Commentary

All Jamaicans Are Threatened by a Culture of Homophobia

Published in The Observer

"Boom bye bye in batty boy head  
Rude boy no promote no nasty man, dem haffi dead."  
 
I first heard the lyrics of "Boom Bye Bye," a popular Jamaican dancehall song about killing gay men, in Kingston on June 9, outside the home of Brian Williamson, the country's leading gay rights activist. He had just been knifed to death in his apartment in the Jamaican capital and a crowd gathered outside, laughing and singing and celebrating his murder.

" The government's failure to take strong measures to protect gay men has made life hell for many in Jamaica. Its failure to educate the broader public has endangered many lives. "
Rebecca Schleifer, researcher with Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS Program
  
Two weeks later, I met with several men who alleged — as has been quite widely reported in the media — that Buju Banton, the musician who composed and recorded "Boom Bye Bye," had participated in an armed attack against them. The men were been beaten with machetes and metal rods while denouncing them as homosexuals.  
 
A banning order in Britain against the dancehall artist Sizzla received widespread headlines this month, not least because it coincided with the murder of David Morley in a suspected anti-gay attack.  
 
But in Jamaica violent attacks against men who have sex with men are commonplace. Verbal and physical harassment, ranging from death threats to brutal assault and murder, are widespread. For many, there is no sanctuary from abuse. Gay men and lesbians are routinely driven from their homes and out of town by neighbours. Forced to abandon their possessions, many end up homeless. Not only do police rarely investigate such complaints — they often arrest lesbians and gay men for no reason and join in violent attacks against them.  
 
Jamaican dancehall music, a form of reggae that is a powerful cultural force in Jamaican society, reflects and reinforces popular prejudices. Many dancehall musicians perform songs that glorify brutal violence and killing of men and women who do not conform to stereotypical gender roles, and celebrate their eradication from Jamaica.  
 
Jamaican and international activists have waged a campaign against antigay dancehall music, and there have been local efforts to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. But the Jamaican government's own promotion of homophobic violence and discrimination is undermining these courageous efforts. State-sponsored homophobia is also fueling Jamaica's HIV/AIDS epidemic and sabotaging prevention and treatment efforts. The sorry consequences affect all Jamaicans.  
 
In Jamaica, as in many Caribbean nations, HIV/AIDS is spreading in the general population and is continuing to grow. Currently around 1.5 per cent of the island's adult population live with the disease.  
 
As elsewhere in the region, the vast majority of cases in Jamaica result from heterosexual transmission. However, many Jamaicans believe that HIV/AIDS only affects homosexuals and sex workers, whose "moral impurity" makes them vulnerable. Many believe that the virus is transmitted by casual contact with groups like gay men — which only helps further fuel the violent homophobia evident in songs like "Boom Bye Bye."  
 
The Jamaican government condones the popularly accepted links between HIV/AIDS and homosexuality. Jamaica's Victorian-era sodomy laws, which criminalize consensual sex between men, are used to harass and detain those who provide HIV/AIDS information and condoms to other gay men. Police extort sex and money from gay men as well as sex workers, sometimes using the mere possession of condoms — a key tool in HIV prevention — as an excuse to harass or arrest both them and the AIDS educators who work with them.  
 
The government's failure to take strong measures to protect gay men has made life hell for many in Jamaica. Its failure to educate the broader public has endangered many lives. Many gay men and people living with HIV/AIDS are denied health care; some cannot even seek health services because they are refused public transportation. Many don't seek health services at all because they fear healthcare workers will disclose their HIV status or sexual orientation, which could put them at risk of violence.  
 
In June, Jamaica launched an ambitious project to provide antiretroviral drug treatment to people living with HIV/AIDS and to address human rights violations driving the epidemic. For these initiatives to succeed, the government must act promptly and forcefully to renounce discriminatory laws and abusive practices that undermine AIDS programs. Jamaica's prime minister and other government leaders need to speak out strongly against the abusive treatment of gay men and sex workers.  
 
If the Jamaican government chooses instead to let popular prejudices continue to undermine its attempts to establish HIV/AIDS policies grounded in human rights, the consequences for all Jamaicans will be dire. If the voice of hatred that defines antigay dancehall music continues to define the local understanding of HIV/AIDS, tens of thousands of Jamaicans will be consigned to lives of horrific abuse. Thousands will face premature and preventable death.