We frequently hear of superlatives around which country is the safest, happiest, most progressive, racist or homophobic, among others, and often witness debates on how these descriptions, in turn, affect international perception and economic viability. Jamaica, for instance, as far back as 2014, has been ranked 3rd on the list of the most murderous countries in the world, and eight years earlier, was crowned (in shame?) by Time Magazine as the most homophobic. Some have argued and continue to argue that the measurements leading to the more negative of these categorisations, such as those ascribed to Jamaica, are part of an ulterior agenda and are carried out using an ethnocentric model, which ultimately means it doesn’t really take into consideration the grassroots and everyday experiences. But even though the latter rationale may be more of an instinctive reaction, it is also not as farfetched an assertion,. In the same, the intention and layers of ‘truth’ behind the pointed finger cannot be denied either.
Since 2006, challenges have been made to the title of most homophobic. The most recent was brought on by the foremost LGBT (and others along the spectrum) activist group, J-FLAG, which conducted a study on the soundness of arguments in favour of this label, but narrowed its focus on the oppressive and repressive ‘Buggery Laws” that delegitimise and criminalise what is often (and inaccurately) deemed non-heterosexual sexual conduct and intimacy. A conclusion was therefore drawn that the archaic and destructive laws are, in fact, not the most homophobic laws around. The study drew comparisons between Jamaica and six other Commonwealth nations – Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad & Tobago
“Research around the application of Jamaica’s buggery law reveals it is not among the most severe in the Caribbean region … Jamaica is neither the best nor the worst as it relates to the criminalisation of private, consensual same-sex conduct …” the published announcement of the (groundbreaking) findings noted.
By the end of the piece, there was somewhat of a disclaimer to the message of the results.
“This is by no means an indication that the law does not affect LGBT people across the country. The buggery law continues to be a locally and internationally recognised symbol of state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT Jamaicans ..”
Whether the content of the piece was overshadowed by the headline, “Jamaican Laws Not Most Homophobic” is yet to be confirmed. However, that general finding, as is seen in published pieces on the report (like the Star with the headline, “Jamaica not the most homophobic country”) as well as social media discussions, has since been confused to say the country is not the most homophobic. Although, those involved in the study also do not accept this qualification.
Based on conversations I have had with one person who was instrumental to the study, the NGO’s positioning seems to be grounded in an urgent rejection of what would be best described as the europeanisation/americanisation (all round whitewashing) of the activism against homophobia in the developing world, and the labeling phenomenon, which borders on capitalistic bullying mechanisms, it comes with. There is also the concern that too many of Jamaica’s LGBT have wrongfully found comfort in this gross misrepresentation of the country’s engagement of gender and sexuality – particularly because it denies that there are sizeable pockets of visible tolerance that do not exist in other more conservative states in the region and elsewhere.
It is agreeable that superlatives can be dangerous and may detract from the progress of organised resistance against sexuality-related phobias. But there also has to be an allowance for the view that an untimely and narrow denunciation, whether on the level of law, of a truth that though internationally pushed, hits home with a substantial fraction of the community it affects, is problematic.
Some responses, which I’ve opted to keep anonymous where necessary, to the declaration seem to reflect the arguable ambiguity in relation to the purpose of the study, as well as the anticipated impact.
“what was the goal of the letter?”
“I don’t get the point of the study either … Like J-FLAG got nuff money fuh spend … Some local context we’re missing?”
According to J-FLAG, it “undertook the study to review statistics on the use of the buggery law in the justice system, explore the treatment of similar laws internationally, and compare the severity of the local buggery law to others in the Commonwealth Caribbean.”
However, it does beg the question of whether the approach of the study stands up to the awesome revelation that disrupts a widely accepted view. This is not to say that the fact of its popularity makes it acceptable or valid but it is also reason to consider whether this application of ‘most homophobic’ (more so on the level of country) is valuable to applying necessary pressure to force the easing of the underrated grip of anachronistic laws that inspire a relentless culture of hate, justify bigotry and exclusion at all levels of society and even extends systemic marginalisation to those who may present a certain way but do not hold non-heterosexual identities. Let’s not even talk about the civilian/vigilante policing of gender (which hardly anyone, including elite academics who fancy using the term, understands) and sexuality that too often ends in harm or death.
Meanwhile, others tried to strike a compromise between their understanding and the findings of the study in question.
“I actually think Jamaica is remarkably tolerant (less so than Barbados or even Trinidad) at breakfast party I see trans people walking around … In half way tree I see gay couples … I actually think a lot of Jamaica’s homophobia is about optics … but I admit even that can be scary.”
This points back to the (seeming) pockets of tolerance that are arguably used to discredit the severity of homopbobia and the effects on those who experience it.
Well known activist, Maurice Tomlinson, who happens to have a case before the courts challenging these very laws, also gave his view on the matter, citing what he found to be the dangers in an analysis that could stand to do more harm than good to the struggle against a homophobic climate. Tomlinson described the results of the study as “flawed analysis” as he dug into the underbelly of the declaration, exposing what he thinks was negligently ignored.
“The major flaw with this analysis is that it completely ignores the fact that ONLY in Jamaica convicted gays must register as SEX OFFENDERS and ALWAYS carry a pass or face a J$1million fine PLUS 12 months imprisonment at hard labour for EACH OFFENCE of not having their pass. It is regrettable that this odious and oppressive law, which came into effect in 2012 with the Sexual Offences Act, was entirely ignored in an attempt to (yet again) downplay homophobia in Jamaica.”