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Homophobic law threatens lives in Jamaican LGBT community

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 16 Apr 2014 09:57 GMT
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One summer day in 2008, Simone Edwards was at home in Jamaica with her three brothers. When she walked out of the house, two men with guns shot her twice. Simone pretended to be dead, and this saved her life.

Simone says it was "for being gay and being a proud gay" that, well before she was shot, there were persistent death threats against not only her, but also her daughter Kayla. In Jamaica, the children of LGBT people are considered "evil seeds".

After the shooting, Simone went into hiding with her daughter, before fleeing on her own to Amsterdam and seeking asylum. She was reunited with Kayla only two years later.

Simone’s story, told in the award-winning documentary "The Abominable Crime" by journalist and filmmaker Micah Fink, seems to have a happy ending. But she will never be able to return to Jamaica.

Laws enacted under British rule in the 19th century, and still technically in force, underpin homophobic attitudes that persist today in Jamaican society, permitting abuse, extortion and violence against the Caribbean nation’s LGBT people. 

The 1864 Offenses Against the Persons Act criminalised any form of sexual intimacy between males, using the term “the abominable crime of buggery” for anal intercourse. The last conviction under that law was handed out in 2005, but the law still gives scope to those who want to abuse LGBT Jamaicans.

"I talked to the government, I was told clearly by (former MP) Ernest Smith and other people there: there is no violence there against gays in Jamaica", says Fink. But when he set up meetings with LGBT people in Jamaica to investigate their lifestyle, he heard "horrible stories, horrible violence".

“The threat of extortion which is facilitated by the law is more savage and insidious than the actual prosecutions”, says Jamaican HIV/AIDS and LGBT activist Maurice Tomlinson.

Eighty-five percent of Jamaicans say they are homophobic, over 76 percent do not want the 1864 law to be changed, and 60 percent oppose the application of The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of Jamaica to protect the rights of LGBT Jamaicans, according to research carried out in 2012 by the U.S.-based NGO AIDS-Free World and supported by the University of the West Indies Mona in Jamaica.

“The religion and the music that typify Jamaican society also contribute (to homophobia). So you hear this kind of rhetoric Monday to Friday in terms of anti-gay music, and then on the weekends you hear just anti-gay preaching”, says Tomlinson, “And then you have law giving license to attacks and you have the police not responding because they think that we are criminals.”

Jamaican Justice Minister Mark Golding told Reuters in an interview in January that a vote in parliament would take place before the end of the legislative year in March, opening the door for the law to be reviewed, possibly later in 2014. But the vote did not take place.

“The review would be a significant step”, says Tomlinson, “It would be the first time in many years that the law has been considered by parliament. And at that point, hopefully we'd be able to have an intelligent conversation about the impact of this law on people’s lives.”

From a public health perspective, reviewing the law may save lives, Fink said. “It can only intensify the (HIV/AIDS) epidemic if people are afraid to identify as gay or afraid to seek services - if the health department doesn’t provide services because they're gay, because it’s criminalized, because it’s illegal.”

“It is visibility that is crucial to us, gaining another level of understanding about LGBT people, and therefore reduction in the homophobia. So the law is very, very critical”, says Tomlinson.

The Documentary "The Abominable Crime" was commissioned by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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