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Student Beating Raises Issue of Homophobia in Jamaica

Jamaica and homophobia have started to become almost synonymous, thanks in part to one now-infamous song, originally written, as blogger Annie Paul explained in this 2009 post, “to protest the rape and kiling of a male child by, presumably, homosexuals”:

From targeting one particular homosexual rapist and murderer, the song went on to become an anthem targeting all such predators. The problem is that in Jamaica (as in many other places) male homosexuals are invariably seen as predatory and the proscription against predatory homosexuals then becomes one against all homosexuals.

The song, though, may have only added fuel to an already burning flame; three years ago, when the man responsible for the song, Buju Banton, met with gay rights groups in in United States who were upset about the message it was sending, some Jamaican bloggers still felt that it was going to be impossible to stem the tide. Jamaica Salt said at the time:

[Buju]’s too good a target for the gay rights campaign to get attention to the very big and very real problem of homophobia in Jamaica.

If anyone wanted proof that the problem was real, they didn't have to look too hard. Just over a year ago, there was the media block on a public service announcement aimed at encouraging Jamaicans to unconditionally accept members of their families who are homosexual. And in 2008, the country's then-Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, went on BBC's HardTalk programme and essentially declared that there was no room for gay people in his government.

A few days ago, a gay student at Jamaica's University of Technology (UTech) who was allegedly caught in a “compromising position” with one of his peers, suffered a beating at the hands of campus security guards. The incident was captured on video and immediately went viral. Twitter and Facebook soon became integral to the online discussion, but a few Jamaican bloggers wrote thoughtful and measured posts that took an in-depth look at the issue.

Raw Politics Jamaica Style saw the attack as a “severe threat…to the rule of law and democracy…in Jamaica”:

By all accounts, the situation is extremely dire. Not even Usain Bolt’s world record efforts can save us now.

On Thursday, November 1, 2012, a male student at the University of Technology was set upon and severely beaten by security guards, after being chased by a mob of his peers. The reason? He was suspected of being gay and was presumably one half of a duo caught in a ‘compromising situation’ on the campus.

Having run to the security post to escape the mob attack, the ‘gay’ student had his worse nightmare come true. His source of refuge turned into the very thing he was fleeing.

Degraded and dehumanized in the worst way by the security personnel on duty, the ‘gay’ student was mercilessly beaten while an entertained audience filmed the obscene event, their bloodlust clear in the expletive filled chants for him to be killed. This was, undoubtedly, a surreal scene from the theatre of the macabre.

But sadly that was real life and this is relatively commonplace in Jamaica.

In a post entitled “Sticks and Stones”, Petchary's Blog opened with a nod to a fellow blogger, who said on Facebook:

Glad to hear [local journalist] Cliff Hughes describe the UTech episode as ‘homophobic'. There’s far too much denial. ‘Oh no, We’re not homophobic! Not us!’

Her post went on to address the question of the video:

The video was entitled ‘Beat di Fish 2!’ – using the latest hate-word for gays in Jamaica. The video appears to show security guards beating up a young man in an enclosed area (the guard house of the aforementioned University) while a mob of mostly young men outside jeered, laughed and encouraged the guards to give the young man a good beating. Some of these young men begged the guards to turn him over to them so they could deal with him.

Why was he being beaten? The student was accused of having sex with another young man (who escaped – I hope he is very safe, somewhere).

It was very hard to watch, and to listen to the baying of the crowd, like hounds when they have cornered a fox in a hunt. That eager yelping sound, that cry for blood. And many of the supporters of the video added their virulent, sickening comments…

There were many expressions of genuine shock and despair, locally. ‘I am ashamed to be Jamaican’ was a common refrain among those with compassion for their fellow Jamaicans. Civil society groups, notably Jamaicans for Justice and the Civil Society Coalition, have issued statements condemning the incident. Some comments in the social media were more ambivalent, saying the two young men should have been more careful, and ‘this is how gays are dealt with in Jamaica, right or wrong.’ Other comments were more vicious. I will not repeat them.

Two of the security guards were later fired. Referring to a Facebook comment by another Jamaican broadcaster, Petchary noted:

Let us not deny this any more. Jamaica IS a homophobic society. It has been said by many outside and some inside Jamaica. And it is true. It is staring us in the face.

So, what are we to do about it? Allow the mob to take over? After all, there have been several instances of mob attacks recently, under various circumstances. This is not only yet another example of human rights abuses against gays in Jamaica. It fits into a pattern of intolerance, violence and blind ignorance that keeps repeating itself over and over. It is like a tide washing over us, threatening to sweep us all away.

Where is this leading us? Are we prepared to slip and slide down this slope? Or are we prepared to dig our heels in, right now? Are our leaders going to speak up, or remain silent? And what about the churches? After all, the homophobic bigots frequently use a certain passage in the Bible to justify their hatred.

Annie Paul wondered whether gay bashing had become a national policy and took a look at the societal push factors:

Here’s why I say almost everyone is to blame…The Education Minister Ronald Thwaites was on air yesterday righteously denouncing the episode and calling for the mob of students to be expelled. Yet only a few days before that he was in the media talking about a ‘gay agenda’ which had apparently had a sinister hand in the reform of the health and family life education curriculum for high schools in Jamaica.

The problems with the withdrawal of the revised curriculum are succinctly stated by Maurice Tomlinson, a former UTECH lecturer, who had to flee Jamaica when he recently married his partner in Canada. In a post titled Countdown to Tolerance Tomlinson points the finger at the brands of Christianity practised in the country for this interference in school curricula.

She also referred to the blocked J-FLAG [Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, Allsexuals and Gays] public service announcement and republished a Facebook account of “an instance that actually happened in Jamaica which highlights the lethal absurdity of local hostility towards gays.”

Finally, Diana McCaulay wrote a moving and powerful post about the incident:

It seems to me a Pontius Pilate moment, if I remember my Bible correctly. An innocent man delivered up to a judge of sorts, a baying mob outside. The judge seeks to appease the crowd with a beating but it is not enough. And we know the end of that particular story.

She continued:

The day after the attack, I was utterly unproductive at work, constantly refreshing the Facebook pages and blogs I follow, to see what was being said. There were no public comments following the articles published in Jamaica’s two daily newspapers. This was highly unusual. I wondered if, at long last, the editors of our mainstream publications had decided not to give hate speech any oxygen. But the lack of comment was short lived.

It’s personal for me. My son is gay. Every hateful, bigoted, violent remark is flung directly at him. I miss my son every day of my life, but I am so glad he does not live here. The question is: Why do I? I felt, still feel, deeply ashamed to be Jamaican. I felt complicit in this attack because of my long ago decision to remain here, to claim my Jamaican nationality, my Jamaican identity. Now, too late, I want to rescind that decision. I don’t want to be identified as part of a nation that defends and supports an anti gay stance as being cultural, as being Christian, as being an aspect of our sovereignty, our right.

As they always have been, religious beliefs are being used as justification for the abrogation of the human rights of some. Religious beliefs belong in places of worship among those who share such beliefs and nowhere else. They must not have the weight of the State behind them.

In an interview with Cliff Hughes on Nationwide News Network on Friday, I heard the Minister of Education, Hon. Ronnie Thwaites, strongly condemn the U-Tech attack. Well and good, Deacon Thwaites. But it was you who recently pandered to the mob in the withdrawing of educational materials trying, however clumsily, to deal with the issue of respect and tolerance for gay people.

I am tired of pretending that all aspects of our culture are defensible. They are not. There is much about being Jamaican to be ashamed of – our violent and bigoted speech and action towards gays and lesbians tops the list.

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