I would like to start off with a number of humble thank-yous. Thank you all for the tremendous honour bestowed on me this evening. Thank you to the International Planned Parenthood Federation for the vision in establishing and creating this Award. (Thank you Kevin for planting the seed a little over a year ago to the day!) To all on the Steering Committee (and to Frank its chairperson) and supporters who helped give a tangible shape to that vision. To all the fabulous people who worked tirelessly to organize this equally fabulous event—thanks in particular to Alastair, Daniel, Fiona, and the resource mobilization team at IPPF—you have all done David’s memory proud.
I would also like to thank my organization, AIDS-Free World, for allowing me to do the job that I love; Metropolitan Community Churches, in Toronto and around the world, for innumerable expressions of concern about my safety; my dear husband Tom for his nervous caution about my well-being; all the brave lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jamaica, the Caribbean, and around the world who remain unbowed in their determination to realize their full human rights; my still divided family for at least remaining open to me; my students for being curious about tolerance; and my country Jamaica for allowing a remarkable dialogue to take place about the very sensitive issue of human rights for homosexuals.
Pioneer and pariah are just two of the epithets I am sure that have been used to describe David Kato, because of his unwavering commitment to advocating for the full human rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. However, I prefer to think David desperately fought, and ultimately gave his life, simply to make it easier for people like him, to go about our regular mundane lives contributing to the development of our families, countries, regions and the world. David sought to do this in his quiet unassuming way; focusing on documenting, educating about and responding to human rights abuses against LGBT in his beautiful country of Uganda. I try to do the same thing in my equally wonderful homeland Jamaica, which this year is celebrating its 50th year of independence. I think what motivated David was a deep and abiding faith in the goodness of all humankind, especially his fellow countrymen. I am sure he felt that if his people only knew what tremendous harm intolerance and homophobia were causing to countless of their fellow citizens—including the spread of HIV as a result of vulnerable groups being forced underground away from effective prevention, treatment, care and support interventions—then all Ugandans would, in one voice, call for an end to such acts of cruel inhumanity. That is why he vigorously opposed the draconian and despicably medieval anti-homosexuality bill which was before the Ugandan parliament. And that is quite possibly why he was so savagely murdered.
Jamaica has been described as the most homophobic place on earth; one Ugandan commented that David’s murder reminded him of the type of homophobic attacks usually reported from Jamaica. One such attack was the brutal and barbaric slaying on October 18, 2011 of a 16-year-old youth, Oshane Gordon in the resort city of Montego Bay. Early in the morning, a gang of thugs barged into Oshane’s home and slashed him on his foot to slow his escape as he tried to flee through a window. When they caught up with Oshane, the men finished him off with several more blows from their machetes. Oshane was killed because of “questionable relations” with another man and his mother was also severely cut up for harbouring him.
Since 2009, AIDS-Free World has been engaged in an ambitious and aggressive programme in partnership with the major LGBT group on the island, J-FLAG, aimed at documenting human rights abuses against homosexual Jamaicans. We were motivated to undertake this work by the vastly disproportionate level of HIV prevalence among Jamaican MSM (about 32%) as against a prevalence rate of 1.6% in the general population. This MSM HIV prevalence rate is about the highest in the world and there is evidence that the country’s notorious homophobia is a major contributor. Between 2009 and 2011 there has been a near 300% increase in the number of human rights violations against LGBT reported to J-FLAG, and highlighting these abuses has resulted in very supportive statements for the human rights of LGBT by Jamaican leaders of all stripes. Most noteworthy was a declaration during the December 2011 election leadership debate by Jamaica’s new Prime Minister, the Honourable Portia Simpson-Miller, that she rejected the homophobia of her predecessor, Bruce Golding, and would have no objections to appointing gays to her cabinet. She also stated that she would bring the matter of reviewing the country’s nineteenth century British colonial anti-sodomy law to a conscience vote in Parliament. While she was viciously attacked for her leadership on this contentious issue during the election campaign, she bravely stood her ground and the Jamaican electorate rewarded her and her party with a 2/3 majority in Parliament.
