Jamaica Needs a Pro-Poor LGBT Rights Movement

Jamaica JFLAG

The Jamaican LGBT (rights) movement has myopically focused most of its attention and resources on “the buggery law” and the impact this archaic piece of legislation has had on discrimination and violence experienced by (cis)men who are or perceived to be gay. 

I started working at J-FLAG in October 2010, just after finishing my MSc. in Social Development & Communication and having conducted research around homophobia, gay rights activism and how new media can be used to amplify the work that was being done and engender greater respect for the rights of LGBT people in Jamaica. 

My vision was to build a movement that appreciated the symbiotic relationship between human rights and development. I wanted use my influence and expertise to help build the organisation’s social and political capital and implement a project towards mainstreaming LGBT issues in public policies and programmes outside of HIV. 

I was surprised to learn, in my first year, about the tremendous support J-FLAG was expected to provide to members of the community to help them get back on their feet and live their fullest potential. It was a need J-FLAG was and still is unable to fulfill given the limited resources available and the fact that funding in countries like Jamaica is typically for HIV. 

Consequently, organizations like J-FLAG and JASL, despite their long history working with the community will always be constrained in what they can do. The situation is even more difficult because donors tend to be very strict about how their money is spent and have a limited range of activities/initiatives they think are critical to improving the situation and will fund. 

Sadly, despite the obvious needs of many persons in the community, not much has been done to address their socio-economic realities and vulnerabilities, including how homophobia and transphobia cause or exacerbate such circumstances among the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community. 

Up to the establishment of WE-Change, TransWave and Quality of Citizenship Jamaica, there has also not been much focus on issues related to women who are transgender, lesbian, or bisexual and men who are transgender or bisexual (we often forget these men). Therefore, even when there were socio-economic related conversations, they tended to be about (cis)gay men. 

The situation is most daunting. Seven years later, I still do not know/have the formula to address the plethora of challenges faced by the community. What I know for sure is that for LGBT people in Jamaica to be fully liberated, we must not ignore their economic, social and cultural rights. A focus on “the buggery law” alone is terribly inadequate.  

We have tried a bunch a different things, including expanding the government and non-government entities we foster relationships with. Last year, we reviewed the National Policy on Poverty Green Paper and the Social Protection Strategy to analyze whether LGBT and other human rights issues are considered as vulnerabilities and make recommendations in this regard. In meetings with parliamentarians, we highlight the socio-economic realities and encourage them to work around improving the support the government can provide to persons. We have done initial work around increasing the minimum wage and addressing the rampant abuse of rights of Jamaicans who are low-income earners. We trained Youth Empowerment Officers and youth leaders across the island to understand the challenges faced by LGBT people so they can provide the needed support. Importantly, we have also been working with shelters to see if they can help LGBT people who become displaced or are homeless and making referrals to agencies that might be able to provide further assistance, including access to jobs, where possible. Lastly, in addition to participating in the National Committee on Homelessness, we have time and time again called on the government to improve its response/programme to support people who are homeless and displaced. 

I know J-FLAG is perceived by many to be an uptown and elitist organisation. Truthfully, the vast majority of “uptown gays” are not particularly interested in the work the organisation does and they certainly do not get direct assistance to address any immediate needs they may have. 

I am acutely aware that staff is believed to be uptown and far removed from the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that are pervasive across the island and make so many fearful. This is also far from the truth. Everyone comes from diverse backgrounds – country, ghetto, poverty, etc, which have had a significant impact on their life. 

We are, however, not daunted by these experiences and are committed to using our resilience, courage and triumphs to work tirelessly to make life better for everyone, especially those who are poor and vulnerable in the community. We want an advocacy agenda that is pro-poor, a movement where advocates and activists fiercely stand up and speak out about the needs of those who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the community. 

Sustainable Growth Impossible Without A Focus on Human Rights

EGCX2-640x425The Holness-administration’s focus on economic growth over the last two years is commendable.We have all been hankering for prosperity so it is encouraging to see all these economic related projects being implemented. However, while I applaud the government for their stick-to-itiveness, I remain deeply concerned about the dearth of attention to human rights and social justice.

I hope the same kind of leadership and decisiveness can be demonstrated by the government this year to fulfill their human rights obligations. We cannot afford to continue ignoring the critical role the protection and promotion of rights play in ensuring there is economic growth and development and that all Jamaicans benefit.

It is therefore rather sad that neither government nor civil society seem to understand (or care about?) the symbiotic relationship between the two. Consequently, government myopically focuses attention and investments largely on their thrust to improve the economy while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) advocate for people’s enjoyment of their rights. Seldom is there a discussion about the two and how we can address the rampant abuse of rights and limited access to redress that are characteristic of life here in Jamaica to the benefit of our development goals. 

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) tells us “human development is essential for human rights, and human rights are essential for human development.” The government must therefore consider the implications of inaction around human rights if it intends to take us from poverty to prosperity and ensure the full and wholesome development of each individual towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well becoming a developed country as articulated in Vision 2030.

If the state fails to address the plethora of challenges around securing economic rights by ensuring people are paid livable and fair wages, for example, some families will never be able to take care of their basic needs for clothing, food, shelter as well as their health and education expenses. These persons will undoubtedly have to depend on the state for support through a number of state funded welfare and assistance programmes. If the state fails to address inequality, women will continue to be denied opportunities and paid $0.40 less than men, people from low income communities will continue to be subjected to limited job opportunities, and children from poor communities will continue to have poor educational outcomes. If we fail to protect the right to life, then our hospitals will continue to spend millions of dollars each year to care for victims of violence which they could use to invest in communities.

