The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) recently produced a public service announcement aimed at encouraging Jamaicans to unconditionally accept members of their families who are homosexual. The organisation hoped to have had the spot broadcast on national television in August – but as a new month begins, the Jamaican media still appear to be firm in its stance that it will not air the advertisement, which features former Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe Christine Straw and her gay brother, Matthew, sharing their personal story.
Public service announcements are typically aired free of cost in Jamaica, but in discussions, media heads have apparently said that even if it were a paid ad they still would not broadcast it because they reserve the right to decide on content.
The issue has sparked controversy in Jamaica, a country that is widely perceived as being homophobic, thanks in part to this and this. Much of the debate appears to be taking place through mainstream media – either via the comments section of online newspapers, letters to the editor and talk shows. There has been some discussion on Twitter, and a few bloggers have commented on the issue, making sure to upload the video of the PSA to their blogs.
To examine the controversy more closely, I asked Annie Paul, who lives in Jamaica, and two diaspora bloggers, Kathy Stanley (whose cousin, a prominent gay rights activist in Jamaica, was murdered in June 2004) and Kei Miller (who has written extensively on homophobia in Jamaica), to share their thoughts.
Annie is the Publications Officer at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus and a founding editor of the journal Small Axe.
Kei is an author and educator whose collection of short stories exploring the issue of Jamaican homophobia was shortlisted in 2007 for a Commonwealth Writer's Prize. He currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
The PSA and the media
Global Voices: To what extent has the media influenced public attitudes toward the PSA (although the spot is available for viewing online) by characterising it as “pro-gay” rather than “pro-tolerance”?
Annie Paul (AP): It’s been on YouTube so the digitally connected have seen it for the most part. There’s such an anti-gay sentiment generally that I don’t think the media would need to do much to further prejudice public opinion.
Kei Miller (KM): I have to confess I can’t speak with any absolute conviction about what happened in Jamaica and how it happened since I’ve actually been in Scotland while this whole thing has been played out. Strangely enough, Scotland is where Matthew (who is at the centre of this controversial ad) lives, and I’ve invited him to dinner to hear his side, but we haven’t met yet. To speak quite frankly, the Observer recently hasn’t seemed to me to be most responsible paper and this kind of sloppy journalism that isn’t interested in nuance but in the most controversial headlines that might stir up trouble and attract a wider and more incensed readership is typical. But in all fairness, I also can’t imagine that subtlety would matter much in Jamaica – ‘pro-gay’ rather than ‘pro-tolerance’. You see, once it got out that there was an ad addressing the topic of homosexuality, and that the ad was not hitting out against it, it was going to be characterized as a pro-gay ad. That seems to me an inevitability.
GV: I understand that one of the dailies has published a pro-gay-rights editorial. Do you think that some segments of the Jamaican media are more progressive on this topic than others?
AP: Oh yes! It’s not a universal response by any means. Nationwide Radio stayed on the subject for two or three days playing the audio from the PSA and trying to find out what the objections were. Dionne Jackson-Miller who works for RJR also focused on it though her own station didn’t allow her to play any part of the PSA. On Double Standards, which is a Newstalk 93 radio programme hosted by Yvette Rowe and myself, we’ve recorded an edition which will air next month where we discussed reactions to the PSA with the executive director of JFLAG for an hour. Interestingly he told us that one of the two main TV stations, CVM, had told JFLAG that they wouldn’t be averse to playing it if TVJ agree to air it.
KM: Yes I do think so. The Gleaner at least seems to me to invite a more open discussion on the topic. Their editorials, their columnists and some of the letters to the editor that have been published have really dared to challenge Jamaica’s homophobia. Other newspapers (including the Gleaner’s own sister paper, The Star!) seem interested in titillation more than discussion. Sometimes this easy urge to stir up controversy and outrage and hatred seems irresponsible to me. The topic of gayness is always a sure fire way to get Jamaicans talking without listening, and incensed.
GV: What do you gather is the principal reason for the stations’ refusal to air the ad? Are broadcasters afraid of retaliation somehow, either unlawful (homophobes who may take extreme action) or “lawful” (the government or corporate Jamaica pulling advertising or viewers boycotting the station)?
