When I met with Jamaica’s new public defender Arlene Harrison-Henry to talk about LGBT human rights, I wasn’t expecting to discuss the experience of young black men in America. This is global human rights advocacy in the post-Ferguson era, when the stories and images of police mistreatment and an ever-rising prison population are known throughout the world. I was reminded yet again that human rights abuses at home hamper the U.S. government’s ability to promote them abroad.
Harrison-Henry spoke with the authority of a lawyer who has spent decades defending human rights — but with the frankness of a close friend. Once we acknowledged that both of our countries have flawed records on human rights both historically and today, we could move forward on equal footing to discuss how the United States and President Obama, during his visit, can help promote the human rights of LGBT Jamaicans.
Yes, consensus on LGBT human rights is far from secure in the United States. The current struggle over “religious freedom” laws is just one example of the conflicts that remain. But homophobic attitudes in the United States are declining and nationwide marriage equality looks inevitable. LGBT Jamaicans, by contrast, struggle for recognition at the most basic level. They face violence and discrimination on a regular basis. While the state hardly recognizes — let alone documents — hate crimes, J-FLAG, a Jamaican human rights organization, recorded 231 reports of discrimination and violence based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation between 2009 and 2012. Assailants motivated by hatred have beaten, raped, and killed LGBT Jamaicans.
Official homophobia in Jamaica is a product of British colonial rule. Article 76 of the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1864 — known as the “buggery” statute — calls for sentences of up to 10 years in prison for the “abominable crime of buggery.” A Jamaican lawyer told us this law emboldens those who would abuse LGBT people, and the security forces typically neglect cases of violence against LGBT people and sometimes commit such violence themselves. These laws and the attitudes that go along with them are sadly often reinforced by U.S. evangelicals, who are increasingly taking the culture wars overseas.
In addition to violence, LGBT Jamaicans face discrimination in housing and health care. Many LGBT youth are rejected by their families and end up homeless. LGBT people are often mistreated in health care centers based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation, making them reluctant to seek essential treatment, including for HIV. Services for transgender people are virtually nonexistent.
Although LGBT Jamaicans face threats on various fronts — and although polls show homophobia is pervasive among Jamaicans — I came away from our trip hopeful thanks to the tireless activists fighting back. Civil society groups have worked to help train police on the rights of LGBT Jamaicans. Activists work with scarce resources to provide for homeless LGBT people. And civil society groups are confronting the dehumanization and invisibility LGBT people experience through media campaigns that depict LGBT individuals in a positive light.
Yet these activists can do only so much without the government, which is ultimately responsible for making sure that the police protect LGBT people. Activists told us that while there are a few key allies within the state, including Harrison-Henry, the overwhelming response of government officials to the threats on LGBT people is silence.
That’s where President Obama can make a big difference during his visit this week. He is the first American president to visit Jamaica since Ronald Reagan, and is immensely popular there. Obama has made upholding the human rights of LGBT people a pillar of his foreign policy and a key legacy issue.
Despite the human rights problems that persist in the United States, we still have an opportunity and a responsibility to push for advances abroad. What it requires is humility and the spirit of partnership Harrison-Henry and I forged during our meeting. And that’s the demeanor with which Obama should approach the human rights conditions in Jamaica.
Obama should put productive pressure on government officials — and underscore the vital role of civil society in the global equality movement — by meeting with LGBT activists. President Obama should also stand up for the rights of LGBT people in his meetings with government leaders.
“Every mickle mek a mockle” is a Jamaican proverb roughly equivalent to “every little bit counts.” An activist used it to describe the varied contributions of civil society to the struggle for the full realization of the rights of LGBT people in Jamaica. Obama’s actions during his visit have the power to contribute to meaningful strides toward full equality in Jamaica.
SHAWN M. GAYLORD is advocacy counsel at Human Rights First, leading its initiative to combat violence against LGBTI people globally. Gaylord previously served as the deputy director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League and as an associate at Harmon, Curran, Spielberg, and Eisenberg LLP. In addition, he has worked extensively on the intersection of LGBT rights and human rights as a staff member and volunteer for Amnesty International’s OUTFront Program.