Monday, May 26, 2008

Homophobia in Jamaica: Thoughts Intersecting Current Politics, Dancehall, Colonialism, Religion, Slavery & Jamaican Patriarchy.

Last week, Prime Minister Bruce Golding of Jamaica stated on a BBC talk show that he has no intentions of lifting the "buggery" laws that outlaw man to man sex, and that he would never have a homosexual in his cabinet. I would post the BBC link, but they refer to Jamaica as probably being "the most murderous country in the world" which is some pretty racist effed up shyte if you ask me, especially coming from one of the most militarized countries in the world besides the USA.

I digress.

Canada is responding by calling for a tourism ban on Jamaica, which would be a considerable blow to the Jamaican economy. Just tourism from Toronto alone to Jamaica is huge. There is a Jamaican myspace page called fReE sPeEcH which features perspectives on the Canada ban, and reggae songs (including written lyrics) which support the Prime Minister in his choices, and calls for gay folks to expatriate asap to countries that do not illegalize same sex love.

Personally, I don't think this tourism ban is a good idea. For me, it would be like finding a domestic abuse situation, and then cutting off food supply to everyone related to the couple until the abuser stops. If anything, this tactic would most likely escalate blame and abuse. Which is precisely what JFLAG, Jamaica's sole LGBTQ advocacy group feels. They have released an official statement rejecting the tourism bans. JFLAG essentially operates like an underground railroad for queer folks in Jamaica, and they state on the web page, "
Due to the potential for violent retribution, we cannot publish the exact location [of our office]."

The issue of homophobic lyrics in dancehall has been in the international limelight for probably at least a decade now. Dancehall artists have been banned in various countries. Estimated losses in revenues exceed 5 million dollars. Some dancehall artists have however actually issued statements condemning homophobia in dancehall. 2 years ago, Sean Paul issued a statement of his own free will criticizing homophobia in dancehall. And some of the somewhat larger perpetrators of "burn battyman" music, Capelton, Sizzla and Beenie Man signed the Reggae Compassionate Act drawn up by the Stop Murder Music campaign. Though this is considered to be a large step in terms of dealing with homophobia in dancehall, it is felt in Jamaica and other places that this particular action may well have been strategic, since the financial blow has been so hard to these artists. If anything, they may be under some pressure in local performances to show how they are still "burning the flame" to "burn sodomites" despite pressures from "white foreign people."

Race becomes an issue when people note that Eminem seems to be able to say homophobic things and still enjoy international tours. He has a pretty "interesting" defense too. It also becomes an issue when people who have homophobia in their own countries choose to vilify us Jamaicans. I would hope that the energy that the Canadian government is taking with Jamaica, that they are using the same energy, if not more to look at the homophobia that exists in Canada, and to do some radical things about it.

I am definitely against the homophobic lyrics in Jamaican music, and i am a member of the straight and gay alliance group Love Liberation Collective, which is comprised mostly of Caribbean descended folks. As a dj, you will not hear me play these tunes, no matter how popular they are. For me, it is sad to know that black people, my people, are so energetically pursuing ways to oppress each other instead of building together. I had on online argument with another Jamaican who was telling me i was in league with Satan for defending queer rights. I told him
he is required to believe in Satan, hence giving Satan power, so he can enjoy him; and that he might as well join the Ku Klux Klan, because they are also a group of people that would like to see black people dead, queer and straight. There is also a very common way that a lot of homophobic people tend to conflate homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia that is also pretty maddening. So many times, i have had to say slowly "we are talking about consenting adult humans who love each other." There does not seem to be overwhelming concern that because some people are heterosexual, we should be worried as to whether we will automatically become child molesters and over run barnyards with insatiable lust. I am also confused by the "its not natural" statement, as if gay folks are synthetically designed and programmed androids engineered in laboratories. Love is natural, and always has been.

