Comment: Consul’s death thrusts Jamaican homophobia into the spotlight
Last week John Terry, a British honorary consul, was murdered at his Jamaica home in what was suspected to be a homophobic attack.
The 65-year-old was strangled and beaten, while a note reportedly calling him a ‘batty man’ had been left at the crime scene, prompting suspicions that homophobia was the key motive for the crime.
Although Jamaican police have since claimed it is unlikely that this was a factor in the killing, the act has brought the issue of Jamaica’s culture of homophobic violence to the fore in the world’s media.
Fuelled by conservative religious beliefs, both Christian and Rastafarian, homophobia is rife and even Jamaican law can be said to support it; sex between two men carries a ten year jail sentence. The murder of John Terry, whether or not it was motivated by anti-gay sentiment, has highlighted a growing problem, and one which has been escalating in recent years.
In 2004 Brian Williamson, Jamaica’s most prominent gay rights activist and founder of J-FLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, was brutally murdered. According to reports at the time, a crowd of people gathered outside the scene of the crime, shouted abuse and celebrated his death by singing the homophobic Buju Banton song ‘Boom Bye Bye’. This murder and the subsequent public reaction goes some way to indicating the level of homophobia that gay people in Jamaica face. Even popular music is underpinned by prejudice, with stars such as Bounty Killer encouraging hate crime with their lyrics. Beatings, gang violence and murder are a constant threat, and many gay men and women live in fear of their safety.
Jamaica’s latent homophobia has also affected the fight against HIV. A 2004 report by Human Rights Watch titled ‘Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic’ stated that it is much more difficult to get safe sex advice, information about protecting oneself against the virus and practical defences like condoms when whole issue of gay sex is completely taboo. Discrimination exists within the health service, with reports that gay patients do not receive the care they are entitled to. Some HIV-positive patients have reported that healthcare workers have refused to treat or even touch them, and have disclosed their condition to others against their wishes, increasing the risk of homophobic abuse. If the situation continues as it is, Jamaica faces an increase in the number of people contracting HIV, a disease which could be preventable were it not for the health service’s homophobia.
Amnesty International has publicly condemned anti-gay attacks which have taken place in recent years. The organisation has said it is “particularly concerned by reports of mob violence against persons perceived as homosexuals who are targeted because of their appearance or behaviour, which seems to be increasing in frequency”. In a 2004 statement, Amnesty highlighted two incidents which typify this kind of violence. In one instance, people threw stones at mourners through a church window during the funeral of a man suspected to be gay, purposefully disrupting what should have been respectful ceremony. In another attack, a 30-strong mob chased and beat a group of men who had been dancing at a carnival, one of whom was hospitalised as a result of his injuries. Amnesty has said they are calling on Jamaican authorities to investigate the crimes thoroughly, though these examples constitute a minute proportion of the crimes perpetrated against gays and lesbians.
Human rights groups have been fighting Jamaica’s homophobia for years, and still the police and justice systems appear to turn a blind eye to anti-gay crime. When a gay police officer spoke out in a local newspaper in February 2008 about the fact that the police do not take violence against gays seriously enough, he was subsequently forced to leave his job and go into hiding, fearing for his life. In this climate of fear, in which victims cannot turn to the police for help, gay Jamaicans are finding it increasingly difficult to live openly.
Speaking to the New York Times last year, inspector Claude Smith, commander of Mandeville police station in Jamaica, said of gay people; “Based on the response of these mobs, people get very angry when they come across them. I don’t think they can survive in the open.”
Even with the support of external, international human rights organisations, the gay population of Jamaica faces an uncertain future. British honorary consul John Terry’s murder has simply brought to the fore a problem which may take decades to resolve.