Paul Golding, Guest Gleaner Columnist
Two respected international affairs publication in the recent past have referred to Jamaica as homophobic. Time Magazine, in a 2006 edition, asked the question: Is Jamaica the most homophobic place on earth? The Economist had a 2009 article titled 'Homophobia in Jamaica a vicious intolerance, the politicians seem unperturbed by hate crimes'.
Homophobia is generally defined as hostility towards or fear of gay lesbian persons. The definition can also refer to social ideologies which stigmatise homosexuality. So how homophobic are Jamaicans? Two recent but separate pieces of research done by the University of Technology (UTech) and the University of the West Indies (UWI) should provide some empirical insights, but first some anecdotal perspective.
Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, one of the most egregious social/sexual sins was to be accused (not just being referred to as) of being a b-man. Anyone so accused would be subjected to a beating. Everybody would want to get a 'lick afta him' because, as the myth went, b-man don't have no feelings and them can't float inna water. Men and women who would not be caught dead in church could quote scripture and verse on why homosexuality was a sin, as if there was no other sin.
The other big social/sexual debate was about oral sex, 'bowing', or 'eating under table'. In those days, only the most sexually secure would admit to performing these acts, but times have changed. The 'appetiser' is now required in some circles prior to the main course or 'shop lock'.
While oral sex has become more acceptable, the debate on homosexuality rages on both locally and internationally. Jamaicans are sexist in our homophobia, we give tacit acceptance to lesbianism, even finding it erotic, but 'swordfight' is a totally different matter.
Opposition to the gay lifestyle is also a strong part of our popular culture and is reflected in our music, the most infamous being Buju's Boom Bye-Bye. I recalled seeing, in either The New York Post or The New York Daily News, the translation of the lyrics of Boom Bye-Bye into standard English, and it was not well received by the homosexual community in the Big Apple. It could be argued that from that time, Buju was public enemy number one.
Criminalising same-sex unions
In a May 2012 report, the International Lesbian Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) listed Jamaica as one of 78 countries, roughly 40 per cent of the United Nations members which have legislation criminalising same-sex acts between consenting adults. Of this 78, 45 are in Africa, 21 in Asia and 11 in Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition to Jamaica, the 11 include Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
According to the report, four of the 11 regional countries, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis, do not criminalise lesbianism. Jamaica and Guyana are among the regional countries that have taken steps to decriminalise same-sex acts between consenting adults. The ILGA argues that tolerance cannot be measured solely on legislation, as violence, persecution and discrimination can take place despite legislation. They believe that legislation is an essential step in the process.
Globally, the tide as it relates to homophobia is turning, and Hollywood is pushing the envelope. US television and movies are flooded with homosexual/lesbian content, with several movies having homosexual characters, even in TV shows targeting children. Shows like Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy feature homosexual characters, and even in the 1970s, the sitcom Soap featured Billy Crystal as a gay character. Brokeback Mountain, in 2005, which was nominated for Best Picture, was the tipping point, as it relates to a Hollywood movie pushing the envelope. The impact of the US entertainment industry on the mores of the Jamaican society cannot be underestimated.
Politically, the tide is also turning. Recently, US President Barack Obama declared his support for gay marriage, and his administration also indicated that it would use its foreign diplomatic tools, including aid, to promote equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world.
The British government, whose foreign policy is an extension of the US's, has threatened to cut aid for countries that do not accept homosexuality. In February 2012, a Ugandan lawmaker, in an apparent challenge to the US and British stance, reintroduced a bill in Parliament that carried the death penalty for a serial offender of homosexuality. Also in Uganda in 2011, a newspaper published a list of gay people and urged readers and policymakers to hang them.
Majority think homosexuality is bad
So, how homophobic is Jamaica? A recent (March 2012) preliminary study done by UTech indicated that while the tide internationally is turning, the views in Jamaica have not changed much. The UTech study, which combined gay males and lesbians, 80 per cent of the respondents viewed homosexuality as a bad thing. Approximately two per cent thought it was a good thing, and approximately 18 per cent thought it didn't make a difference. There was no difference in responses based on age group.
A 2011 UWI, Mona, study indicated that there were strong negative perceptions and attitudes towards homosexuality in Jamaica, cutting across all social classes and gender groups in Jamaica. The report further indicated that negative views of homosexuality tended to be greatest among males, non-university educated persons, those who listened mostly to dancehall and reggae music, and those in lower socio-economic groups. In the 2011 UWI study, 82.2 per cent of the respondents deemed male homosexuality morally wrong, as opposed to 3.6 per cent who did not see it as a moral issue.
The results of the two studies indicate that there has been no change in the public's attitude towards gays and lesbians.
The UTech survey asked two other questions which give further insights into the public perception on gay and lesbian activities. When the question was asked about gays and lesbians raising children, two per cent thought it was a good thing, approximately 15.5 per cent said it didn't make a difference, while 82.5 per cent said it was a bad thing. Respondents in the 30-45 age group were most opposed to gay and lesbians raising children.
The respondents' tolerance for same-sex marriage was highly negative, with 90 per cent opposed or strongly opposed, with only 10 per cent favouring or strongly favouring. When we assessed respondents based on age group, persons in the 18-29 and 30-45 cohorts were less tolerant to same-sex marriage.
We can contrast these findings with 2011 results from Pew Research Center, which found that in the US, on average 46 per cent favoured allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally and about the same 45 per cent were opposed.
Based on the UTech study, the general profile of a Jamaican favouring same sex marriage is: they are more likely to have a tattoo, more likely to have a body piercing in a place other than their earlobe, and less likely to attend church, except for weddings and funerals.
The data clearly indicate that the overwhelming majority of Jamaicans are opposed to homosexuality, and this is based on religious and cultural grounds. However, have Jamaicans' reactions to homosexuality changed? To participate in this survey, log on to: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dGRoVXV4dEN6ZHZQbkVIbjY4UDViUmc6MQ or http://tinyurl.com/homosexualityinja.
Paul Golding - associate professor, dean of College of Business and Management, UTech. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.