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"Battybwoys affi dead:" Action against homophobia in Jamaica
In January 2004, around 30,000 people attended a huge stage show and Rastafarian celebration, Rebel Salute, in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. Some of Jamaica's most celebrated artists were present. Throughout the night, Capleton, Sizzla and others sang almost exclusively about gay men. Using the derogatory terms for gay men - "chi chi men" or "battybwoys" they urged the audience to "kill dem, battybwoys haffi dead, gun shots pon dem... who want to see dem dead put up his hand" (kill them, gay men have got to die, gun shots in their head, whoever wants to see them dead, put up your hand).
Elephant Man, Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, TOK, and Capleton are amongst the stars who have written lyrics variously urging the shooting, burning, rape, stoning and drowning of gay people.
From Buju Banton's Boom Bye Bye, which threatened "batty boys" with "ah gunshot in ah head", to Beenie Man's "I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays" to Babycham & Bounty Killer's "Bun a fire pon a kuh pon mister fagoty, Ears ah ben up and a wince under agony, Poop man fi drown a dat a yawd man philosophy" (Burn gay men, til they wince under agony, gay men should drown, that's the yard man's philosophy), the exhortations to kill and maim seem to know no bounds.
"When yuh hear a Sodomite get raped...
But a fi wi fault...
Two women gonna hock up inna bed
That's two Sodomites dat fi dead."
(Sodomites -- A derogatory term for lesbians)
– Elephant Man"When you hear of a lesbian getting raped
It's not our fault
Two women in bed
That's two Sodomites who should be dead."
Although the singers are Jamaican, their records are widely distributed abroad. Recently organisations in Jamaica such as J-FLAG, Jamaica's only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group, have been joined by others around the world targeting the artists themselves, as well as radio stations, record labels and music stores that have distributed and promoted the songs.
The groups have sought to bring the lyrics to the attention of the public and the authorities. In December 2003, campaigners from the British gay rights group OutRage called on the British police to arrest Bounty Killer for incitement and conspiracy to commit murder, amongst other offences, during a UK tour. As the group stated in a letter to the Metropolitan Police, "in a democratic society people have a right to criticise homosexuality, but they do not have the right to encourage queer-bashing violence and murder."
The problem of homophobia in Jamaica goes far beyond any single artist however. Here, reports of violence regularly meted out to members of the LGBT community have reached such an extent that they have started to attract international headlines. Action is needed on a much wider scale to systematically tackle the prejudice that inspires the attacks and the laws which facilitate them.
"My experience as a gay man living in Jamaica is one which is marked by periodic incidences of abuse, both verbal and physical. I have lost count of the number of times I have been verbally abused, called ‘battyman', ‘chi-chi', ‘sodomite', ‘dirty battybwoy' (all derogatory terms for homosexual men)."-- Gay man, talking to J-Flag, 2003.
One man described to J-FLAG how six men from an infamous "garrison community" (poor, inner-city communities controlled by either of Jamaica's two main political parties) blocked a road to beat a local gay man.
"The crowd stood around watching, chanting "battyman, battyman, battyman" before gathering around him as he lay on the sidewalk. The crowd beat, punched and kicked him. They threw water from the gutter and garbage on him, all the while shouting "battyman, battyman." Then they dragged him down the road for half a kilometre. They shouted "battyman fi' dead." As I stood across the street I realised there was nothing I could do to help him. Some mothers were actually in tears at what they were witnessing but there was nothing that they could do either. ... The crowd was saying "Give him to us! Let us kill him! He's a battyman!"
When police arrived they had to call for back-up. Three police jeeps arrived and fired shots into the air to clear the crowd.
The story is typical. Once a person's sexuality becomes known to family or community, they are at risk. Amnesty International has interviewed many people who have been forced to leave their areas after being publicly vilified, threatened or attacked on suspicion of being gay. They face homelessness, isolation or worse.
In a particularly egregious recent example, a national newspaper reported in February 2004 that a father had encouraged students to attack his son after he discovered a picture of a nude man in his rucksack. One student described the attack on the 16-year old on 18th February 2004 by other students: "him get nuff lick, kick, box and thump from other boy and girl." School authorities were forced to call police to escort the boy off the compound. Police were also attacked. Students received a "stern warning" but, at the time of writing, no-one had been charged in connection with the assaults.
One man was forced to leave his community in 2003 after his friend was murdered and he was threatened by local gunmen. He is still homeless and living a hand-to-mouth existence.
"One morning, at about 2 a.m., my friend was at a dance in the community. He was enjoying himself and dancing and suddenly there was a gunshot and a bullet hit my friend in the back of his head. He turned around after realising he was shot and they shot him in his face again three more times. He fell, but they continued to shoot him as he lay on the ground. Then they announced that I was next and "battyman fi' dead."
Protection is often denied by the police, who in many cases appear to tacitly or actively support such violence. Amnesty International has received many reports of police failing to investigate homophobic-hate crimes. In some cases they fail even to take written or verbal reports of incidents. One man called the police after running into a supermarket to escape from an attack in Half Way Tree, Kingston:
"We waited more than half an hour and still the police did not come. The police station is less than five minutes away. We eventually realised that the police were not in fact on their way and decided to see if we could leave safely. We were shaken by this incident, but doubly upset because the police had not responded to this homophobic attack."
An example of the kind of treatment LGBT individuals can expect from the police occurred in 2003 when a group of gay men were attacked, beaten, ill-treated and detained by plain clothes police officers as they socialized together in a bar frequented by the gay community in Kingston. One of the victims described what happened to J-FLAG:
"All of a sudden, a white van pulled through the gate and men armed with firea
I met up with some of the guys from the crowd on my way home, and found out that my friend had been taken to the police station, and that the men who had attacked us were plain-clothes policemen. When I saw my friend later, he told me that they verbally abused him at the station and had told their co-workers that he was a battyman and they began to verbally abuse him as well. They held him overnight and released him. He was not charged with any offence."
