One Love – Why is there so much homophobia in Jamaica?

I saw an interesting video yesterday on Twitter claiming that Britain is the cause of the homophobia still found in its former colonies. The video states that out of all the countries where it is illegal to be gay, over half of them are Commonwealth countries. Homophobia is illegal in 36 out of 52 Commonwealth countries. Punishments include: lifetime imprisonment, hard labour and even the death penalty. Former British colonies are more likely to have anti-LGBT laws than former colonies of other European powers. British colonisers outlawed homosexuality in every country they conquered; few of these laws were abolished in the post-colonial era and many became even harsher.

I wasn’t surprised to see Jamaica appear in the list of examples. The punishment for being gay in Jamaica is 10 years hard labour or life imprisonment. When I’ve previously thought about Jamaican homophobia, I’ve always traced the roots back to religion and left it at that. Almost 70% of Jamaicans identify as Christian and back in 2007, the island apparently had more churches per capita than anywhere else on earth. For many, they follow a strict conservative Christianity in which accepting homosexuality means turning their back on God. Yet thinking about it now, even religion also has its roots in colonialism. Christianity was first introduced on the island by the Spanish. Sodomy laws, however, were brought to Jamaica by the British.

Jamaica was colonised by the British from 1707 until 1962. In 2006, Time magazine labelled the Caribbean island as ‘the most homophobic place on earth’. For LGBTQ people living in Jamaica, life is obviously hard. In 2014, a Human Rights Watch report found that over half of respondents in Jamaica had experienced violence on the basis of their identified gender or sexuality. The problem of homelessness in Jamaica is also prevalent within the LGBTQ community; LGBTQ make up 40% of the overall homeless youth population. I’d like to think that homophobia is not synonymous with Jamaican culture but is in fact the internalization of the coloniser’s culture.

Yet, when I think of the extent homophobia is embedded into Jamaican popular culture, I don’t think we can blame it all on the past. Many dancehall songs have homophobic lyrics; openly encourage the murder of gay people. One that springs to mind is Buju Banton’s most famous 1992 song Boom Bye Bye which advocates the shooting and killing of anyone that doesn’t fit into diametric gender roles.

Boom bye-bye inna batty bwoy head, rude bwoy no promote no nasty man dem haffi dead 

(Translation: Boom, bye bye in the fags head, rude boys don’t tolerate fags they have to die).

Having grown up myself listening to these songs, it’s easy to see how the message can be passed down through generations or internalized from a young age. How many times do we sing song lyrics without realising what we’re saying? Writing this post has made me think back to one time when I was talking about this with another British-Jamaican guy in a bar who told me: ‘Yeah, but that song is a tune though!’

He was clearly a bit of a dick.

When one minority group actively suppresses another, it is clearly problematic. You can’t advocate the end of one form of discrimination but then perpetuate another. You can’t demand racial justice whilst suppressing LGBTQ rights– the hypocrisy is clear.

It seems slightly unfair argument to place all the blame for Jamaica’s current homophobia on the policies of the colonial past.  Of course, colonial guilt should not prevent us from exposing and openly condemning these anti-gay laws across the globe. But it would be problematic to ignore the role the British had to play. It would be over-simplistic to state that as British society has now openly legalised gay marriage, its colonies should have done so too. Further still, arguments that equate British society with Jamaican society overlook the role that masculinity plays within Black communities. Many Jamaican men define and pride themselves on machismo. ‘Real men’ are definitely heterosexual and defined by typical ‘masculine’ traits of strength, toughness and anti-feminity. Interestingly, I read here article that one of the four traits that constructs masculinity is that:

Men must avoid doing anything that appears feminine in all areas of their lives, including career, interests, emotional vulnerability, and sexuality.

I think this problematic concept of masculinity is one of the roots of Jamaican homophobia. Jamaican men have to deal with this concept of masculinity within a society where they’re considered racially inferior. They, thus, assert this hyper-masculinity relating to dangerousness / violence and a rejection of anything feminine to empower themselves. The effects of colonialism alongside the perpetuation of Jamaican hyper-masculinity within popular culture reveal a darker side of the island and it’s One Love philosophy.

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