These and other human rights challenges all have an impact on our economy. If we were able to control crime and violence, for example, the country would grow by 5%, according to news reports. 


On Friday, October 7, 2011, in a commentary entitled Will Holness Be A Pro-Rights Prime Minister? which was published in the Jamaica Gleaner, I suggested that Jamaica is “most desperately in need of a prime minister who will be pro-rights.” I made the suggestion on the heels of Holness’ endorsement as the successor to Hon. Bruce Golding who was stepping down as Prime Minister (at the time). A pro-rights leader is critical because Jamaicans need someone in parliament who will “take bold steps in ensuring that the human rights of all Jamaicans, including the most vulnerable and marginalised persons, will be protected and widely promoted” without any distinction whatsoever. The rampant breaches of rights that we hear about and witness every day, including those being perpetrated against low income workers, such as household workers and security guards, must not continue unabated.

Several years later, Holness has an opportunity, his own mandate, to stand up more boldly for rights. This is an opportunity that he must not squander. He should help engender greater appreciation for respect for rights and embark on a human rights project that will fully protect the vulnerable, marginalized and voiceless in this country. 

If there is to be economic growth and development, it has to be inclusive and the protection, promotion and enjoyment of rights must be seen a critical to such efforts. The Planning Institute of Jamaica which has responsibility for Vision 2030 must be mandated to play a more active role in this regard. Perhaps this is an initiative the Partnership for Prosperity which is chaired by the Prime Minister can take on as a project. I commit to lend my support and time to any such project that will promote inclusive growth and development.

Photos taken from Jamaica Information Service (JIS)

It’s Time to Assist Street Youth

(c) Jamaica Observer

It’s rather worrying that whenever we talk about the young men working at the stop lights, it almost always is about “getting rid” of them through some kind of police intervention.

Seldom do we interrogate the circumstances that might have led to them taking up this kind of occupation. Have you ever considered what kind of social interventions could be implemented to improve their situation and control what seems to be the growing number of young men hustling at traffic lights across the country?

I am concerned about our tendency to hastily suggest the application of punitive measures to resolve the kind of issues that have come about because of our collective gross negligence as a people. I believe it is quite obvious that the negligence of parents and families to take care of and act in the best interest of children has contributed significantly to this issue.

The negligence of the State to provide care and places of safety for children who do not have a home and its incompetence to actually tackle poverty and other issues that specifically affected individuals living in poor communities has played an integral in this situation.


Earlier this week, I saw on Twitter that among the proposed new powers to be given to the police, per the June 13, 2017 version of the Police Service Act (Draft), is the “power to arrest without warrant with respect to aggressive begging, aggressive vending, loitering, and intimidation of individuals (to assist in curbing street crimes such as loader men at transport centres, windshield wipers, etc).”

I am aware that some of them are rude, aggressive, and even violent. I am aware that men and women have different experiences. I agree that something must be done, but our suggestions and efforts cannot be resigned in a punitive approach. Some of these young men grew up with us on the streets. They are evidence of successive governments’ failure to facilitate meaningful development for our fellow citizens, especially for those living in poor communities across the country.

Note, I am not saying they should not be held accountable for their actions, though it is rather uncanny that this group has been so named in a proposed legislation that speaks to the formulation of the police force when the police already have such powers to arrest people.

I have seen individuals bemoan that getting rid of them is the best strategy as efforts to assist them in the past have failed miserably. Apparently, the thing to do in this case is not to try again to see what lessons one would have learned from previous interventions. Instead, they should be removed.

Merely enrolling them into training programmes, especially if they do not align with their interests, dreams and aspirations (yes, they have those too like you and I!), robs them of their daily income and, if not linked directly to gainful employment, is quite frankly abusive and not helping.


A critical component to addressing this issue is the fact that it is often more profitable to work outside the formal sector and be your own boss. The many stories of workers, especially those earning low wages, which these young men are more than likely to, being abused routinely by their supervisors do very little to encourage people.

On top of this kind of abuse, they are paid low wages – denied overtime sometimes, forced to work in poor conditions and without the appropriate gear and tools, and have no job security. In these instances, they are sometimes unable to do anything about the situation and are forced to accept their subjugated positions because securing justice is expensive and an unrealistic ambition.

We must appreciate that any kind of ‘opportunity’ dangled at these youths will not solve the problem they face and motorists face. Training alone, no matter how exciting, will not help.

There are enough examples about how poorly designed initiatives to assist different groups of young people fail that we can learn from. It requires a multifaceted strategy that incorporates psycho-social initiatives as well to address the history of abuse they might have been exposed to or experienced in their home, in their community, on the streets and in other spaces. You will need to work on their trust issues and the way they know how best to survive.

It’s time we start paying attention to these critical issues and treat with them with alacrity early rather than allow them to fester. We absolutely cannot forget our humanity in dealing with these issues. Let’s end our insatiable desire to always be punitive in these circumstances and encourage the development of interventions that are thoroughly designed in collaboration with those who are to be assisted.

Published in the Jamaica Gleaner on December 17, 2017: https://goo.gl/J6Gsfg