Countdown to Tolerance

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Tue Jan 17, 2012

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: Reversal by New Prime Minister on LGBT Human Rights?

By Maurice Tomlinson

On January 8, new Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller took her entire cabinet to the church of notoriously homophobic Bishop Wellesley Blair. In 2007, Blair, who also heads the Integrity Commission of the PM’s People's National Party, had called for the public flogging of gays in Half-Way-Tree Square in the nation's capital. It is therefore very disturbing (to say the least) that Jamaica’s Prime Minister should be seeking the blessing of someone who clearly and unrepentantly called for violence against some of the very citizens she swore to serve and protect.

During his sermon Bishop Blair predictably instructed his captive congregants, which included all the members of the new government, to avoid international and local pressure in deciding policy. Instead, he urged that anything which displeased God should be ignored, no matter the cost. This was interpreted by the local press as an oblique reference to recent calls by international and local groups for repeal of the country's archaic anti-sodomy law. It is important to note that the new Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms requires that human rights are to be interpreted in accordance with principles found in free and democratic states, not theocratic values.

Simpson-Miller historically promised during the national leadership debates for the December 29, 2011, polls that she would break with the homophobic policy of former PM Bruce Golding and consider ability rather than sexual orientation in selecting her cabinet ministers. She also promised to call for a review of the country's anti-sodomy law in the form of a Parliamentary conscience vote.

However, recent religiously themed statements by Simpson-Miller, as well as her attendance at Blair's church, have raised concerns that now that she is PM, there will be a jettisoning of the promised conscience vote. Instead, the government may now be courting the favor of the very powerful Christian fundamentalist evangelicals in order to consolidate their power and gain the support of the incredibly influential Jamaican moneyed class. Their plan seems to be working. Gordon “Butch” Stewart (of Sandals Resorts fame), who is perhaps the country's most infamous and aggressive business tycoon, had a very public falling out with Simpson-Miller during her first term as PM. His paper, the Jamaica Observer, had berated the PM during the election campaign and showed unmasked bias towards the Jamaica Labour Party government that was once led by Bruce Golding. The paper also demonstrated clear anti-gay animus during the campaign. Recently, however, Stewart seems to have had a change of heart and has publicly supported Simpson-Miller in the first scandal to buffet her new administration, which concerns the size of her cabinet.

The upcoming days are going to be very critical in understanding the new PM’s commitment to the human rights of Jamaican LGBT citizens. J-FLAG has suggested that the conscience vote happen quickly in order to meet the country’s reporting obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, there is no doubt the church will intensify its efforts to get Simpson-Miller off this trajectory. For me, the PM’s recent moves have demonstrated a regression to her first term, which saw her engage in deliberate attempts to undermine the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. For example, she infamously placed the Bible in front of her Prime Ministerial instrument of appointment at her official swearing in ceremony and also stated that a pastor would serve on every board of government-controlled entities. I sincerely hope she has learned some lessons this time around and will be more inclusive and respectful of religious freedom in her future utterances and actions.