In November 2004, the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch issued a devastating report that cited Jamaica as the most virulently anti-gay bigoted nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The report, aptly and grimly titled “Hated to Death,” exposed the pervasive homophobia that both drives and permeates the former British crown colony – including the country’s popular culture, law enforcement apparatus, and much of its health care system.
That bias has for generations put at further risk some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens; setting up barriers both external and internal to seeking medical care, and in the process making it extremely difficult to acquire condoms and other items that would help LGBT persons combat the spread of STDs.
The island’s prevailing attitudes have made their mark across the region. “As Jamaica goes, so goes the Caribbean,” says The Reverend Robert Griffin, Director of Religious Education and Christian Social Action at MCC Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.
Griffin says, too, that the local pop culture only fans the flames of bigotry, homophobia and violence.
“When it comes to gays and lesbians, ‘if you see one, kill one’ is the conventional wisdom you hear coming from the ‘dancehall’ crowd,” Griffin says, referring to the Jamaican genre of popular music.
A version of reggae, dancehall also includes sometimes vicious lyrics that sound off on politics and religion.
Dancehall music has been criticized by international groups for its violent and often homophobic lyrics.
Among the more outspoken anti-gay dancehall artists is Buju Banton, a Kingston-born musician arrested in Tamarac last December by the DEA on charges he tried to sell five kilos of cocaine to undercover agents.
Banton, whose trial in Tampa is scheduled to begin June 21, came under fire from human rights groups because of the lyrics to his song “Boom Bye Bye,” released in 1988 when he was 15 years old.
They include references of distaste towards same-sex intimacy and the threat of violence. (“Two man hitch up on an rub up on, an lay down inna bed; Hug up on another anna feel up [the] leg: [instead] fi[nd] an [auto]matic an[d] [an] Uzi instead.”)
Although a teenager when he recorded the song, Banton has never renounced it and has pointedly refused to sign the Reggae Compassionate Act, a musicians’ pledge to refrain from performing homophobic songs or making homophobic statements.
Under Jamaican law, homosexuality is a crime punishable by ten years of hard labor. Victims of gay-bashing cannot go to the police for fear of official abuse, assault and arrest.
Gays and lesbians who are taken to the hospital following a hate crime often face the added ordeal of openly-hostile hospital staff: badly hurt victims of gay-bashing have been insulted by doctors and nurses and made to wait as much as 24 hours for treatment.
Amnesty International reports that LGBT persons have been “beaten, cut, burned, raped and shot on account of their sexuality.” The organization further confirms that Jamaican authorities, instead of assisting victims, are often themselves guilty of homophobic “violence and torture.”
Since 1997, Amnesty International has documented the murders of 35 LGBT Jamaicans, and since 2008 it has catalogued more than 30 incidents of anti-gay mob violence.
Sadly, much has failed to change in the more than five years since the release of “Hated to Death.” In the Spring of 2010, the data still suggests that the AIDS epidemic may be deepening in Jamaica and that unprotected sex is far more common than hoped.
On April 7, leaders from the international movement of the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) participated in the first public HIV/AIDS march in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
The Walk for Tolerance was sponsored by Jamaica AIDS Support for Life, the largest and oldest Jamaican non-profit organization providing support services to persons with HIV and AIDS.
The Caribbean, including Jamaica, has the second-highest HIV infection rate in the world, behind sub-Saharan Africa.
The United Nations estimates that 25,000 Jamaicans are infected with HIV; a significant number do not know that they have the virus.
The goal of the public walk was to engender goodwill, support and tolerance for persons living with HIV and AIDS. The march drew 150 participants, and was hailed as a historic first for the Montego Bay community.
Among the participants were Rev. Nancy Wilson, Presiding Elder and Moderator of MCC, along with Rev. Pat. Bumgardner, who chairs the church’s Global Justice Team, and Fort Lauderdale-based Griffin, who serves additionally as Staff Pastor for Sunshine Cathedral Jamaica and MCC Liaison to Jamaica.
Wilson landed in Jamaica fresh off the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast chat-and-chew with President Barack Obama. Having spoken privately with the American chief executive prior to her departure, Wilson arrived in the British Commonwealth nation with the afterglow of the Presidential Presence.
“The members and adherents of Metropolitan Community Churches stand in solidarity with all persons with HIV and AIDS,” said Wilson.
“Jesus stood with those who were marginalized and rejected by their societies. Jesus loved those who had been made to feel like outcasts; Jesus welcomed such, embraced them, loved them and cared for them. Those who would be Jesus’ followers today must show God’s same extravagant love,” she added.
Griffin notes the importance of gaining the support of members of government and media, and of identifying straight allies, of all political persuasions.
“We want to influence the culture in a positive way without threatening all the good that Jamaica has to offer,” Griffin adds.