In 2006, Time magazine labeled Jamaica “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth.” It cited the violently anti-LGBT lyrics of dancehall music, the murders of two prominent LGBT activists, and vicious mob attacks against members of the LGBT community.
Nine years later, Human Rights First traveled to Jamaica to speak to LGBT activists, Jamaican government officials, and U.S. Embassy staff about the state of LGBT human rights. In May, we released our report, The World as it Should Be: Advancing the Human Rights of LGBT People in Jamaica. The upshot: while LGBT people continue to face violence and discrimination, civil society is building momentum for societal and institutional change. The United States should support the efforts of civil society to advance the human rights of LGBT people.
The colonial-era Offences Against the Person Act sets the stage for human rights violations against LGBT Jamaicans. While arrests under the law are uncommon, it is often used to justify discrimination and acts of violence against members of the LGBT community.
In 2013, teenager Dwayne Jones was killed by a mob after attending a party dressed in feminine attire. Lesbians and bisexual women face the threat of so-called “corrective” rape and gender-based violence. Discrimination in access to employment, healthcare, and housing is part of daily life for many LGBT Jamaicans. Some don’t seek essential treatment for HIV because of discrimination and rejection in healthcare centers.
But Jamaican civil society activists are pressing for change. Some are engaging in advocacy efforts to change the law. Others are collaborating with the government and international organizations to tackle stigma in healthcare centers. Still others are providing psychosocial support, among other important services. In his April 2015 trip to Jamaica, President Obama recognized the work of civil society and highlighted LGBT activist Angeline Jackson’s efforts to make Jamaica “a place where everybody, no matter their color, or their class, or their sexual orientation, can live in equality and opportunity.”
Positive developments following President Obama’s trip indicate the role for U.S. leadership in advancing the human rights of LGBT people. Randy Berry, Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, and Todd Larson, Senior LGBT Coordinator at USAID, traveled to Jamaica in May to meet with Jamaican officials and civil society. Berry and Larson stressed their desire to “speak with people, not to speak for them…but to really engage in dialogue.” USAID recently partnered with Jamaican civil society and the local government to train members of the Jamaican police force on dealing with vulnerable groups, including LGBT people. The work of civil society, joint efforts such as the aforementioned training, as well as recent positive statements by some key leaders within the Jamaican government show promise for the advancement of LGBT human rights. A spirit of dialogue as well as support and collaboration with Jamaican partners should continue to be at the core of all U.S. efforts.
The United States and Jamaica’s long history of partnership through trade, tourism, and other avenues is a solid foundation for the United States to help make Jamaica a safer place for LGBT people. Human Rights First’s report includes recommendations to U.S. agencies, policymakers, and lawmakers to build on the efforts of Jamaican civil society to advance the human rights of LGBT people.
The United Nations General Assembly in September offers a prime opportunity for Secretary John Kerry to bring together Caribbean leaders to address human rights concerns in the region, including violence and discrimination against LGBT people. Following his recent trip to Jamaica, Special Envoy Randy Berry should lead an inter-agency dialogue to develop a strategic plan for U.S. engagement on the human rights of LGBT people in Jamaica. Congress should spearhead its own efforts on these issues by convening briefings and hearings and meeting with Jamaican activists.
During his April 2015 speech in Kingston, President Obama praised young leaders in Jamaica for caring about “the world as it should be and can be” and for their eagerness “for progress that comes…by holding up the rights of every human being.” U.S. efforts in Jamaica should bolster the work of such activists seeking to advance human rights for all.