The religion piece is big in Jamaica. Trying to have a rational conversation on this subject when someone is backing up their argument with faith based points gets nowhere fast. This is not to say that Christians and Rastas are essentially not rational, i am just underlining the dynamic where some may quote the bible as if it weren't a belief system, but was fact set in stone like 1 + 1 = 2. "The Bible says, x, y and z, so that's all there is to it!" This drives me mad. The Bible has beautiful universal truths in it, but it is also a 2,000 year old book with 2,000 year old customs and morals, written by men for a patriarchal religion. Patriarchy does not benefit women or LGBT people.

Many adherents to the Bible know that there is much that cannot be taken literally, and much that is no longer applicable to our times. Yet the example of Sodom and Gomorrah (in which heterosexuals also perished) and other biblical examples that can be interpreted to denounce gays are used as proof that homosexuality is an "abomination". Should death also be sentenced to those who break the sabbath by cooking on Sunday? The Bible says we should.
(Exodus 31:14-15.) The Bible was also used to approve an institution that i would hope most Jamaicans now find to have been a real abomination to humanity. Slavery. During slavery, slaveowners and their Christian supporters would quote this from the pulpit:

If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property. - Exodus 21:20-21

As i mentioned in a previous post, I strongly believe that a) being colonized by the very Christian, very Victorian "sex is dirty, and so is the body" British (ie, Jamaicans still retain the colonial British jargon of "buggery" in the legislation), in combination with b) having a particular experience of slavery that had only men on the plantations for decades- I believe these two factors largely contributed to our particular brand of homophobia. Our men were worked to death on plantations, raped and violated as boys by slaveowners, and realistically only be able to have sex with other enslaved African men (voluntarily or forced). At some point, slaveowners decided that it may be more profitable to have forced reproduction on the plantations, and brought women over for slave labor, as well as to be "breeding grounds" for more "property" (roots of which also feed into our particular brand of sexism and objectification of women). It is my very strong belief that Jamaicans have a collective unconscious trauma that associates men being together sexually with the nightmare of slavery. I believe that the rage against the atrocities that happened to us has been misdirected towards gay folks. The rage targets men who are with other men, and women who would make such an anti-patriarchal move as to withhold sex from men, and love each other instead. The trauma is deep, and the religion that came with slavery and colonization adds fuel to the fire, as most interpretations justify and encourage the rage. Old leftover colonial era British "buggery" laws seal it in, legitimizing the misguided rage.

Slavery mercilessly degraded girlhood, womanhood, boyhood and manhood. Under patriarchy, all of us in Jamaica are subject to the acting out of men who are still in recovery from the passed down legacy of degraded manhood, in a society that grants men more privilege and power. The trauma of poverty and the sense of powerlessness that can evoke may exacerbate historical traumas. Historically, we were subjected to institutionalized domination. Acting out may then display itself in "hyper-masculine" forms, using dominance as a way to reclaim manhood. Donna P. Hope, a noted Jamaican feminist scholar, makes this statement about an aspect of Jamaican masculinity and dancehall:

In Jamaica, the use of sex and sexual symbols to create a highly sexual(ised) masculinity is dominant as a site of empowerment, to assert manhood and symbolise a particular type of masculinity. In the male-dominated dancehall, this is translated into the courting, conquering and/or dominance of female sexuality, femininity and women.

I would further this to say that for some of the more homophobically minded and re-traumatized Jamaican men, the femininity that must be dominated is the feminine inside us all. There are many definitions and experiences of masculinity and femininity, but one of them bequeaths masculinity to the "penetrator" and femininity to the "penetrated" (i prefer "penetrator" and "engulfer" myself, more equalizing of power), and for a man to allow himself to be penetrated becomes unacceptable to re-traumatized men who are trying to reclaim power and masculinity. This can become an all encompassing way of being, including needing to be emotionally "unpenetratable" to feel as if one has an intact masculinity. Sadly and ironically, one of the more toxic markers of the more violent masculinities is to dominate and "feminize" other men by violently penetrating them with words that question their masculinity... and by penetrating other men with bullets. Truly, the male dominated concept of war can essentially be distilled down to a
dysfunctional urge to penetrate men, women and children to death. How people can support war (the unconsenting penetration and destruction of millions), and cannot support consenting penetration and love between two adults baffles me. I pray for healing and transformation.

