“…Boom Bye Bye inna batty bwoy head.” Buju Banton’s gritty voice bellowed from the speakers and mixed with the laughter and chatter of the friends and family who’d gathered to celebrate my father’s birthday (100% Jamaican-style!). We’d converted the modest family room of our Floridian home into a makeshift dance floor which was packed with gyrating bodies clutching cups filled with one island concoction or another, courtesy of Wray & Nephew rum. In one corner stood a table laden with traditional Jamaican entrees and desserts while another housed a rowdy game of dominoes. The air was jubilant and carefree; spirits were both high and flowing. The year was 1994 and my 8-year-old self was perched next to the sound system, feverishly absorbing the scene unfolding before me. As I sat there, taking in the sights and sounds of the night, I knew that as a first-generation American, these moments would probably be the closest I’d ever get to actually living on the island. “Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man, dem haffi dead,” Buju continued to provide the soundtrack to the festivities while I observed people groove to the tune, seemingly unaware of- or more lamentably, indifferent to-the record’s homophobic lyrics. At that tender age, I was completely oblivious to the controversy surrounding the dancehall star’s latest hit. And from the way the crowd responded to it, there was no reason for me not to be. Homophobia was second nature to Jamaicans; so as the international community lambasted the song for its violent content, everyone in our house that night allowed its heavy baseline and melodic rhythms to carry them into the early hours of the morning. That was the first time I can recall hearing those words, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Despite receiving a relatively progressive upbringing in an entirely different country, I was never far removed from the anti-gay attitudes that saturated Jamaica’s national fabric. Political leaders and musicians openly denounced homosexuality at every turn and news of assaults against queer bodies made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and into our living room quite often. And it has been those beliefs compounded by a rash of hate crimes that has made Jamaica the target of international criticism. Human rights advocates have deemed it, “the worst place on earth for LGBT people.” And the lucky few who have successfully sought asylum abroad (most notably, Stacyann Chin) would probably agree. But in a country with skyrocketing unemployment and widespread poverty, the majority of the LGBT population had no other option than to remain in a country that refuses to acknowledge their humanity. So, as I entered adulthood and grappled with my own sexuality, my concern for my queer brothers and sisters back on the island intensified. With their religious values, oppressive legislation and violent attacks on gays, I’d conceded that little could be done to change the mindset of the Jamaican masses, especially by an “outsider” who was so far away. I desperately wanted to be an agent of change, but just didn’t know how. So for the next couple of years, I channeled my immense guilt and hopelessness into various community outreach programs here in the U.S., and silently waited for an opportunity to contribute my efforts to a cause that resided so close to my heart.
Eventually, a friend suggested the Jamaica Forum of Lesbian, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), an organization dedicated to combatting the persecution of gays. Eager to learn more about its mission, I quickly found myself on its website. But my excitement immediately turned to dread when, right there on its homepage, stood a ‘Tolerance Video’ that [less than 5 seconds in] promoted the familiar distortions that have fueled anti-gay sentiment for decades.
“…Intolerance and homophobia contributes to the spread of HIV by driving gay Jamaican underground, away from HIV prevention, treatment and care services. Let’s slow the spread of HIV…”
What? I was in utter disbelief. How about, “Intolerance and homophobia denies a significant portion of the population from exercising their God-given right to life, liberty and security of person?” Instead of watching a presentation emphasizing Jamaica’s moral, political and social obligation to allow gays safe integration into society, a video that implores the nation to acknowledge the fundamental civil rights of its fellow countrymen, I endured 40 seconds of archaic propaganda that played to misguided fears by suggesting homosexuals are dishonest, promiscuous, and lack regard for their health as well as others. In essence, it reaffirmed that AIDS is a “gay disease. However, neighboring Caribbean countries, which are just as homophobic, have experienced a decline in new HIV cases through comprehensive sexual education and improving access to healthcare. So explain the correlation between sexuality and the spread of STDs again? How long and in how many countries will gays be scapegoats for this epidemic? How much longer can the LGBT community be unjustly blamed for society’s ills? Contrary to popular belief, homosexuals aren’t unclean deviants who emerge at midnight from seedy alleys and sewage drains like characters from a Michael Jackson video, fixed on pillaging towns in search of unsuspecting souls to contaminate. They’re upstanding, law-abiding citizens who function as substantial resources of creativity and productivity, but are just as susceptible to the pitfalls of unprotected sex as the next heterosexual on the street. They’re doctors, educators, lawyers, and yes, even politicians. They’re co-workers and church members, kinfolk and comrades. That’s the message I expected to receive from J-Flag. How ironic for a group to list education as a core objective, yet its homepage, the thesis statement of its online argument, only perpetuates the misinformation that goads the violent bigotry that victimizes the very people it claims to service; its efforts are counterproductive at best. If this is the strongest ally Jamaican queers have, then they’re fighting an uphill battle with both hands tied behind their backs.
I’ve wrestled with my emotions regarding Jamaica’s unbridled homophobia and have questioned whether or not I have the right to criticize a country in which I’ve never lived. But then I ask myself, if this was 1989, would I be out of line to denounce South Africa’s apartheid regime? Some may ask why, in light Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation, have I chosen to concentrate on Jamaica’s tumultuous relationship with its LGBT residents. Simple: my heart resides in Jamaica. My attachment to the island transcends time and distance; its people are my family, and I proudly hold my relatives to a higher standard. Indeed, injustice everywhere grates my nerves, but it’s especially challenging to witness the country in which my roots are so deeply planted spiral into further chaos. There’s nothing I want more than to see Jamaica assume a leadership role in the global economy. Sadly, its gay rights movement has advanced at a glacial pace when compared to the rest of the world, especially America’s, which has gained exponential traction during the last decade. But as worldwide support to secure gay civil liberties increases, Jamaica will have to adjust accordingly or risk being left behind. J-Flag has the opportunity to help the island transform it global image, but to do so, it must avoid regurgitating age-old stereotypes and reframe its narrative around inclusion. Otherwise, with a looming two-billion dollar ($US) debt, Jamaica may find itself on the receiving end of international pressures it can’t afford.