I see Prime Minister Simpson-Miller’s views as representing what I and my dear mother consider the true Jamaican “One Love” culture. As my mother tells it, during her youth, everyone knew at least one person in the village who was gay, but no one cared. People respected the privacy of others and the anti-sodomy law was rarely, if ever, invoked. There certainly were no marauding mobs seeking to eradicate gays from the society. However, all this changed during the 1980’s and 90’s when there was a coarsening of Jamaican society through a deliberate export of hate and intolerance to Jamaica by, ironically, American televangelists. These preachers spawned sick replicas of themselves in the form of local religious leaders who poured a steady stream of poisoning homophobia into the ears of their congregants on an almost weekly basis. Many of their parishioners and choristers consisted of young impressionable individuals who would later go on to record some of the most hateful homophobic songs on earth. These songs (over 200 of them at last count) contributed to a vortex of hate that swirled unchecked for many years and resulted in numerous assaults, mob attacks, extortion, and murder of Jamaican LGBT.
The previously unused law then became a fixture, and police—who are after all products of their society—started to extort, attack, or ignore attacks on gays who were perceived as unapprehended criminals. Despite the obvious harm caused by the existence of the anti-sodomy law, our independence constitution exempted it from judicial review. Last year, Jamaica completed a 12-year process of reviewing the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, but, sadly, the anti-sodomy law was once again “saved” from review by any domestic courts. So in August 2011, AIDS-Free World, on behalf of two gay Jamaicans, filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the grounds that the anti-buggery violates numerous human rights found in the American Convention on Human Rights to which Jamaica is a party. I hope the new Jamaican PM will make this legal challenge redundant by simply calling for the conscience vote as she has promised.
A repeal of the law will not result in an immediate end to homophobia in Jamaica, in the same way homophobia still persists in the UK decades after the law was consigned to history. Sadly, evangelical Christian groups from North America are still funding and supporting a vicious fight to deny the human rights of Jamaican LGBT. However, one thing the law’s repeal will do is provide gay Jamaicans leverage when they seek assistance from police in the face of attack. When I first started receiving death threats as a result of my advocacy, I made an initial report to the police. The officer who received my report went off on a homophobic tirade stating, among other things, that he hates gays and that they make him sick. As a lawyer, I sat there stunned at the level of sheer unprofessionalism displayed by this agent of law enforcement. I later reported the matter to an Assistant Commissioner of Police (who was recruited from Britain and is financially supported by the UK) and he told me that such attitudes are unfortunate but they will not change until the law changes. The fact is, the anti-buggery law makes me—at least to Jamaican police—an unapprehended criminal with few, if any, human rights.
I fled Jamaica on January 10, 2011 after my marriage to Tom was made public when the Jamaica Observer newspaper (which is owned by Butch Stewart of “Sandals” Resort fame) published an unauthorized photo of our wedding on their website. Even though I requested that the newspaper remove the picture because of the real threats it posed to my safety, they have refused. Since then I have started receiving a steady stream of death threats. I would like to return to Jamaica to continue teaching law at the University of Technology, Jamaica, as well as assist J-FLAG with their documentation and reporting of LGBT human rights violations, but I simply do not feel that the Jamaican police force would protect me. The Inter-American Commission has written to them twice on my behalf and they have failed to respond. So I may have to continue my work in exile, away from my mother, students, and my home. But I hope one day this vortex of hate will end, and I can once again return to the warmth of my amazing country, to teach my inspiring students, and be able to sit and chat with my mother after a wonderful bowl of her fabulous “Saturday soup.”
Until then, Mr. Chair, I promise, in David Kato’s name, that I will never abandon my role in the struggle for the full human rights of LGBT until those rights are universally achieved.