In near closing, I will mention some things I learned when i was travelling in West Africa. I was refreshingly schooled on a new perspective in Ghana, where i was surprised to see men walking down the street holding hands. And i mean little boys holding hands, and adult men holding hands too, regardless of sexuality. I also saw this in Senegal- it was so incredible to see grown men in business suits walking to work hand in hand! I am used to seeing women be physically close in public, but there is so much armoring around men and physical closeness in the communities I grew up in. In Jamaica, we don't even slap hands and do the back pat greeting as brothas in the States do... we pound closed fists together, minimizing intimacy and connection of open palms. Oh yes, back to what i was schooled on though- In Ghana (which is not without their own brand of homophobia) homosexuality is seen as something someone does, not something you are. The distinction was refreshing, making sense. It wasn't considered a marker of identity. There wasn't a word for a person who was in a same sex relationship, it was simply seen as something that someone does. "Oh yes, there are people who do that." That was the perspective in Kumasi, Ghana anyways.

Many Jamaicans are descended from Ghanaians. Seeing how our not so distant relatives embody masculinities, and the relatively relaxed approach to same sex love they seem to have, it makes me even more certain that slavery is a large component for us Jamaicans and our masculinities and brand of homophobia. I have a feeling that there may have even been some shameful, degrading ritual that enslaved Jamaican men were subjected to by the power drunk plantocracy, something so underground and unspeakable that it has been erased from memories and books. Something that would keep this fire burning til now. It is my hope and prayer that we may heal from this historical trauma and see that we are truly all brothers and sisters of value who want to love and be loved. I believe that some deep decolonization therapy is needed. And i don't mean that people need to discard their religion to do this. I think the words of brotherly and sisterly love are already in the holy texts. Surely it is wrong to withhold love from our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, because of who they love, while others chat on the mike about shooting and killing. Is it more acceptable to have a gunman for a child, or a gay person? I am not sure what a poll in The Gleaner would say to answer that question. I hold the strong belief that only shedding slavery mentalities can facilitate our transcending to our true greatness. This little island of Jamaica has already impacted the world with Marcus Garvey, Rastafari, Robert Nesta Marley, reggae music and more. I dare to imagine a new, positive impact we could have on the planet and ourselves once we have moved past this divisive issue, into a new era of healing and community.


Colin Rootz said...

Well said Richie!
As you obviously know, I have a blog on the topic on Facebook (
as well. I've received several comments - ALL appreciated and welcomed - including yours. I'll state again that I'm not trying to minimize hate crimes in Jamaica, but merely trying to contain the sensationalism which I believe casts Jamaica in an unfair and incorrect light. It would be fine for me to say "well, I don't make negative music, so me alright! I nah get involved! Is dem man deh problem dat!" NO! I am a Jamaican artist and I stand beside all other Jamaican artists AS A JAMAICAN. I support universal human upliftment and the right of everyone to have a feeling about anything AND express it - maturely and responsibly. My simple assertion is:
I defend the right of Jamaicans not to embrace (as a nation) a lifestyle which is not preferred. I defend the right of any persecuted group to speak out against hatred levelled against them. Most of all I advocate the use of intelligence and compassion to slow the pendulum from swings of extreme to a middle ground of peaceful understanding.

One Love,
Colin Rootz

Jack Mandora, mi nuh choose NONE!

richard said...

Thanks for your comment Colin! heh, only my old school yardie fren dem call me Richie, its funny :)

i see that your link got truncated, let me repost:

Yeah man... nuff respect for opening up the discussion on Facebook as a Jamaican musician, true it is easy to just ignore it and look the other way since you aren't making that music, just keeping it positive. Being a Jamaican man in the music world, what do you think influenced you to not make music that is oppressive the gay folks? was that a conscious decision? because other musicians may feel that they are doing something positive and uplifting for community by condemning gay folks.

