‘Beyond Homophobia’ in Jamaica: A critique

To move beyond its violent homophobia, Jamaica needs more practical analysis than what speakers provided at last month’s University of the West Indies symposium, activist Lloyd D’Aguilar writes.

By Lloyd D’Aguilar

Poster for the Jan. 26-28 conference "Beyond Homophobia: Centring LGBT Experiences in the Caribbean" at the University of the West Indies.

Poster for the Jan. 26-28 conference “Beyond Homophobia: Centring LGBT Experiences in the Caribbean” at the University of the West Indies.

“Beyond Homophobia” is the bold title of a symposium recently held at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus, and presented by the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work, the Institute of Caribbean Studies, and J-FLAG (Jamaica Federation of Lesbians, Allsexuals And Gays). I was present for about three sessions and these are my impressions.

First, congratulations to those who conceived and organized it. It was a needed discussion that perhaps could only have been put on by UWI, a supposedly neutral institution.

As the Principal of UWI, Professor Archibald McDonald, stated, it was the first such organized symposium on any UWI campus (even though I must congratulate myself on having organized a public meeting on homophobia some years ago at UWI).

Homophobic violence is a big issue in Jamaica. And this is the problem: How do you openly agitate against homophobia in such a violent atmosphere? How do you address the trauma of those who must live with this violence on a daily basis? And, how do you address the illnesses of those who are homophobic – because homophobia is undoubtedly a socio-political and psychological pathology.

Well, as was to be expected, the organizers and presenters had their own thoughts even as there was intersection with some of the above concerns. There was a discussion about visibility and the socio-political, psychological challenges for those who are in or out of the closet.

Rohan Lewis (Photo courtesy of the Jamaica Gleaner)

Rohan Lewis (Photo courtesy of the Jamaica Gleaner)

Rohan Lewis, dean of Jamaica’s University of Technology, discussed his research on gay leaders, but he didn’t say who they were and whether they had objected to their names being used. This raised the question as to whether you can lead without visibility. In recent memory I can think of very few in “leadership” of the gay movement who have openly identified themselves. There have been Gareth Henry (J-FLAG), Dane Lewis (J-FLAG) and Maurice Tomlinson – no organization.

Gareth migrated to Canada and so has Maurice. Dane admits that his middle-class status protects him to a certain extent. Of course there was the tragedy of Brian Williamson, the co-founder of J-FLAG, who was brutally murdered some years ago. The question therefore is: how is it possible to have a vibrant organization with only one identifiable leader? In the case of J-FLAG it is always Dane.

And let’s face it: Maurice is courageously dealing with one major issue, the buggery law. His type of leadership skills and courage is needed on a daily basis, but he doesn’t live in Jamaica anymore.

There was no discussion as to whether there are straight allies in Jamaica, and if so, how to utilize them in the struggle. From that perspective, the weakness of the struggle for LGBTQI rights, was obvious and needed to be examined.

It was quite encouraging, however, and even empowering, if I may be allowed to use that word, to sit in a room with people who seemed comfortable with identifying themselves as transgender or gay. But then again, the question is, were they out because this was a safe space at the University among educated people? How do they navigate their existence outside of this safe space — on the streets, for example?

Homeless LGBT youths living in the sewers of New Kingston. (BuzzFeed photo by J. Lester Feder)

Photo from 2013: Homeless LGBT youths living in the sewers of New Kingston. (J. Lester Feder photo courtesy of BuzzFeed)

My mind wandered to the way “obviously” gay and transgender people on the streets in the New Kingston area used to look so damn powerful when they gathered as a group. But we know that this was done at tremendous risks to themselves. That is now a distant memory. They were hounded, brutalized and dispersed by the state and its police. We don’t see them anymore gathering in their numbers and I miss that sight. [My idea about their disappearance may have been premature, since a new report in the media tells of a group living in a Half Way Tree gully and facing the same kind of police brutality as they faced in New Kingston.]

And speaking of these New Kingston homeless heroes, I wondered why they were not celebrated or discussed. I heard mention of Stonewall, as a symbol of gay resistance. But that was in New York, and many years ago. So what about our own Stonewall symbols, our New Kingston resisters? Shouldn’t the lessons of their struggle have been examined?

Rinaldo Walcott (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Rinaldo Walcott (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Which leads me to my next point. I was very disappointed in the keynote address by Rinaldo Walcott, the director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. His address, as I told him, was far too academic and abstract and went over the heads of most people. He sounded like an anarchist and that probably explains my instinctive, negative response to his message. Anarchists don’t make good revolutionary leaders.

Rinaldo chose to go after the concrete political activism of Maurice Tomlinson, who is challenging the buggery law in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Maurice also organizes a Gay Pride event every year and is not afraid to go to Emancipation Park whenever he is in Jamaica, even by himself if necessary, to take a visible stand for gay rights.

Rinaldo tried to make a case against Maurice’s activism in Canada, which I know nothing about. Most people there were probably in the same position as I was.

But to ignore Maurice’s work in Jamaica, especially the importance of mounting a constitutional challenge to the buggery law (which was also shockingly not discussed at the symposium) and downplaying homophobic violence in Jamaica, was unbalanced. It made Rinaldo seem like an academic charlatan. He seemed to be doing the same thing in terms of downplaying the situation in Africa, where there are horrific laws that threaten to execute gays and to criminalize their families.

I heard the word “ontology” and similar abstractions used a million times and in ways that suggest a preoccupation with idealizing the supposed uniqueness of the Afro-Caribbean gay experience. In other words, murder and state violence and hatred be damned, “we Afro-Caribbean gays have always been around, we know how to survive, and we will continue to do so, in our own unique, ontological way.”

Rinaldo, who had more time than any other individual to speak, should have made better use of his time exploring a more pragmatic, political way to defeat homophobia. Away with idealism, romanticism and abstraction. Next symposium such a presentation has to be interrogated as a matter of course. I told him that.

It was this same sense of insularity that came across in the discussion about clinically treating LGBTQI individuals as if they have intrinsic psychological disorders. Speakers assumed that LGBTQI people may be pathological — but what about our homophobic society? Isn’t it also pathological?

What about the pathology of those on the streets who love to cuss out batty bwoy and fish (Jamaican slang for gay) and do violence to people who have done them no harm? And by extension, the state, which is squarely behind them, stubbornly holding on to colonial anti-buggery laws. This is where the psychological and psychiatric treatment is most required and must be addressed. The Half Way Tree gay guys were saying that the police maliciously destroyed their belongings including their passports and birth certificates. One of them asked: How are going to get to go to Holland? This is not just police brutality. It is a pathology.

Finally, because I did not attend the first day of the symposium on Thursday, Jan. 26, and missed the Friday morning session, it is quite possible that I am being a bit too harsh. But looking at the topics for the discussions that I missed, I believe that my criticisms hold true. If those presentations were diametrically opposed to the others, I could be wrong and, if so, I apologize.

In any event, let us hope that next year’s symposium will offer a more realistic examination of homophobia and a more grounded discussion about the ongoing struggle.

Lloyd D’Aguilar (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Lloyd D’Aguilar (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Lloyd D’Aguilar is a human rights activist and convenor of the Tivoli Committee, which has been in the forefront of the fight for justice for the victims of the 2010 Jamaican security forces massacre in Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston. He is also a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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