AP: Kay Osborne, head of TVJ, indicated in a Sunday Observer article that the reason behind TVJ's decision not to broadcast the PSA was that “the culture of “good, moral and ethical Jamaicans, does not support homosexuality at this time.” At the same time she called on Jamaicans to be more open to dialogue on such matters which seemed more than a little contradictory. But yes, it seems to be an irrational fear of advertising dollars being pulled and the generally risk-averse nature of the media here.
KM: Cowardice. Ms Osbourne’s comment seemed to me a strange attempt to have her cake and eat it – condemning the discrimination of the Jamaican public while affirming the station’s position to play into that discrimination.
GV: You see this stance by the Jamaican media as just another example of their spinelessness. Can you elaborate?
AP: Yes, I do find Jamaican media too willing to ‘plead the fifth’ (to use an Americanism) rather than expose the truth in too many instances. This is especially true when dealing with those who have wealth – and hence power – in this society. I’m dismayed at how quick Jamaican media are to use the admittedly Draconian libel laws here to gag themselves, in the same way that they were only too willing to use the excuse of the buggery laws to keep from airing what is clearly an unpopular message.
Look at how long the media refrained from naming the suspect in the X6 killing recently, on the grounds that the police hadn’t released his name! In the UK the police didn’t release News of the World Editor Rebekah Brooks’s name when they arrested her, referring to her instead as a ‘44-year old female’. Did this prevent the media there from splashing her name all over their front pages? No! Because any media house worth its salt has the investigative capacity to uncover the truth and publish it without benefit of a PR announcement from the police.
But this would never have happened in Jamaica. Brooks’s identity would still have been shrouded in secrecy to this day had her arrest happened in Jamaica. On the other hand, those without power or money are treated outrageously—Dog Paw’s name and image were flashed all over the media with assertions that he had ordered various killings and the case hasn’t yet come to trial.
GV: It appears as if certain religious groups have been very outspoken about the issue. In the words of the Observer article, why would “the reactions of pastors” be considered such a significant part of public opinion and have such an impact upon whether or not to air the spot?
AP: Oh you don’t know Jamaica! This is a vociferously ‘Christian’ society with Churches of various denomination holding an inordinate amount of influence. On the other hand Pastors, Priests and Clerics railed and ranted about the nude weddings at Hedonism years ago and about the nude couple who make up the Emancipation Monument but didn’t gain much traction. Their protests were pretty much ignored and there was no significant fallout so it’s not clear why in this case their opinion seems to count for more.
KM: Pastor Reaction would be considered a significant part of public opinion because it really is. I’ve been writing about this recently in a more academic context, about how the public sphere in Jamaica is constructed. And religion is a huge part of that space. It would be a mistake to think of fundamentalist religious opinion as something separate from the public sphere and that only a small subsection of society buys into that discourse. But of course the public sphere is always a space for discussion and contestation and what we must object to is this feeling that some ideas can’t even be discussed, challenged or debated.
Diaspora blogger Kathy Stanley had a slightly different take:
Kathy Stanley (KS): It is incomprehensible to me why pastors, who are unfortunately very lacking in real knowledge about homosexuality, are held up as wise men to be consulted for their reactions. Sadly, they tout ridiculous beliefs that homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice.” And that if you accept gays then it means they will take over society. These views are almost laughable if it wasn't so deadly serious and if it didn't cause people to get killed. Homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice. That is a widely known fact. To say otherwise is to prove your ignorance in this issue. These types of backward and uninformed opinions are partly the reason that there is still so much serious misinformation and so much intolerance…unfortunately the pastors do have influence. As do the appalling musicians who tout anti-gay lyrics in their music. There is a systemic lack of information driving the intolerance.
The battle for equal rights
GV: Is it a losing battle to be fighting for equal rights for homosexuals in the Jamaican context, or do you think these are the opinions of the vocal few?
AP: It’s going to be a long, uphill struggle, JFLAG would be fooling itself if it thought otherwise but things ARE slowly changing. When we interviewed Dane Lewis, Executive Director of JFLAG, on Double Standards he acknowledged that 10 years ago radio stations wouldn’t even have agreed to air any discussion on the matter in the way that they have today. The Observer has devoted quite a lot of column space to these debates even carrying stories that highlight the plight of homeless homosexual men.
