At Community Center, gay, lesbian leaders talk about a movement still largely underground
As part of a three-week tour of the U.S. that will also include Washington D.C., Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, OUTfront, Amnesty International’s LGBT rights initiative, organized a panel discussion in New York featuring the co-chairs of J-FLAG, Jamaica’s only organization dedicated to fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights
The event, which took place on February 1 at the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street, provided a forum to discuss the rampant homophobic violence that faces Jamaica’s LGBT community every day.
J-FLAG is an acronym for Jamaica Forum For Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, a group which of necessity does much of its work quietly, behind the scenes. Brian Williamson, the nation’s leading gay rights activist, was murdered in his home last June, his body mutilated by multiple knife wounds. According to a report issued in November by Human Rights Watch (HRW), another participant in Tuesday evening’s event, a crowd gathered outside Williamson’s home within hours of the body being discovered, shouting their approval of the crime, one man using a derogatory epitaph for gay men in shouting, “Battyman, he get killed!”
“In Jamaica,” said Gareth, one of the J-FLAG co-chairs, “I live in constant fear. If I go to the police and make a report, they will laugh at me. I have been personally abused by the police.”
Gareth asked that his last name and those of his colleagues be withheld and that no photographs of the group be taken, out of concern for their safety.
Karlene, also co-chair of J-FLAG, has experienced verbal abuse because of her sexual orientation and has witnessed worse among her acquaintances.
“I have friends who have been raped for their sexuality… they don’t want anyone to know,” she stated.
Karlene also explained that that LGBT Jamaicans live in fear of routine abuse and robbery at the hands of the police. This, she says, makes people afraid to come forth and say, “This is my story. This is what has happened to me, and I need help.”
“We have to live with this hurt to see our fellow colleagues suffering and not be able to do anything about it,” Gareth said. Recounting the story of a mother who called the police to request that her gay teenage son be removed from their home and beaten, Gareth solemnly stated that the police offer no protection for the LGBT community.
“They say they can’t do anything about it,” Gareth said, recalling an incident that he reported. “After the police walked away, I stood there.” Pervasive homophobia among the Jamaican populace generally makes pursuing police assistance and legal recourse nearly impossible, he explained. “I couldn’t do anything… I was so helpless. I couldn’t do anything.”
Rebecca Schleifer, a staff member in the HIV/AIDS program at HRW, was another member of the panel discussion.
“In Jamaica, there is still deep fear and ignorance surrounding HIV and AIDS,” she said.
Schleifer, author of the 79-page November HRW report, entitled, “Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic,” hopes to make clearer and more public the relationship between homophobia and Jamaica’s increasingly perilous HIV/AIDS situation. She said that when she sought a meeting with Jamaican government officials while putting her report together, she was instead given an appointment with a senior official of information and tourism.
“This, to them, is not an issue of human rights, but of public relations,” Schleifer said.
Officials from HRW, OUTfront and J-FLAG expect to meet with Democratic Congressmembers Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Tom Lantos (D-Cal.) and Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) in D.C. They will also meet with officials from U.S. Department of State.
“The state department can intervene either publicly or behind the scenes,” said Michael Heflin, director of the OutFront Program, who noted that while the Bush administration is not diligent in its pursuit of human rights violations based on sexual orientation, the two most recent country reports from the state department on Jamaica have noted the anti-gay violence.
J-FLAG officials said that the attention on homophobia from the state department reports and in the HRW study have made some difference.
“We have seen some improvement,” Gareth said. “For me, it’s yet early days. As it is now, it is just a reaction to public scrutiny.”
One member of the audience asked the panelists, “Are you out to your neighbors in Jamaica?” The Jamaican activists stifled laughter and Karlene responded, “Us being here and not allowing pictures and not using our last names should tell you.”
Another audience member mentioned having met gay lawyers and students while in Jamaica.
“They have a profession they have to protect,” Gareth said, by way of explaining why they might be quiet about their lives to other Jamaicans.
“They have to make a living, too,” Karlene chimed in.
“Amnesty believes that the latest reports only hint at the extent of the violence,” said Ariel Herrera, national field organizer for OutFront and the panel’s moderator. “Amnesty is calling on the Jamaican government to publicly repudiate homophobic violence,” something that leading political figures have not done.
“It’s not something that happens once in a while,” Gareth said, referring to violence and abuse. “It happens daily. You have the right to be who you are as a human being and our government should ensure that.”