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May 15, 2014

LGBT Issues in Jamaica

The criminalization of homosexuality in Jamaica dates back to the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act, which calls for a punishment of up to 10 years of hard labor for those convicted of the “abominable crime of buggery.” Members of the LGBT community are denied access to basic rights and services, resulting in alarming rates of homelessness and HIV. Furthermore, the law breeds a permissive climate for violence and persecution against LGBT people.

Despite this long history of persecution and marginalization, brave members of the Jamaican LGBT community are advocating for equal rights for the LGBT population and are working to ultimately change the law.

“We who are homosexuals are seen as the 'devil's own children' ... and passed by on the other side of the street or beaten to death by our fellow citizens.”

-Brian Williamson, murdered gay activist

The Offences Against the Person Act of 1864

Homosexual acts are illegal in Jamaica, levying sentences of up to 10 years of imprisonment with hard labor for those convicted under Article 76 of Offences Against the Person Act of 1864, also known as the “buggery” statute. The law is predominately enforced against homosexual men. The law states:

  • "Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery [anal intercourse] committed either with mankind or with any animal, shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a term not exceeding ten years."

In November 2014, the Jamaican Supreme Court was slated to test the validity of this law. The case was withdrawn by the plaintiff after his safety and the safety of his family was threatened. Predicated on the belief that the law violates the right to privacy under Jamaica’s Charter, a victory would have provided a new legal environment for LGBT Jamaicans. Article 76 is only one of a number of articles that codify homophobia into law. While rarely enforced, the mere presence in Jamaican law continues to legitimize discrimination and violence toward LGBT people based on sexual orientation:

  • Article 77: Concerning attempted buggery, "Whosoever shall attempt to commit the said abominable crime…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” If convicted, the sentence is a maximum seven-year prison term.
  • Article 79: Concerning outrages on decency, "Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of…any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” If convicted, the penalty is a maximum two-year imprisonment.

The Act also provides law enforcement the ability to obtain proof of penetration for suspected homosexual acts and provides the power to detain any person whom they suspect to have committed or to intend to commit these crimes.

Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms

In 2011, Jamaica’s Parliament approved the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. Influenced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter enumerates 21 distinct rights to be protected under Jamaican law. Amongst these is the right to protection against discrimination “on the ground… of being male or female, race, place of origin, class, colour, religion, political opinions.” Gender identity and sexual orientation are notably omitted.

Bias-Motivated Violence

Between 2009 and 2012, the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), documented 231 reports of discrimination and violence based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation.

The widespread violence and discrimination has forced segments of the LGBT community literally underground. Shunned by their families, LGBT teenagers have taken to sewers to avoid attacks. In June, 2013, Dwayne Jones, a 16-year-old transgender teenager, was killed by a mob after he attended a party. He was beaten, stabbed, shot, and run over by a car. After the killing, his family would not claim his body. Jones had dropped out of school at age 14 after he was relentlessly teased for being feminine.

Public Opinion on Sexual Orientation

According to 2012 data*:

  • 88 percent  of men and 84 percent of women in Jamaica believe that homosexuality is immoral;
  • More than 75 percent of Jamaicans are against repealing the “buggery” law and amending the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms to include gender identity and sexual orientation; and
  • 64 percent of businesspersons do not support workplace diversity policies that are inclusive of LGBT persons, and 54 percent would not hire an LGBT person in the first place.

Opportunities for Change:

  • Despite the majority belief that homosexuality is immoral, 37 percent of Jamaicans believe that leadership is not doing enough to protect the LGBT community from violence and discrimination. In April 2014, Youth Minister Lisa Hanna announced her intent to develop new outreach programs for LGBT youth.
  • In the same month, Jamaica’s Minister of Health argued that the isolation of homosexual men must be combatted, stating that “Failure is not an option.”
  • In May 2014, opposition leader Andrew Holness stated in a radio interview that he would have no problem with LGBT persons serving in his cabinet. His statements echoed those of current Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, in 2011. Simpson-Miller at one point promised to review Jamaica’s sodomy laws, but later reneged.

U.S. Influence in Jamaica

Jamaica has long-standing and strong diplomatic, cultural, and commercial relationships with the United States. It is the third-largest U.S. trading partner in the Caribbean, exporting $421.1 million to the U.S. and importing almost $2 billion of goods from the U.S. in 2013. In 2012 about 1.25 million U.S. tourists visited Jamaica.

Recommendations for U.S. Action:

  • The U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development  (USAID) should implement a strategy to support Jamaica in decriminalizing homosexuality and adding sexual orientation to the existing nondiscrimination laws.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice should strengthen U.S. training for Jamaican police to increase their capacity to recognize, prevent, and respond to crimes motivated by anti-LGBT bias while preventing violence against LGBT individuals.
  • The U.S. Embassy in Jamaica should continue its work to increase the ability of Jamaican civil society and the Jamaican LGBT movement to influence change in Jamaica.
  • Lifeline program: This valuable program should be made known to LGBT people who are in need of emergency protection or are facing immediate risks of violence.
  • Consistent with President Obama’s Memorandum of December 6, 2011, on international initiatives to advance LGBT rights, USAID should review all of its programming in Jamaica to ensure it is inclusive of LGBT issues and coordinated with the LGBT community.
  • The U.S. Congress should raise the issue of human rights in Jamaica in oversight hearings and support U.S. leadership on human rights and LGBT rights, including through legislation.