KM: No I don’t think it’s the vocal few at all. You know – sometimes you think things aren’t so bad in Jamaica. It matters where in the country you are – what circles you move in. If you are part of some university circles for instance it’s easy to think that Jamaica’s attitudes are changing and becoming more nuanced, but it takes a situation like this to remember what the overwhelming and prevailing feeling is, the lack of thought that is out there, and why there is still need for activism.
KS: I think that regardless of the battle, one must always stand up for human rights. Because that is what this fight is for. It's a human rights issue. We don't give up on other battles for human rights.
GV: It seems as if people are confusing homosexuality and buggery, homosexuality and paedophilia, homosexuality and criminality. Thoughts?
AP: Yes, that is routine here. The problem is that because of the buggery laws, anyone who is an acknowledged homosexual is viewed as a lawbreaker. And unfortunately, in most societies the rape of a young boy is considered far worse than the rape of a young girl—it’s a double standard. Then again, Jamaican society is quite tolerant of rampant criminality, so again, it's not clear why people here feel so strongly about consensual anal sex between adults—even if it’s a crime on the books—when they love Buju Banton, Jah Cure, Dudus and others who have been found guilty of or charged with far more serious crimes.
KS: Lack of knowledge is pervasive. Yes, they are confusing homosexuality with criminality. But Jamaica's buggery laws and government have not helped. The Prime Minister famously said that he would not have gay people in his government. How does he know who is gay and who is not? The Government of Jamaica and its own intolerance and unwillingness to deal with the antiquated and backward laws is part of the problem here.
GV: Annie said in this post that “the status and well-being of its homosexual citizens continues to evolve in a one step forward-two steps backward manner.” The issue of homosexuality in the Jamaican context is so interesting and complex: How does an organisation like J-FLAG advance? How do gay Jamaicans function within this oppressive and complicated structure?
KM: Oh I don’t know about J-FLAG and I would actually really like to meet some of the activists there to get a better sense of their history, and their past and present fights, and if they have a sense of moving forward or backward. Gay Jamaicans function within the society in the way that I imagine all oppressed groups function – by subterfuge, by inventing their own language, by finding those miraculous ways of being simultaneously visible and invisible, flamboyant and camouflaged, loud and silent. So sometimes you see it in the oddest of places – in the church choir, or in parts of folk culture like Jonkanoo, and you think how incredible.
AP: I actually think that Jamaica’s bark is far worse than its bite. IF you examine the actual number of people killed here JUST because they were gay or different, the numbers wouldn’t add up, especially in relation to the general murder rate. At the same time, it is unnerving to live with a dog that is constantly showing its teeth, growling and barking even if it only occasionally actually bites anyone.
For anyone interested in more nuanced readings of Jamaica’s much vaunted homophobia I recommend Kei Miller’s blog Under the Saltire Flag and posts such as Contradictory Instructions: Elephant Man’s 2001 hit ‘Log On’ or On Effeminacy.
I also highly recommend his latest book of poetry A Light Song of Light, and in particular, the prose poem A Smaller Song, which directly addresses the way gay Jamaicans not only get by here but also enjoy their lives.
There is also Fiyu Pikni, who runs the blog Gay Jamaicans United. He has written several illuminating pieces on the subject.
The role of social media
GV: Can Jamaica’s big problems (in this case, homophobia) really be solved without the media as a responsible partner? And what role does social media have to play?
AP: No, I don’t think without the media’s help we will make much headway. Jamaican TV stations’ reluctance to support what is indisputably a worthy cause makes a hard task that much more difficult. You don’t kowtow to iniquitous, outdated laws and inhumane customs in the name of some dubious public morality or local tradition–if changing a situation requires that you break an absurd law whose expiry date passed over a hundred years ago, then you follow the example of the legion of great women and men throughout history who have shown us how to do that–Rosa Parks; Marcus Garvey; Mahatma Gandhi; Nelson Mandela to name merely a handful–they all went against the culture of their times, and rebelled against what was considered “good, moral and ethical” in systems we consider unethical and inhumane today.
