* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Jamaica’s colonial-era Offences Against The Persons Act denies LGBT+ people’s basic humanity.
Norman McKenzie is an independent LGBT+ activist based in Jamaica and Britain
“Them fe dead long time.”
When a gay man or transgender woman is killed in Jamaica, a police officer or other law official will utter those words in patois. The phase translates as, “Someone should’ve killed them a long time ago.”
As a gay Jamaican and an LGBT+ activist, I’ve seen at close range how Jamaica’s homophobic and transphobic culture destroys lives. Since 2005, I’ve assisted hundreds of gay and trans individuals who had been forced into the streets, often by their own families.
The foreign tourists who lounge in Montego Bay resorts are rarely aware that my native country's hatred of gay people is inscribed in its law books.
The Offences Against the Person Act, which became law in 1864 under British colonial rule, forbids same-sex intercourse between males and “any act of gross indecency”, such as a kiss, between males. The former is punishable by hard labour and up to 10 years in prison. The latter by up to two years in prison.
The law is an ever-present danger to human life. I’ve seen the legal system turn its back on gay and trans victims of violent crime. Last August, I informed the police about a brutal hate crime committed against a gay man on Halfway Tree Road in Kingston. They were uninterested in even taking a statement.
I’ve witnessed how the law drives LGBT+ people away from essential HIV testing and treatment services. Many of the individuals I work with have no choice but to sell sex on the streets. Yet they are afraid to visit health centers, where they are asked to disclose details about their sexual partners, details that could be used against them.
As a result, the HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men is frighteningly high in Jamaica. Studies indicate the rate could be as high as 33.6%.
I am among those activists who are dedicated to working toward the repeal of the Offences Against the Person Act. In recent days, we received good news on this front. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has declared that the law violates several of the individual rights protected by the American Convention on Human Rights, which Jamaica ratified in 1978.
The IACHR had considered two petitions challenging the Jamaican law. One brought by the advocacy groups AIDS-Free World and the HIV Legal Network was first presented to the IACHR way back in August 2011. It was on behalf of two LGBT+ Jamaicans whose names had to be withheld for fear of violent recrimination.
“Life in Jamaica is hell for me,” one of them, identitied as S.H, said in a statement to the IACHR. “If you are gay, and it shows, you have to be in hiding.”
I know the feeling. When I came out to my family at age 18, my mother broke down in tears and took me to church to exorcise the “evil” from me. My father threatened me with violence. He told me that he had a bullet with my name on it.
I was forced to flee my community and live in an isolated area with a relative who didn’t know I was gay. Eventually, I found my way to Kingston, where I found other gay people with similar tales of ostracization.
If you are gay in Jamaica, you will be beaten and disowned. You will be called names and victimized. You will be asked to leave your community. And you will find no help from a law that denies your basic humanity.
I dream that Jamaica is on the cusp of change. I dream of a Jamaica that will allow us to live in peace.