Voices from Afar: Engaging and Empowering the Jamaican and Dominican Diaspora on LGBT Issues pt1

By Courtney Thomas

Part 1: Jamaica

As the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, I have always been painfully aware of the deep-seated homophobia in the country. From the hateful dancehall music on the radio to rhetoric casually employed by certain leaders, LGBT Jamaicans face a dangerous climate. In response, tireless Jamaican activists are conducting important advocacy to change attitudes and advance the human rights of LGBT people.

Diaspora communities have been often influential in demanding change in their home countries and delivering results. I have seen first-hand the Jamaican diaspora’s commitment to their island and their ability to come together for the welfare of the Jamaican people. Given such strong ties to their home country, I wondered—how can this population be galvanized to create change on LGBT issues?

This summer, I spoke with 10 members of the Jamaican diaspora here in the United States about their engagement in their home country and their attitudes toward LGBT issues. I was surprised to learn that many were not engaged in Jamaican politics. They explained that the “tribal” and “corrupt” elections turned them off from the political system. The Jamaican diaspora is unable to vote, and the individuals I spoke with focus their energy and resources on issues of violence, the economy, and general public welfare.

Opinions on LGBT issues varied among these individuals, ranging from vehement opposition to wholehearted acceptance. Religion dominates every aspect of Jamaican culture, and homosexuality is regarded as a sin by much of the population. However, the majority of the people I spoke with had much more progressive views. One respondent criticized Jamaicans who disapprove of LGBT people, saying “I wish my fellow countrymen would be a lot more tolerant of the gay and transgender community because we are all God’s people and they have as much right to be here as we do.”

I learned that although members of the diaspora are not particularly engaged on LGBT issues, they are aware of the troubling situation for the LGBT community back home. Economic concerns, such as high unemployment, widespread poverty, and growing debt tend to take precedence over LGBT equality. But this does not mean that the Jamaican diaspora cannot contribute to the LGBT movement. In some ways, they already are. Many of the individuals I spoke with donate money to hospitals, orphanages, and schools on the island. These services directly benefit the LGBT community. Prioritizing the human rights of LGBT people has widespread economic advantages for everyone, including higher levels of GDP, better health outcomes, and increased employment.

There is still a long way to go for LGBT equality in Jamaica, but the diaspora community has the potential to push the movement forward. It is my hope that all diaspora members will realize that LGBT rights are human rights, and that when we focus on the most vulnerable members of society, we invest in the future of Jamaica and shared prosperity.

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Published on August 11, 2016

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