U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Jamaica was tall on media presence, but what really took the stage was his daring pro-LGBT stand in the Caribbean’s most LGBT intolerant country.
Obama minced no words as he spoke directly to the 2009 case of Angeline Jackson in Jamaica. “Several years ago when Angeline was 19, she and a friend were kidnapped, held at gunpoint, sexually assaulted, and as a woman and as a Lesbian, justice and society were not always on her side” Obama told the gathering at the University of the West Indies during his April visit.
Jackson documented her ordeal in an online post on the website for Quality of Citizenship Jamaica (QCJ), an advocacy group which she co-founded in 2013 with fellow Jamaican and women rights activist, Jalna Broderick.
Jackson wrote about her encounter: “After my attack I decided to be brave and report the matter to the police; the first police women from CISOCA [Jamaica’s Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse] I reported it to told me that I “should leave this lifestyle and go back to church”, I could have stopped there, but I decided to go to Spanish Town CISOCA, there the women were much more professional.”
Following an identification parade which narrowed down from 9 suspects, Ronique Raymond was arrested, charged and later convicted as the man who assaulted Jackson and her accomplice.
A source document from Jamaica’s Court of Appeal recorded that Raymond was sentenced on February 1, 2010 to serve 2 years imprisonment for assaults at common law, and with intent to rape, and 10 and 15 years respectively for illegal possession of a firearm, and robbery with aggravation.
That document showed a successful appeal to a tribunal by the accused where he was acquitted in 2011 after the panel of Appeal Judges found merit that there were inconsistencies in the identification parade and the ruling of the Trial Judge which initially presided over the matter.
Jackson wrote in the post about her discovery of the acquittal: “Today I went searching for the case and what I found has made me angry… Why am I angry? I’m angry because I was sexually assaulted, forced to do oral sex at gun point, yet the closest thing that resembles the assault that Ronique Raymond was charged with was assault at common law, and assault with intent to rape, for which he was sentenced to two years… I’m also angry because he was acquitted in 2011. He was acquitted and the police didn’t have the decency to contact me and say Ms. Jackson, the man who saw you in court, the man you identified, the man you sent to prison, has been acquitted.”
The visiting President Obama commended Jackson for her perseverance as a global activist fighting for a better Jamaica where equality should be felt across race, colour and sexual orientation.
He said, “instead of remaining silent, she chose to speak out and started her own organisation to advocate for women like here [to] get them treatment, get them justice, push back against stereotypes and give them their own power.”
Anti-LGBT culture: In a Newsweek article published February 2014, Jamaica was labelled number 7 in a list of 12 of the most homophobic countries in the world while the United States scraped in at number 12.
Anti-LGBT sentiments have been cemented in Caribbean culture through legislation and music. Jamaican dancehall artiste Buju Banton’s infamous “Boom bye-bye” is an example of the culturally ingrained nature of homophobia as the lyrics outline the treatment for homosexuals to be shot and burned.
Stop Murder Music, a campaign started by British gay rights activist, Peter Tatchell against LGBT violence in Reggae and Dancehall music, has since 2007 received the cooperation of top rank artists Sizzla, Beenie Man, and Capleton.
These artists in 2007 signed on to the Reggae Compassionate Act which economically sanctioned any artist that preached homophobia by cancelling their tours or sponsorship, resulting in economic loss. Jamaican artiste Vybz Kartel later signed on in 2010.
LGBT discriminatory legislation, commonly referred as Buggery Laws, has long stood untouched in the law books of independent Caribbean nations like Jamaica, and Guyana.
Jamaica’s Offences Against the Person Act, last amended in 2010, prescribes a jail sentence “not exceeding seven years with or without hard labour” for an act of “buggery” between two males, while the Criminal Law Offences Act of Guyana recommends 10 years for a similar offence.
The provisions for the offence of “buggery” in Guyana’s criminal laws warrant further interpretation article 354 of the Criminal Offences Act states: “Everyone who commits buggery, either with a human being or with any other living creature, shall be guilty of felony and liable to imprisonment for life.”
In the justice systems of Jamaica and Guyana, although the buggery laws are rarely applied because of the requirement for someone to witness and report the act, its continued presence in legislation is a clear indictment on a way of living that has received the brunt of institutional victimisation.
LGBT Activism: A Facebook video had surfaced in March last where Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was interrupted during her address at the 6th Biennial Jamaica Diaspora Conference by LGBT rights activists.
One activist could be heard shouting, “She is able to make sure that every gay man and woman in Jamaica is safe and protected by the Jamaican constitutional laws.” That outburst resulted in a verbal altercation between the activists and other observers in the room.
The Jamaica Gleaner reported the Prime Minister’s response to protestors who clamoured that her Government was not living up to its rhetoric of protecting LGBT rights. She said, “nobody ever hears the Government of Jamaica beating up gays- not one.”
The article went on to cite the Prime Minister, who stood her ground, declaring she would not be bullied by persons attempting to spew “misinformation” against her government.
She said, “Let me tell you something- you want to disturb, you can disturb but this woman came here with the blood of Nanny of the Maroons and the spirit of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and this woman is not afraid of no man, nowhere, anywhere, and I will speak the truth everywhere.”
International human rights watchdog Amnesty said in its most recent report on the State of the World Human Rights report that consensual sex between men remained criminalized in Jamaica.
The report documented this as the case even in the face of a constitutional challenge by Javed Jaghai of the Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) which was discontinued “following the receipt of threats against him and his family.”
This reflects little change in the posture of the Simpson Miller administration since 2011. Amnesty reported in 2013 that although the Prime Minister campaigned on removing the anti-LGBT laws, “the Government took no steps to remove discriminatory laws.”
Obama’s solution: Recognising that more than 100 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean are aged 15-24 years, the US President lauded youth for being, “more eager of progress that comes not by holding down any segment of society but by holding up the rights of every human being, regardless of what we look like, or how we pray, or who we love.”
“You care less about the world as it has been and more about the world as it should be and can be, and unlike any other time in our history, the technology at your disposal means that you don’t have to wait for the change that you are looking for, you have the freedom to create [it] in your own powerful, and disruptive ways”, President Obama added.
Putting things into perspective, Jermaine McKenzie, a participant at the meeting, asked the U.S. President whether social change would be most effective through Government policy, or having societies adopt paradigm shifts on their own.
Obama responded that while democracy should be the underpinning factor in any society, “if people have the ability to speak out about their own lives with some sense of agency then that society will be strong.”
The US President was cautious to note that while his Government has worked with countries that didn’t abide by such principles, “there are some issues that may be culturally specific but… I think they’re wrong. We’re not gonna try to force that country to change, but I may try to shame that country.”