The World as it Should Be
Advancing the Human Rights of LGBT People in Jamaica
Human Rights First traveled to Jamaica in March 2015 and interviewed members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, Jamaican officials, civil society activists, and U.S. Embassy staff about the human rights challenges facing LGBT people and the work of civil society to combat discrimination and violence against them. We learned that while there are serious challenges to the human rights of LGBT people in Jamaica, civil society activists are changing the tide through important efforts to combat violence, discrimination, and homophobia. Jamaica—a country that Time magazine once called the most homophobic place on earth—is now poised for positive change. The current momentum is a prime opportunity for the United States to lead an international effort to support Jamaican civil society in combatting violence and discrimination and working towards full realization of the human rights of LGBT people.
Homosexuality is criminalized in Jamaica under various provisions of the colonial-era Offences Against the Person Act. These provisions are often referred to collectively as the ―sodomy law.‖ The law’s defenders claim it is rarely if ever enforced. However, activists’ primary concern is that the law is used to justify other human rights violations against the LGBT community. While Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms contains anti-discrimination language, sexual orientation and gender identity are not listed as protected classes. Jamaica is party to various international treaties that have been interpreted to guarantee protections for LGBT people. Nonetheless, LGBT Jamaicans often face serious violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. From 2008-2012, J-FLAG—an organization that advocates for the rights of Jamaican LGBT people—documented 231 acts of violence and discrimination against members of the LGBT community. Many other violations likely go unreported given the hostile climate. Some LGBT people have even been killed. Recent cases of mob violence against LGBT people have spurred international outrage.
LGBT people experience a climate of generalized societal homophobia. Lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender people face an additional threat of gender-based and/or sexual violence. LGBT people are discriminated against in access to healthcare, employment, and housing. Access to healthcare is a pressing concern; many members of the community are reluctant to seek out essential HIV treatment because of prior experiences of discrimination, ridicule, and/or rejection in healthcare centers.
The police are often responsible for stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT people. Police corruption is a serious challenge, and some officers use the sodomy law as leverage to extract bribes. Activists report general mistrust of the police force and reluctance to report cases of violence and discrimination against the LGBT community. A culture of impunity for police violence and corruption further breeds distrust in the judicial system.
Within the government, most public officials are reluctant to openly support the rights of LGBT people. However, a few have expressed support for members of the LGBT community, with some denouncing violence and others developing programs that cater to LGBT people. Strong public leadership is necessary for realizing the rights of members of the LGBT community, but political figures are largely unwilling to break rank with their constituents. Activists therefore point to the urgent need to challenge general societal homophobia. They identify homophobic music, the anti-LGBT rhetoric of certain religious groups and leaders, and the homophobic coverage of some media as challenges to combatting anti-LGBT sentiment in society.
The Promise of Civil Society Activism
Activists from multiple sectors of civil society are rising to the challenge of combatting homophobia, discrimination, and violence in Jamaica. During our time there, Human Rights First noted strong linkages and cooperation between civil society groups advancing the rights of LGBT people. By combatting the legal and institutional structures of homophobia, providing direct services to LGBT people, and spearheading public education campaigns, activists are pushing back against the multiplicity of challenges to the human rights of members of the LGBT community. Many address discrimination against LGBT people, working with the government and international partners to tackle stigma in healthcare centers. Others are providing skills and enterprise training to LGBT people. Other organizations are educating lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender people about their rights and providing psychosocial support.
Civil society organizations are also working in coalition to develop strategies to combat the sodomy law. Additionally, organizations are embarking on public education campaigns building respect for the human rights of all Jamaicans. Some religious leaders and music artists are also encouraging constructive dialogue around the rights of LGBT people in Jamaica.