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)