Jamaican rights activist's death is officially said to be motivated by robbery, but campaigners point to pop-fuelled homophobia
Gary Younge in New York
Saturday June 26, 2004
In the heat of January in Jamaica 30,000 people came to the Rebel Salute concert in St. Elizabeth to hear some of the nation's most popular singers deliver a chilling call. With Capleton and Sizzla singing almost exclusively about gay men, the call went out from the stadium:
"Kill dem battybwoys haffi dead, gun shots pon dem ... who want to see dem dead put up his hand" (Kill them, the queers have to die, gun shots in their head ... put up your hand if you want to see them dead.)
Two weeks ago Jamaica's most prominent gay activist, Brian Williamson, was murdered at his home. Mr Williamson, a co-founder of Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), was found with multiple stab wounds to his neck and his face and his throat cut.
With his safe missing and his room ransacked, the police insist that it was a robbery and have one person in custody. Jamaica's gay activists and human rights campaigners are not so sure. They fear Mr Williamson could have been targeted because of his sexual orientation.
"Given the climate that exists in Jamaica there is high possibility that Brian's murder is a hate related crime and we don't want the police to rule that out," said a representative of J-FLAG, who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals. Brian was one of the few people who felt comfortable enough to go public with his homosexuality."
Indeed, last May Mr Williamson wrote to the national newspaper, the Jamaica Observer, explaining: "We who are homosexuals are seen as 'the devil's own children' and passed by on the other side of the street or beaten to death by our fellow citizens."
The hatred has followed him to the grave. "We've had one or two well wishers from the straight community," said the J-FLAG representative. "But many more have said things like: 'This is what you get for sin' or 'we should get them one by one.'"
Human rights campaigners say that while the precise motive of Mr Williamson's killers may never be known, his death provides a timely opportunity for the government to address the problem. "We have called on the Jamaican authorities to use this time to make a public statement condemning homophobia and calling for people to respect the rights of lesbian and gay men," said Michael Heflin, of Amnesty International in the United States.
This is not likely to happen soon. From Buju Banton's Boom Boom Bye Bye, which threatened gay men with a "gunshot in ah head", to Beenie Man's "I'm a dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays", Jamaica's popular music scene is steeped in homophobia. Concern that his lyrics could incite violence against gays and activists led to the cancellation of a concert by Beenie Man in London earlier this week.
But songs are not the only place where homophobia is blatant. At a state level, article 76 of the nation's offences against the person act criminalises the "abominable crime of buggery" with up to 10 years imprisonment, while article 79 punishes any act of physical intimacy between men in public or private with up to two years in jail and the possibility of hard labour.
A recent poll showed 96% of Jamaicans were opposed to any move to legalise homosexual relations. And while the police do not condone homophobic violence, they are often unsympathetic to the victims.
One man described to J-FLAG how six men blocked a road in order to beat up 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 punched and kicked him. They threw garbage on him, all the while shouting 'Battyman, battyman'. They then dragged him down the road for half a kilometre ... The crowd was saying 'Give him to us! Let us kill him! He's a battyman'."
At least five gay Jamaicans have successfully claimed asylum in Britain on grounds of homophobia. "I had to leave because of the pressure," said one 26-year-old Jamaican who settled in Britain in 2000 and asked to remain anonymous. "I had been beaten up and chased and the police would not help you. Once I went to hospital after I was badly beaten up and they refused to treat me."
Few can agree on the source of such homophobia. But most agree the church plays a crucial role. "Evangelical Christianity is very strong, and there is a prudishness and hypocrisy that comes with that," said a representative of J-FLAG. "They ignore the part that says don't have sex out of wedlock and focus on gays."
Others claim the sheer geographical size of islands in the Caribbean makes them more socially conservative. "So long as you are stuck living close to your family then you never really get the space to make the kind of choices about your life that will challenge the values and practices you've been brought up with," said Erin Greene, a member of the Rainbow Alliance of the nearby Bahamas.
The particularly violent expression homophobia has found in Jamaica, most agree, reflects a particularly violent society. In 2002 1,045 people were murdered, and according to Amnesty International, Jamaica has the highest number of police killings per capita in the world. In the national paper, the Daily Gleaner, the murder count is updated daily, between the weather forecast and the lottery numbers.
"The worst thing is when you see children of three or four singing songs about killing the Chi Chi [gay] man," said one J-FLAG representative. "They are learning from an early age that violence against gay people is acceptable."
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