Against a backdrop of LGBT youth literally living in storm drains and a gay man stoned to death in the street, President Obama used his trip to Jamaica this week to hail the example of a young lesbian activist.
While in Kingston at the University of the West Indies for a town hall with young people, Obama used his opening remarks to praise two people who he said are "an example of what is possible, even in the most difficult of circumstances." One of those people is Angeline Jackson, executive director for Quality of Citizenship Jamaica.
Obama found Jackson in the audience, then shared her story this way:
"Several years ago, when Angeline was 19, she and a friend were kidnapped, held at gunpoint and sexually assaulted. And as a woman, and as a lesbian, justice and society were not always on her side. But instead of remaining silent, she chose to speak out and started her own organization to advocate for women like her, and get them treatment and get them justice, and push back against stereotypes, and give them some sense of their own power. And she became a global activist. But more than anything, she cares about her Jamaica, and making it a place where everybody, no matter their color, or their class, or their sexual orientation, can live in equality and opportunity. That’s the power of one person, what they can do."
Activists has hoped Obama would not ignore rampant abuse of LGBT people while visiting Jamaica, saying “Every mickle mek a mockle” — a Jamaican proverb that translates approximately to “every little bit counts.”
In an Advocate op-ed timed with the president's arrival in Jamaica earlier this week, Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First called on Obama to use his immense popularity in the country, saying his "actions during his visit have the power to contribute to meaningful strides toward full equality in Jamaica."
The island nation is a regular source for tragic stories of antigay violence. In March, a YouTube video appeared to show the public execution of a young man stoned in the street by a crowd chanting antigay slurs. Then there's the shocking but true story of the "Gully Queens," who are LGBT youth kicked out of their homes and living underground in the storm drainage system in Kingston.
Gay sex is illegal in Jamaica. And a man who had bravely tried to challenge the constitutionality of criminalization laws had reached the Supreme Court last year only to drop his case after violent threats made him afraid for his life and his family.
But Obama in his opening remarks focused on future generations who he said are open minded and will change life for Jamaicans.
"What gives me so much hope about your generation is that you’re more interested in the hard work of waging peace than resorting to the quick impulses of conflict," he told them. "You’re more interested in the hard work of building prosperity through entrepreneurship, not cronyism or corruption. You’re more eager for progress that comes not by holding down any segment of society, but by holding up the rights of every human being, regardless of what we look like, or how we pray, or who we love. You care less about the world as it has been, and more about the world as it should be and can be."
During a question and answer portion of the town hall, Obama was asked how the United States decides which tactic it will take in fighting human rights abuses. And though he didn't specifically call out LGBT oppression in his answer, it still offers insight into how Obama thinks about wielding his influence and that of the United States in making gains on social issues worldwide. Here's that exchange, according to a White House transcript:
Question: Good afternoon again, Mr. President. Especially as it relates to human rights and social change — I’m Jomain McKenzie and I’m a focal point with the Global Fund Board. As it relates to human rights and social change, how do you make the decision to allow societies to go through the natural evolutionary process of having change occur on their own versus having governments exert policies to make these same political social changes?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s a really interesting question. It’s an interesting question and it’s one that I have to struggle with all the time.
Every society, as I said, is at a different phase in development, in their own history; they have different cultural traditions. And so the way I think about it is, is that the United States has certain core values and principles that we believe deeply in. And we don’t necessarily expect that every country will formulate how to secure those ideals and those principles. We don’t expect it to be done exactly as we do any more than we expect every — obviously, our democracy is not the same as a Jamaican democracy or a British democracy or Australian democracy. But we believe in democracy. We think that if people have the ability to speak out about their own lives, some sense of agency, then that society will be stronger. And that doesn’t mean that we won’t work with a country that doesn’t precisely abide by those principles, but we will still speak out.
There are times where a country is clearly engaging in activities that are so egregious that it’s not culturally specific; it typically has to do with a government wanting to exert control over people and oppress them. And in those instances, I think it is entirely appropriate for us to speak out forcibly and, in some cases, to not do business with them.
Look at a country like North Korea. I mean, obviously, Korean culture is different than American culture. On the other hand, you look at what’s happening in South Korea and you look at what’s happening in North Korea and those are two entirely different societies. And I can tell you which one you’d rather live in.
And if you have a situation in which people are being murdered simply because they didn’t agree with the government on something or didn’t want their economic fate to be entirely determined by the whims of some government bureaucrat, and suddenly they’re sent to a labor camp — that’s something where we as an international community have to speak out on.
And then there are some issues that may be culturally specific, but you know what, I think they’re wrong. I won’t -- we’re not going to try to force that country to change, but I may try to shame that country. There are nations where slavery still exists. And that may be part of the ancient culture in that society, but slavery is wrong. And I’m not going to give them the excuse that, well, this is who we are.
In Africa — and I can speak I think fairly as somebody who is the son of an African father -- there are practices like female genital mutilation that may be part of the tradition there, but it’s wrong. And I’m going to say so. And it will be U.S. policy to say that it’s wrong.
So the tools we use to try to bring about change around the world may vary. And as I said earlier, we’re not always perfectly consistent. There are times where we’ve got allies who are not observing all the human rights we would like, and there are times where there are countries that are adversaries of ours where they do some things quite well. And you can’t expect us, or any country, to be perfectly consistent in every circumstance. But what I’ve tried to do is be fairly consistent in terms of what we believe, what we stand for, and then we use different tools depending on what we think will bring about the most change. In some cases, it will just be a diplomatic statement; in some cases, it may be serious enough that we will organize -- try to organize the United Nations or other multilateral forums to speak out against certain practices. In some cases, it may be so egregious that we need to sanction them, and we will try to organize the international community in that way.
And then finally, in the ultimate circumstance, where the violations of our values are so severe that they start spilling over and — in the instance of, for example, genocide -- we may be say to ourselves, in concert with the international community, we need to intervene because this government is so brutal and so unacceptable that we need to protect people. But we do that in the context of an international conversation so that we’re not simply making these decisions — or we’re not so arrogant that we’re not paying attention to what the rest of the world community is saying.