Countdown to Tolerance

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Tue Dec 20, 2011

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: Jamaica Labour Party Appeals for Homophobia in the Voting Booth

By Maurice Tomlinson

Jamaicans will go to the polls on December 29, 2011, to elect a new government and, as expected, the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has resorted to homophobic tactics in an attempt to bolster their electoral victory. This should come as no surprise: Former party leader Bruce Golding once declared on BBC that gays would not form part of his cabinet, and backbencher Ernest Smith called for the outlawing of J-FLAG, Jamaica’s main LGBT lobby group, because the organization was "conspiring to corrupt public morals."

The People's National Party (PNP) (which is in Opposition and trailing in the polls) has selected a non-gender conforming individual as its candidate in a constituency traditionally viewed as a PNP "safe seat.” Since his selection there has been quite a media and social buzz about this candidate’s sexual orientation and gender expression. On December 18, the Government mouthpiece, the Jamaica Observer, reported on a JLP campaign meeting in this constituency where a senior party member and government minister said the PNP candidate does not “look right,” “dress right,” “love women” or “have a wife.” The Prime Minister, who was in attendance at this meeting, then proceeded to call the candidate’s challenger to the stage, referring to him as a “straight up” man.

A venomous Youtube video also making the rounds urged persons not to vote for this and several other PNP candidates because they are gay. The video has since been removed and replaced with a subtler but still unmistakably homophobic creation.

Vicious animus directed at a political opponent based solely on his sexual orientation and gender expression is sadly not new to Jamaica’s politics. In previous election campaigns both political parties have used violently anti-gay tunes as their theme songs. However, this new Prime Minister promised a break from the old-style of politicking. Clearly, he meant after these elections.

J-FLAG has written to the junior minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Senator the Honourable Marlene Malahoo-Forte, who is also a candidate for the JLP, to complain about this piece of gutter electioneering. So far, she has failed to respond. This is not surprising, as the good Senator similarly failed to respond when I wrote to her (as an old university colleague) seeking her intervention in the absolute lack of police responsiveness to a death threat made against me for my advocacy on LGBT rights.

J-FLAG was urged to write to the Political Ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair, to complain about the use of this tactic by the JLP. While in principle I support this approach, I doubt it will amount to much: The Ombudsman is the head of one of the island's popular evangelical churches and has publicly stated that he does not want anyone to "make" his four boys "homosexuals or criminals.” We have also been urged to write to the UNDP representative, with a copy to the government, to let them know we are upset about the use of homophobia in the campaign. This approach will, once again, prove to be a fruitless exercise.

On a positive note, the head of the island's Anglican community has written in favor of decriminalizing sodomy. Sadly, Anglicans are numerically insignificant in Jamaica and the evangelical Christians of the ilk of Shirley Richards hold far more sway over the population. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which counts the country's head of state, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, and the Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, as members, is also very influential and virulently homophobic. The Governor General has met publicly with a pastor from an “ex-gay” Christian ministry in the US.

It is tragic that as Jamaica selects a government to usher in its 50th year of independence, the country will more than likely be saddled with a regressive regime whose style of campaigning belongs squarely in the Middle Ages.