The funny thing is that many of the talking heads on TV and radio, in the print media even, ARE gay but they dare not admit it. I also don’t think anything can really change until powerful homosexuals take their courage in their hands and step out of the closet. Right now, it is poor young homosexuals who refuse to remain covert who are subjected to abuse. That’s not fair.
Social media provides excellent opportunities for launching educational campaigns and clever advertorials, but I’m not sure these are being fully utilized.
KS: I think social media does have a vital role to play. The comments I have seen on Twitter have all been disparaging towards TVJ for not airing the ad and have been supportive of gay people. Citizen journalism is very important here and moves the culture and public opinion forward even while the mainstream media fails. We see this in issues of human rights across the globe.
GV: Something that’s striking is the idea, explicit or implied, that “outsiders” don't have the right to express an opinion or take any action when it comes to homophobia in Jamaica. It often gets compared to neocolonialism. What’s your take on this?
AP: Well, I do think that some outsiders have been insensitive to the realities on the ground here and insufficiently attentive to the particularities of Jamaica. There is a tendency to self-righteousness, and an arrogant assumption that they know the right way in the same way that missionaries two hundred years ago felt so certain about their ‘rescue missions’ in relation to various so-called ‘heathen’ populations. Kei captured the problem superbly on his blog recently.
KM: I have a complicated take on this. I mostly agree with ‘outsider’s’ take on it, but I don’t generally find it helpful. I’ve written about this before, and it’s about attitude. I think too often the attitude of outsiders comes across as a kind of self-righteousness – as a validation of their own morality and I guess the savagery or backwardness of Jamaicans. And when Jamaicans pick up on that contempt we react in a really unfortunate way. We affirm our right to homophobia and so I think it ends up fortifying our hatred rather than challenging it in a helpful way.
KS: Sometimes it takes a light being shone on an issue from the outside for some change to come. Was it neocolonialism when the Allies took it upon themselves to rescue Jews and Europe from Nazism? Is it neocolonialism for Western writers and human rights organizations to speak out and advocate on behalf of prisoners of torture, Chinese dissidents, Tibetan people who are occupied? Was it neocolonialism when the West spoke out against apartheid in South Africa? Is it neocolonialism for human rights advocates to be speaking out against corporations like Shell who are large polluters in Africa? All around the world, people speak out for others who are disadvantaged, disenfranchised and persecuted. We are all human beings and our hearts open to those who are suffering. Jamaicans can take all the time they want, debating it and fussing about what to do or what not to do, but the world has left them on this issue. It is a human rights issue. As a Jamaican and someone who lost a dear family member due to this hatred and intolerance, I am proud of JFLAG and other Jamaicans who are taking a stand.
Race and class
GV: Finally, when it comes to the ad itself, do you think the ethnicity of the Straws (mixed race but clearly light-skinned) has anything to do with the way people have reacted, given the line of rhetoric in some parts of the Caribbean that portrays homosexuality as a “foreign” thing or a perversion of the upper classes?
AP: Of course that is also playing into all this. But matters of race and colour are taboo in the Jamaican public sphere so no one has so much as mentioned it, but of course in private these must be bones of contention as well.
In relation to the view that there has been an ‘invasion’ of the Jamaican body politic by ‘foreign’ interests, there is a way in which the ravages of globalization are mapped onto the body of the homosexual. There is much talk of ‘the gay agenda’ that supposedly underlies initiatives such as the PSA we’re discussing. This comes from the fact that relations with the ‘developed world’, on whom countries such as Jamaica depend for aid and other kinds of assistance, are now contingent on accepting a hegemonic human rights discourse that is viewed as being antithetical to Jamaican culture. The cultural changes that forces of globalization engender sometimes provoke intense resentment and anxiety, and ironically are perhaps perceived as a violation as traumatic as being buggered–I don’t know, this is just a theory—maybe this is why the unfortunate connection is made to male homosexuality? I don’t know, I do know that until that reflex association with the evils of globalization is broken it will be hard for homosexuals in Jamaica to find this a hospitable place to be. This is why this is a battle that has to be fought here–on home ground–by Jamaicans, for Jamaicans, without any overt external pressures or interference.