I'm gonna play devil's advocate with two of your assertions:

"I defend the right of Jamaicans not to embrace (as a nation) a lifestyle that is not preferred"


"I defend the right of any persecuted group to speak out against hatred levelled against them."

Is your first assertion made under the present context of outside pressure, or generally speaking as an independent decision? Also, since there is a gay Jamaican population, how does that fit into these two assertions? ie, do gay Jamaicans have the right to not embrace/accept a institutionalized homophobic "lifestyle" (that is not preferred)?

and yes, may compassion and intelligence bring some healing and peace fi true... said...


This is deep!

I remember when Terri McMillan was going through a divorce, her husband (who came out of the closet) mentioned that Jamaica has a very serious problem accepting homosexuality and he hid it for his entire life. Until he said that on Oprah, I do not think that most Americans were fully aware of the scope of hatred towards gays and lesbians.

Continue to write about this!

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

You are invited to give the black male perspective on a dialogue we are having at my blog:
"Who's In Charge? The Mantle of Black Leadership".

Anonymous said...

An island-wide chimp-out.

What a surprise.

richard said...

hey anonymous...


care to elaborate?

at this point i'm not sure if you are a white supremacist, homophobe, both, or something else all together that isn't very clear.

raphael said...

hey richard

real powerful essay. thank you for the multi-layered analysis and complexity. i've often found discussions about the homophobia espoused by some jamaican reggae artists limited and dim-witted- generally lacking any investigation of why and how those specific expressions of homophobia in jamaica came about (i.e. colonialism and slavery, as you elaborate on). i get particularly vexed when otherwise well-intentioned folks, who have some awareness about JFLAG and protests against certain reggae cats because of homophobic lyrics, get on me for bumpin' songs of love and self-actualization by buju, sizzla, etc. i mean, of course i'm not gonna' play any 'bun battyman' bizness, but don't tell me i can't put 'hills and valleys' or 'what is it worth' on a reggae mix for my peoples, especially if you're not talking about the role centuries of white supremacist patriarchal oppression played in stoking the flames of homophobia. as though boycotting the artists altogether is gonna' alter an issue much broader, and with much longer history, than any specific individual. i'm just sayin'

... thanks for the insight, and keep bringing it. your blog's terrific, and i'm passing word around as far and wide as i can.


afrobot said...

Thank you for this post. "Underground Railroad?" Wow. That brought it all home. MUSIC OVER MADNESS
Be Brown

richard said...

Lisa: Hey Lisa! Good to see you up in here :) I am curious, when did that whole Terri McMillian thing go down again? Was that a mid 90's thing?

I enjoyed getting involved in your blog, you keep it coming too!

Raphael: Thanks for the love and the words! And i am feelin your points too. As a dj, i still play Sizzla and Buju and others, just not "Boom Bye Bye" etc etc. Love Liberation Collective, the straight/gay alliance i work with decided long ago that our work isn't really around targeting artists.

Thanks again for spreading the word too! probly see you at the Breakroom soon enuff. :) bless

afrobot: i feel you man. When Gareth of JFLAG came to San Francisco to speak a couple years ago, it really brought it home to me and others who were there as well. The Love Liberation Collective was born that day, some of us started talking, we had to do something. To hear testimonies from the trenches was mindblowing, heartstopping. stories of gay folks run out of their homes and neighboorhoods. stories of gay folks beaten in neighborhoods, and then cops coming- and joining in. stories of lesbians being raped "cause they just need a real man". I also realized that i was grossly underestimating the violence that queer folks are exposed to in Jamaica, because many hate crimes are not reported to the police, since there is danger of being abused some more. Not trying to be sensationalistic, these are are events that happen in the US as well. But the point is... there is a clear need for clandestine houses of safety for queer folks in Jamaica. At the same time... there are actually clubs with gay nights in New Kingston. This is definitely a very recent development, and i have no idea how safe it is for folks, especially when the night is over and it is time to leave the club. There are many paradoxes concerning attitudes towards homosexuality in Jamaica for sure.

