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Anti-Gay Climate Breeding Violence in Jamaica

Fatal attacks, popular song lyrics and a human rights report spotlight the Caribbean island's hostile attitude toward homosexuality.

January 09, 2005|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

KINGSTON, Jamaica — When gay rights activist Brian Williamson was stabbed to death in June and jubilant crowds danced around his mutilated body, police said he was a robbery victim.

When Jamaican reggae dancehall musicians were bumped from U.S. and British concert appearances last year over lyrics encouraging the killing of gays, people here called the censure a failure to respect free speech.

When Human Rights Watch issued a withering condemnation of homophobia in Jamaica in November and accused police and politicians of condoning anti-gay violence and harassment, government spokesmen rejected the report as "lies" and "nonsense," and a senior police official called for sedition charges to be brought against its authors.

Sexual acts between men are prohibited by law in Jamaica and punishable by years in prison. But a spate of attacks on gays, at least two of them fatal, and foreign condemnation have spotlighted this tourism-dependent country's attitude toward homosexuality.

The stigma attached to homosexuality and those living with HIV/AIDS prevails across much of the Caribbean, where Victorian-era anti-sodomy laws remain on the books in at least 11 countries, and politicians courting fundamentalist Christian constituencies are loath to contest them. But gay activists and human rights groups point to Jamaica as the most intolerant of the lot.

Some analysts, including Richard Stern, director of the Costa Rica-based Agua Buena Human Rights Assn., see the hostility as stemming from a religious conviction that homosexuality is a sin.

Jamaicans such as Kingston taxi driver Dale Bell say they reject homosexuality "because a man is supposed to be with a woman, not another man." Bell acknowledges that his countrymen are deeply intolerant of gays but "not to the point of killing."

Human Rights Watch researcher Rebecca Schleifer sees the violence against gays and lesbians as one part of a neglected society lashing out at another.

"It's important to note the context of endemic violence and the failure of police to respond adequately," she said. "It's a problem for many people, not just gay men. Violence against gay men is just a piece of that."

In the report she prepared for the New York-based agency, Schleifer said violence against gay men had become so common that a culture of impunity had grown around it.

"Violent acts against men who have sex with men are commonplace in Jamaica," she concluded. "For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse. Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women reported being driven from their homes and their towns by neighbors who threatened to kill them if they remained."

The report, based on more than 130 interviews and investigations into recent attacks, detailed routine discrimination by police and healthcare workers. Witnesses told stories of police standing idle or even encouraging attacks on men perceived to be gay, and of medical treatment delayed or denied to those with HIV/AIDS.

The report warned that the climate of fear was discouraging Jamaicans from seeking HIV testing or education on prevention, threatening a further spread of the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. Jamaica's HIV infection rate of 1.6% is the third-highest outside sub-Saharan Africa after Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In almost two-thirds of the cases, the virus was transmitted through heterosexual intercourse.

Jamaican authorities rejected the report as interference in their social affairs. Information Minister Burchell Whiteman, who acknowledged that he hadn't read the full report, said the allegations were unjustified. Donovan Nelson, spokesman for the National Security Ministry, called the report "nonsense."

Groups such as Jamaica AIDS Support, Jamaicans for Justice and the country's only gay rights organization, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, or J-FLAG, endorsed the report and called on the government to prevent anti-gay violence. They point to the defensive response as an indication that little will change.

"We speak but we hide," J-FLAG member Yvonne Artis said of the group, which slain activist Williamson helped to found. "What our government does is give other human beings the right to kill homosexuals."

Witnesses to the June 18 mob killing of Victor Jarrett in Montego Bay reported that three police officers had triggered the attack. On a local beach, a young man accused Jarrett of being a "battyman," derogative slang for a gay man. The officers reacted by beating Jarrett with batons. A crowd gathered, chanting, "Gays must die." When Jarrett tried to flee, the officers urged the crowd to beat him also. They chased him and he was stabbed and stoned to death.

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