Almost a year to the day that David Kato, the Ugandan human rights activist, was murdered in his home because of his sexuality, I am flying from Toronto to London to accept the inaugural the David Kato Voice and Vision Award, which recognises individuals who uphold the human rights and dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people around the world. I should have been flying from Jamaica my country of birth and, until very recently, my home. After the ceremony I should be returning there to celebrate with fellow activists.
But this time there’s no going home. In August last year I married Tom, a former police officer and a pastor in the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. Media reports of my marriage, in Jamaica, have led to an increase in the threats against my life and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has written to the Jamaican government for the second time in a year inquiring what measures it will take to guarantee my safety. So far, the government has failed to respond.
Threats are nothing new for me. It’s only the intensity that’s changed. I’m a lawyer and activist in Jamaica, which has the distinction of being regarded as one of the most violently homophobic countries in the world. In a recent survey 82% of Jamaican people said they were prejudiced against gay people. Vigilante attacks against gay men are common – at least 35 people have been murdered because of their sexuality since 1997. Last year, two men were hacked to death because they were gay. The latest victim was a 16-year-old youth chopped to death in his home by early morning invaders because of his "questionable relations" with another man.
Former prime minister Bruce Golding set a tone of impunity for those prepared to use violence against gay people in Jamaica: during a BBC Hardtalk interview in 2008 he said that he would not allow gay people to be a part of his cabinet. According to the law, consensual sex between two men in Jamaica will get you 10 years of imprisonment and hard labour. Any "act of gross indecency" – kissing for instance – will get you two years.
The law is rarely enforced. More often, police use it for extortion. But the fact such a law exists inflames the vigilante groups. Even the police officer who recorded my first death-threat report ranted at me that he "hates gays, who deserve to die". In the past year, I have received three death threats for speaking out against the country’s ferocious homophobia.
The threats to my life are a personal tragedy, but sadly not an uncommon one. Discrimination, stigma and abuse are the daily reality for millions of gay people. And now the battle has become entangled with the politics of aid.
Recently the Commonwealth faced up to its human rights record – particularly the criminalisation of homosexuality. David Cameron made it clear that states refusing to decriminalise homosexuality risk losing British aid. Ironically, however, he failed to acknowledge or apologise for Britain’s role in imposing the anti-sodomy law on its former colonies, while his emphasis on homosexuality is inadvertently discriminatory as it ignores other egregious human rights violations being perpetuated in these countries.
His intentions might have been well meaning but they are also counterproductive: trying to force people to change their attitudes and cultural beliefs can play into the hands of repressive regimes – by portraying sexual rights as an imposition of "western colonialism". It allows them to mask broader issues of human rights, governance and corruption. Some countries use the issues of homosexuality to hide their own failures and show how donor communities are promulgating "gay lifestyles".
Instead, aid should be linked to good governance. Countries need to meet their wider human rights obligation by observing the indivisibility of rights. As Hillary Clinton said at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva: "Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct, but in fact they are one and the same." (The US, however, has not done enough to curtail its own export of homophobia to countries such as mine by American evangelical Christian groups.)
For two years, I have collected the reports of victims as a legal adviser for international advocacy organisation Aids-Free World. Now I’m taking them to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, since the Jamaican Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms protects the laws against "sexual offences" from constitutional review.
The culmination of the work the charity and our Jamaican partners have been doing over the past two years is an unprecedented legal challenge to the Jamaican anti-sodomy law. If successful, it could be the beginning of the end of the criminalisation of homosexuals in Jamaica, and undoubtedly have a knock-on effect throughout the Caribbean. However, the Jamaican government could make the commission petition redundant by simply repealing the anti-sodomy law.
The new Jamaican prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, has indicated that she would have no objections to selecting a gay person for her cabinet. She also promised to call for a parliamentary conscience vote on the law. Let’s hope she does so soon.
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