Thanks for your comment, it inspired a lot, and reminded me of why i do this work.

DAVE BONES said...

Wow. You have an uphill task here. I love Jamaica, my girlfriend and I were incredulous at the "kill the battyman" sentiments preached by some fantastic dancehall artists and cheered by the crowd at the Black River Xmas party we went to. All the best with your struggle, ONE love from the UK XX

Jacob Aziza said...

I was talking just last night at the party about inter-generational psychology, and how something an entire peoples antecedents experienced can impact the mindset of modern culture, in particular how it relates to race in America, and Black youth culture.
Intergenerational psychology is, as far as I know, a non-existent field, but it could go a long way to changing how we look at and deal with social problems.

I think the religion part is THE main source, even among non-religious people. It is such a strong influence that it permeates cultures. (In America, for example, a nationwide survey found, atheists were ranked lowest of all groups in terms of trustworthiness, sharing America's vision of society, and approval of who their children marry - lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, and, yes, even homosexuals.)

On contrasting with other non-mainstream sexual interests, and whether homosexuality is "natural" - suppose someone feels they love a child, or an animal? Suppose that feeling developed naturally, and is a part of who they are? I think it is difficult to find a line of reasoning which doesn't contain a double standard. Are we comfortable universally condemning pedophilia or bestiality? Why? If the only objective distinction is consenting and/or adult, there are still potential issues around defining consent. I would suggest redefining morality exclusively in terms of harm or good done to other sentient beings. I realize that society wide we have a long way to go. My point is just that there is some validity to the homophobic's claims of similarity between homosexuality and other so called "perversions" - they aren't mainstream, and they involve sex.

Funny thing is, the most often quoted section of bible (which, incidentally, is more like 4000 years old - it was the new testament that was written soon after year 0) the story of Sodom, doesn't say that homosexual sex is wrong. What the story teaches us is that if a village is going to gang-rape someone, it should be virgin girls, not angels which God sends as messengers. True, the angels are "male"... but they are also angels. If there were any female angels in the Bible, perhaps God would have disapproved of them being raped as well.

Though, granted, there are other sections where the Bible says "
"Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable." Then again, it also says: "If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money lender; charge him no interest." (making all banks anti-christian), and
"anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him" and "Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material."

Jacob Aziza said...

One thing about Eminem; while I lot of what he says is certainly offensive, he does at least make it clear that he is aware he is being prejudiced, and seemly is aware it is unreasonable. He spends more time making fun of his own homophobia than he does making fun of gays. It seems he personally finds it disgusting while admitting there's nothing inherently wrong with it.
Which isn't to say I actually support it (mainly because it isn't explicit enough for most of his listeners to get it), but it does make it (slightly) different from much other homophobia.

The stuff about possibly being forced into homosexuality during slavery is, I think, unnecessary for understanding this issue, because similar levels of machismo and homophobia can be found in plenty of cultures around the world with no history of slavery. The thing they seem to have in common is a strong influence by Christianity/Islam (which, despite the wars, are really basically the exact same religion). In some places with Muslim law, villages still actually, literally stone homosexuals to death, as a community.

I absolutely love the Senegal take on sexuality. Something you do, not something you are.
Dear god yes.
I would love if here in the enlightened Bay Area we would learn that lesson.
I feel that "subverting" the dominate paradigm by, for example, distinguishing "queer" from "gay" or "bi" is really another way of acknowledging that paradigm, much the way a non-conformist is still making choices based on society by going out of his way to be different.
I think our obsessive need to identify with something, to categorize everything and everyone, just serves to give us more and more ways to divide ourselves.

Final thought: I do believe at least some of homophobia is "natural". Intolerance is bred by culture, and his reinforces it to a crazy high degree, but to some extent, certain things just don't feel comfortable, (like most peoples gut reaction to pedophilia). In order to address the actual consequences, I think we need to address people's feelings and help them explore the connection between emotion and prejudice, instead of simply condemning them.
Simply condemning them won't be any more effective for us than it is for them. It just keeps polarizing, while we each preach to our own choirs.