Police appear to also target healthcare providers working with LGBT individuals and there have been several reports of nurses, community workers or others being unlawfully detained and ill-treated by the police. In 2003, three men were detained and searched by the police in Half-Way Tree. When asked by the police why they had condoms on them, they reportedly stated that they were promoting safe sex to both men and women. Police told the men that they were to be locked up for promoting "battybusiness". The men were crowded into the back of a police car as none of the officers wanted to sit next to them. They were not allowed to let their bodies touch
"We did not report this to the police because my friend felt, based on past experience, that the police would be unsympathetic and possibly abusive too." -- Man attacked with rocks by three armed men in 2003.
This kind of behavior from police officers means that an accurate picture of the number of victims of homophobic violence in Jamaica is impossible. Since so much shame and disbelief surrounds violence against the gay community – and since victims can not expect to receive the protection of the law - the number of men and women who report abuse is assumed to be many times fewer that the number of actual incidents.
The police are not the only authority to actively discriminate against non-heterosexual individuals. Reports of individuals losing their jobs once their sexuality has become known to their employer are common. Sometimes medical staff have reportedly joined in abusing gay or lesbian patients. When a group of gay men accompanied their friend to hospital after he was attacked, stabbed and robbed, they were verbally abused by staff in the accident and emergency department. One told J-FLAG that:
"The porters, janitors, and even some of the nurses laughed at us. They took a much longer time than usual to attend to us; we got to the hospital at about 10 p.m. and they did not attend to us until the next morning."Although lesbianism is not a criminal offence under Jamaican law, gay men are not the only targets of this kind of violence in Jamaica. Amnesty has assisted in several cases of lesbian women from Jamaica who have sought asylum abroad following persecution at home. Amnesty International has received reports of acts of violence against lesbians, including rape and other forms of sexual violence. There are reports of lesbians being singled out for attack on the grounds of "mannish" physical appearance or other visible manifestations of sexuality. Some reports of abduction and rape emanate from inner-city garrison communities where local NGOs have already expressed concerns about very high incidences of the prevalence of violence against women. There are some reports that lesbian women have been forced to carry drugs by community gangs, on threat of, or after having been abducted, beaten or otherwise degraded or
Perhaps fuelling such acts is the widespread public misconception that lesbianism is illegal. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the public is largely unaware that this is not in fact the case. This perception is reinforced by comments made by authority figures, such as politicians, the media, religious leaders and dancehall musicians. A Gleaner/Don Anderson poll of September 2001 posed the question "do you think that homosexuality should be legalised?" – drawing no distinction between male or female same-sex relations. According to the Jamaican NGO J-FLAG, the derogatory Jamaican word for lesbian, "sodomite", further underlines this misconception, as the word derives from an imputation against males.
Against this backdrop of high levels of violent crime - including murder - against gay and lesbian people in Jamaica, tacitly accepted by the police, are the laws that continue to criminalise consensual gay sex between males. Article 76 of the Jamaican Offences against the Person Act punishes the "abominable crime of buggery" by up to ten years' imprisonment with hard labour. Article 79 of the same act punishes any act of physical intimacy between men in public or private by a term of imprisonment of up to two years and the possibility of hard labour.
Jamaica is not the only country within the region that retains laws criminalising consensual sex between adults of the same sex. Only two English-speaking Caribbean countries do not criminalise this at all: the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. Here, reports of discrimination and ill-treatment are still common. In July 2003, a Bahamian Bishop threatened to become the first "live Guy Fawkes" if the Government passed legislation legalizing same sex marriage. "The devil and every demon in hell can expect the church to react because God has done too much for us,"
Such acts of violence are set against a public which appears to strongly endorse the idea of differential treatment. A recent poll showed that 96% of Jamaicans were opposed to any move that would seek to legalise homosexual relations. Many churches have released statements indicating their support for the retention of current laws. In December 2001, Roman Catholic bishops in the Caribbean stated that they would be against decriminalising consensual sex between consenting adults. In 2001, the Jamaican Prime Minister reiterated his support for the exclusion of gay men from the Boy Scouts movement.
The risks facing LGBT people in Jamaica are increased because of the lack of effective governmental programmes catering to the needs of the gay and lesbian community. From the lack of effective victim support or witness protection schemes, to ineffective and oftentimes brutal policing, to an absence of refuges, the authorities are, in the organisation's view, unable to protect LGBT people in need.
In such a climate, the activities of J-FLAG are crucial. At the forefront of lobbying and campaigning on the issue in Jamaica, their work supporting LGBT people and promoting an agenda of inclusion and equality in extremely hostile conditions is essential. Their activities include running a telephone helpline, workshops and training of authorities, including health care workers, media and students . However the NGO has very limited funds and their activities can not and should not replace actions by the state to fulfil its international legal obligations to
The way forward?
Is there an impetus for reform from within Jamaica? The Prime Minister of Jamaica has publicly confirmed his intention to retain legislation which discriminates against homosexuals on many occasions.
In 2000 the Jamaican parliament discussed J-FLAG proposals to amend the current bill of rights to the Constitution to include prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Section 24(3) of the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, place of origin, political opinions, colour or creed. The proposals were rejected in June 2001 by a Parliamentary
In December 2001, a parliamentary Select Committee recommended that Parliament review laws criminalising consensual gay sex. The proposals were rejected by Parliament in January 2002.