Countdown to Tolerance

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Fri Nov 2, 2012

Maurice Tomlinson's Countdown to Tolerance: College attack just latest example of Jamaica's chronic intolerance

By Maurice Tomlinson

Jamaica is renowned for its world-beating athletes. Sadly, the country is also notorious for its vicious homophobia. These two national attributes came together in tragic fashion recently on the campus of the state-sponsored University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), where Jamaica’s major track stars, such as Usain Bolt and Shell-Ann Fraser-Pryce, have recently studied.  On the evening of November 1, 2012, in what can only be described as an act of barbaric depravity, students and “security” guards on the campus highlighted the nation’s chronic intolerance by savagely attacking a young man accused of being gay.

A video of the nightmarish incident showed a jubilant crowd cheering on the security guards who took turns slapping, punching, and kicking the defenseless young man as he pleaded for his life within the “safety” of the guard room. Some of the mob members complained loudly that the security guards were hogging all the “fun,” and a glass window was shattered by students who apparently tried to join in the vicious assault.

I taught at UTech for three years until August 2012. During that time I had the privilege of introducing the concept of tolerance for sexual diversity to students in my Discrimination Law class. I believe I was also able to explain to these and other students how the nation’s crippling homophobia was sustaining the HIV epidemic, by driving men who sex with men (MSM) into hiding and preventing the government from reaching them with effective HIV interventions.  The result is that 32.9% of Jamaican MSM have HIV, compared to 1.7% in the general population. This is possibly the highest MSM HIV prevalence rate in the world. Also troubling is the fact that Jamaican MSM sometimes form relationships with women as a cover for their sexual orientation. This serves as an effective “bridge” for the HIV epidemic to move between the populations. Truly, a public health crisis if there ever was one.

At the start of my last semester teaching at UTech I had to flee to Canada after a Jamaican newspaper published an unauthorized photo of my same-sex wedding under the heading “Gay Jamaican activist marries man in Canada.” Numerous death threats were posted as comments to the article, and one of my students shared my class schedule on the news feed. To this day I cannot imagine what she was thinking. After much trepidation, and serious disagreements with my husband on the issue, I decided to return to complete my teaching commitment with the university. I simply felt we couldn’t let the homophobes win. Not again.

And so, every week for a semester, I flew from Toronto to Kingston to teach classes at UTech for three days. My students were generally supportive of my decision to return, as were the faculty. At the end of my contract the university offered to renew, but I declined because of the sheer logistical impracticality. Nevertheless, many of my former students emailed me after I left and expressed their gratitude for our interchange. I am now friends with a few of them. The week before I ceased teaching, I expressed my frustration to a colleague lecturer that I felt my work for LGBT tolerance in Jamaica was not done, and he replied that my very visibility on campus had helped to “move the needle.” He felt that the country could therefore not go backwards on the issue of tolerance, and I believed him. Until last night.

What happened on the UTech campus on the evening of November 1 has seriously challenged my dreams for tolerance of sexual diversity in Jamaica. While I am thankful that the young man was rescued and sent to seek medical help, I am traumatized at the thought that the type of viciousness displayed by that mob is likely to happen again. I am pessimistic because of the deliberate mis-education of Jamaican youngsters on issues of tolerance generally, and in relation to human sexuality specifically.

Despite her December 2011 campaign promise to review the country’s 19th century anti-sodomy law, and her stated willingness to include LGBT among her political appointments, Jamaica’s new Prime Minister, The Most Honourable Portia Simpson-Miller, has allowed her Minister of Education, Rev. Ronald Thwaites, to once again thwart the right of Jamaican students to full knowledge about human sexuality. In an obvious reaction to the fundamentalist Christian groups on the island—the most notorious of whom, Shirley Richards, called comprehensive sexual education a “death sentence,”—the Minister recently pulled a teacher’s manual which sought to at least make Jamaican high school students aware of the fact of human sexual diversity. The manual also explored concepts of appropriate sexual behavior, which proved effective at delaying sexual debut and increasing use of reproductive health products among teenagers. In what can only be described as a supreme act of cynicism, the Minister has repeatedly stated that the government’s approach to sexual education will be based on one man and one woman, with tolerance for others. Thanks, Minister Thwaites. You have effectively condemned another generation of Jamaican students to crippling ignorance and deadly intolerance. Such gross dereliction of duty should be criminal. At the very least, this latest incident demonstrates that UTech should be required to introduce tolerance training for its students AND security personnel.

I have written to the government of Jamaica and have made as much noise about this incident as I can because I believe it is emblematic of the self-deception that has taken hold in Jamaica about the level of national homophobia. Despite university research that shows the number of Jamaicans who self-identify as homophobic is near the 80% mark, and despite frequent brutal reminders of Jamaicans’ predilection to attack gays, there are still powerful voices on the island who would claim that Jamaican homosexuals are simply overstating the case. Some even insist that most acts of violence against gays are self-inflicted.

To say that the guards that brutalized this young man should face stiff penalties is an understatement. I also hold the Jamaican government responsible for contributing to this perfect storm of near-deadly hate. We sow to the wind and we reap the whirlwind.