In April 2006, Time magazine branded Jamaica with an epithet it has yet to shake: “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth.” The article mentioned the murders of two of the island’s leading gay activists and detailed acts of mob violence, including the brutal bludgeoning of a gay man at the hands of assailants who included Buju Banton, a recording artist whose hit song “Boom Bye Bye” contains lyrics that call for gay men to be shot in the head. Nearly every article mentioning the words homophobia and Jamaica subsequently cited Banton’s song, giving the impression of an otherwise idyllic island paradise inconveniently sullied by the violence of anti-gay attacks.
A decade later, Jamaica has evolved in radical ways, but lack of media coverage and that decade-old designation as the most homophobic place on Earth has obscured the country’s incremental social progress and dynamic activism, and ignores the impact that socioeconomic status and gender identity have on the lives of LGBTQ Jamaicans. Foreign reporters come to the country for short stints and zero in on the most horrific examples of anti-LGBTQ attacks, creating a false narrative of victimhood among LGBTQ Jamaicans. Portrayals of Jamaica as the racialized stereotype of machete-wielding homophobic mobs has eliminated the historic movement of activists and allies who, by speaking out, coming out, and affirming the intersections of their LGBTQ Jamaican identities, have forced LGBTQ rights into public discourse in a way that was previously inconceivable.
Emancipation Park, a site of political protest representing the country’s freedom from colonial rule, has hosted several LGBTQ rights demonstrations—including a flash mob kicking off the historic PrideJA celebration in Kingston last year. A gay man presented the first lawsuit challenging the colonial-era sodomy laws instituted by the British. Activist Angeline Jackson chose to publicly come out and speak out about sexual violence perpetrated against lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women, founding Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, the first organization for LBT women. And dancehall artists like Tanya Stephens have participated in LGBTQ advocacy campaigns spearheaded by J-FLAG, the country’s most recognizable LGBTQ organization.*
Many Jamaican newspapers, whose sensationalist headlines read like the titles of Quentin Tarantino movies (“Gun-toting Gays Drive Fear in Citizens”), resorted to openly attacking the LGBTQ community as the movement gained momentum. Still, the work of activists and allies has now changed the way the papers cover LGBTQ people—including a shift from using the umbrella term gay to explicitly acknowledging transgender identities. Between May 2015 and March 2016, the Jamaica Gleaner alone used the abbreviation LGBT in more than 1,400 articles and letters to the editor. The Gleaner, considered the country’s most reputable newspaper, also published a groundbreaking editorial supporting LGBTQ communities and calling out the hypocrisy of anti-gay Christian fundamentalists who claim homosexuality is a “Western import.” In advocating for the repeal of the nation’s sodomy laws, the Gleaner declared, “This newspaper believes that there is much to criticise and/or to be wary of in America’s foreign policy, but its stance on the rights of LGBT persons is not among them.”
Jamaica has had more than its share of corrupt politicians, but LGBTQ rights has been championed by some of the country’s most prominent leaders. People’s National Party leader and former Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller was the first political leader in the country’s history to speak openly about allowing LGBTQ individuals to serve in her Cabinet. (Simpson-Miller subsequently found herself the target of protest when she failed to follow through on her promise to repeal the anti-gay laws, saying that tackling poverty was a bigger concern.) Justice Minister Mark Golding released a statement of support for the community during last year’s PrideJA celebration, citing the country’s motto, “Out of Many, One People,” and naming sexual orientation as a protected identity of Jamaican citizenship. Most notably, Kingston Mayor Angela Brown-Burke participated in the same Pride celebration and has explicitly stated that she has a responsibility to all of the city’s residents, including LGBTQ people.
Homophobia and transphobia are fueled by the intersections of colonialism and Christianity, which created and sustain social inequalities. Fire and brimstone churches are not only sites of homophobic rhetoric but also a spiritual haven for a population enduring devastating rates of poverty. Following independence from the British in 1962, inflation and the consequent destabilization of the Jamaican dollar exacerbated the country’s economic conditions. Jamaica attracts tourists who can spend thousands of dollars renting hotel suites with private butler service, while a third of the island’s population lives below the poverty line.
Income and class mobility play a significant role in the safety and lives of LGBTQ Jamaicans—as they do in many countries, including the United States. Transgender, gender-nonconforming, and LGBTQ individuals from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by violence. Lacking access to secure housing and employment, these groups are forced to survive in informal economies and are more likely to end up homeless, escalating their risk of physical violence.
Reducing Jamaica to a global stereotype promotes the myth that true LGBTQ liberation can only be achieved in the West—incidentally, the same place that created those colonial-era sodomy laws. Portrayals of Jamaica as a homophobic no-man’s land have also resulted in misguided attempts by Western LGBTQ activists to boycott Jamaican tourism and products, causing damaging repercussions on the local economy and an unintended backlash on LGBTQ communities and activists.
The international media must move beyond the polarizing approach of writing about Jamaica as if it were a tourist paradise in which LGBTQ citizens are uniquely oppressed. Violence against LGBTQ people is, absolutely, an issue in Jamaica—as are the calamities of gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, and police violence. But homophobic and transphobic violence cannot be divorced from the country’s post-colonial poverty, staggering unemployment, and general lack of security. Reporting on homophobic and transphobic violence in Jamaica must account for the complexity of the lived experiences of LGBTQ individuals, as well as the phenomenal efforts of the country’s LGBTQ activists, whose efforts to resist oppression have forced LGBTQ rights into the mainstream.
* Correction, May 2, 2016: This piece originally said J-FLAG was Jamaica’s first LGBTQ organization. It was predated by the Gay Freedom Movement, which was formed in 1974 but is no longer in existence.