Governance & Development, Human Rights

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.