Voices for Equality: Jamaica

By Shawn M. Gaylord

Since 1864 same-sex sexual activity between men has been criminalized in Jamaica. Under the Offences Against the Person Act, those convicted of buggery can face a punishment of up to 10 years imprisonment with hard labor. Essentially, the law forbids all forms of intimacy between men, even in private. As terrible as the law is, its true disastrous effects have less to do with prison walls and more to do with reinforcing a homophobia that marginalizes the Jamaican lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

Despite the widespread popularity of homophobic laws, there are brave Jamaicans standing up for what’s right, and fighting for inclusion against a tide of division.

In November, Jamaican activist and lawyer Maurice Tomlinson filed a case in the country’s Supreme Court against the Offences Against the Person Act. The case recently opened to applications from various groups to be listed as interested parties in the case. Unsurprisingly, many conservative groups applied to oppose the case, but Tomlinson may not end up standing alone. Jamaican Public Defender Arlene Harrison-Henry, a strong ally of the country’s LGBT community, has officially filed to support the case.

For Jaevion Nelson of the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), the struggle is not only against intolerance and the law, but ignorance: “Many people do not necessarily understand what the law is about, and so for many people this is a sort of way to say that homosexuality is illegal in Jamaica… therefore we should remove LGBT people or that they do not belong here.”

In the meantime, Jaevion, J-FLAG, and the broader LGBT community are preparing for Jamaica Pride 2016, which will be held in the first week of August, to showcase the true spirit of the country–which is rooted in diversity and inclusion, not hate.

For more information on Human Rights First’s work to help advance the human rights of LGBT people in Jamaica, read our report: The World as it Should Be.

Recommendations for U.S. Action

  • Secretary Kerry and other high-level State Department staff should convene a human rights dialogue with Caribbean heads of state to address human rights concerns in the region, particularly the situation of LGBT people in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.
  • The Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons should lead an inter-agency dialogue to develop a strategic plan for future U.S. engagement in advancing the human rights of LGBT people in Jamaica.
  • The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) should incorporate diversity and sensitization to the rights of LGBT people in all bilateral trainings of the Jamaican police force and members of the judicial system.
  • The Global Equality Fund and USAID should continue to support organizations working on behalf of the LGBT population, including smaller organizations and groups that cater specifically to the needs of lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender people.

Published on April 29, 2016


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