A ‘diplomatic tiff’ over same-sex marriage is downplayed, but differences on LGBTQ+ issues remain in the Jamaica-U.S. relationship

Image from a tweet from U.S. Ambassador N. Nickolas Perry and the U.S. Embassy, Kingston, supporting Jamaica’s LGBTQ+ community, used with permission.

In Jamaica, same-sex marriage is illegal, and likely to stay that way for some time.

LGBTQ+ issues have long been a vexed issue in Jamaica — and rarely discussed at an official level. Jamaica's Information Minister recently announced that LGBTQI+ rights and abortion will not be on the agenda during ongoing discussions on constitutional reform. While several Caribbean nations took positive steps towards recognition of the LGBTQ+ community in 2022, Jamaica was not among them.

The island’s archaic anti-sodomy laws remain on the books despite a 2020 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights calling for the repeal of the island's Offences Against the Persons Act. The Jamaican government has not yet responded to that report. Meanwhile, on March 31 this year, activist Maurice Tomlinson’s long-running efforts in a constitutional case challenging the anti-sodomy law were put on hold, pending a separate trial date that will determine whether the Supreme Court can adjudicate the matter. Four Christian groups are interested parties in the case.

Tomlinson, who is himself married to a same-sex partner, had also petitioned the American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2018, seeking a declaration that Jamaica’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage contravenes various articles of the American Convention of Human Rights. This was finally accepted for a decision by the IACHR, in November 2022. The American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San José, Costa Rica) was ratified by Jamaica in 1969. The issue was personal for Tomlinson, whose Canadian husband was denied the right to live and work in Jamaica when they wanted to visit his ailing parents there.

Tomlinson noted:

Despite the clear harms to Jamaican citizens the government had argued that the same-sex marriage ban is valid because the original framers of the American Convention did not contemplate same-sex marriage. However, the framers of the Convention deliberately left the classes of discrimination open since they wisely knew that as society progressed new forms of discrimination would be recognized, including against blacks, women, and other minorities.

Against this background, a radio news report emerged on July 17 regarding alleged diplomatic tension over a request for the granting of immunity for a same-sex spouse.

The report cited unnamed sources, including a “senior government official” who alleged that “the United States government wrote to the Jamaican government seeking its approval for the married partner of a diplomat about to be posted to Jamaica, to be given diplomatic immunity and all the privileges of a diplomat.” The request was initially ignored, the report says, and after the U.S. government repeated it, it was denied.

The media source also asserted that the U.S. government had retaliated by denying a request from the Jamaican government to extend the stay of three diplomats in Jamaica's embassy in Washington, D.C. and consulates in the United States after a five-year stay — including Jamaica's ambassador to the U.S., Audrey Marks, and its consul general in Florida, Oliver Mair.

Both the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica and Jamaica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade almost simultaneously denied the latter part of the report, pointing out that Jamaican diplomats normally rotate and have a five-year tenure, and stressing the good relations between the two countries. The U.S. Embassy posted on Twitter:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade also shared a statement through Minister of Information Robert Morgan on July 19 at a post-Cabinet press briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister:

Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith noted that Jamaica has always complied with procedures and set term limits for the tenures of its diplomats within the US:

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade has complied with these procedures and has, in fact, conducted its customary rotation exercise. Heads of Jamaican Missions in the United States whose tenure will come naturally to an end later this year, are already preparing for their transition.”

The Ministry tweeted its press release in full:

A well-known political commentator was not happy with what he saw as the media’s inaccurate coverage:

Radio talk show host Cliff Hughes commented on his morning show that he had determined that the U.S. had certainly made such a request and that Kingston had responded that it could not recognize same-sex marriage under its laws. However, he believed that there was no “row” and understood the U.S. and Jamaican governments are currently engaged in talks to find an amicable resolution of the matter. He had been told that the allegation of a retaliatory move by the U.S. in banishing Jamaican diplomats was untrue.

However, many Jamaican netizens were uncomfortable with the news, mostly focusing on the report that the U.S. government was allegedly withdrawing the Jamaican diplomats’ immunity and accusing it of “bully tactics”:

Comments often took a religious turn:

Others felt a compromise was possible:

Newspaper columnist and blogger Gordon Robinson took on the vocal religious Jamaicans:

He had his supporters (although most disagreed with him in responses to his tweet):

One lawyer pondered:

Meanwhile, representatives of the Jamaican diaspora in the U.S. have expressed concern, but expect the issue to be resolved satisfactorily. The New York-based president of Team Jamaica Bickle and Caribbean Immigrant Services Irwin Clare commented:

“They should be able to resolve this issue, regardless of moral or personal positions and it should not be a tit-for-tat situation…We live in a changing world and norms that are accepted in one country may not be acceptable in another, but the relationship built up over many years should not be harmed. It is readily fixable and we have the necessary skilled people to do so.”

Jamaica’s relations with the United States have been generally moving along smoothly under the current political administration. The current U.S. Ambassador was born and grew up in Jamaica. However, there are some issues that remain “sticky,” and LGBTQ+ rights is one of them. This may be a difficult one to untangle and find a compromise.

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