Straw, a young gay Jamaican man living in Ireland, said he wanted to help out. His sister was a Jamaican beauty queen—and we wanted to humanize the message of tolerance."

"One of the things we realized after the ad was rejected is that Jamaica isn't ready for that advanced a message yet," said Lewis. "We still have to take baby-steps toward tolerance."

The video was also intended to be a response to an earlier PSA called "Must Respect" that was broadcast in Jamaica in 2008. This earlier video focused on the link between homophobia and HIV/AIDS, and was "very us and them," says Lewis. "It argued you shouldn't discriminate against 'them' because homophobia drives the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We wanted to make the discussion of tolerance less 'us v them' and take it out of the HIV space."

An Increase in Anti-Gay Violence

The "Unconditional Love" video was created to respond to an increasing number of anti-gay incidents involving young people kicked out of their homes by family members. Between January and August 2011, 62 anti-gay incidents were reported to J-FLAG, said Lewis, and most involve young people between the ages of 18 and 29. Eleven of these incidents involved people being displaced from homes by family members.

"On average, between 2008 and 2010, we've had 30 to 40 cases of anti-gay violence reported to J-FLAG each year," said Lewis, "This year, just up to June 2011, we had double that number, and new reports are coming in almost daily."

Lewis also noted that the violence is often extreme. In the last few months, two murders of young men accused of being gay were reported. In one incident, reported on Aug. 2 last year, a young man named Ricardo Morgan was accused of being gay by a gang and nearly beheaded in front of his sister. And Oshane Gordon, a 16- year-old boy was "accused of having questionable relations with another man," and stabbed to death on Oct. 18 by a mob that invaded his home.

Lewis sees this increase in anti-gay violence as part of a "kick back" against J-FLAG's efforts to raise awareness of gay issues.

"We have been promoting that the organization (J-FLAG) exists and that people should document incidents of abuse. We are ramping up our presence and the issues are being spoken about in the media," said Lewis. "I think this violence is part of the greater kick-back against our call for tolerance."

Despite these setbacks, Lewis is determined to press forward. Instead of a pseudonym, he has begun using his real name when speaking to the media as part of an effort to personalize J-FLAG's fight for tolerance and acceptance.

"I dropped the pseudonym in July 2010," Lewis said, and he now is considering stepping from the shadows and showing his face on camera. "A lot of people have been asking for it, but the issue of security is number one. If we can secure my safety—then the possibility of using my face will become a reality."

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Aug. 2, 2011: CVM news report about Ricardo Morgan, accused to being gay and chopped to death by a gang in Torrington Park, Jamaica.

Oct 18, 2011: CVM news report on the killing of 16-year-old Oshane Gordon in Lilliput, St. James, Jamaica. Gordon was stabbed to death by a mob after he was accused of having "questionable relations" with another man. (Gordon's story begins 9:50 sec into the broadcast.)

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