KINGSTON, Jamaica: Jamaica may sound so cool and fun-loving on a Harry Belafonte album, but Kingston town can be a dark horror story for non-straight people. Equal rights activists say that queer people are often the victims of violent sexual attacks as ‘punishment’ for not fitting social norms.
It is an attitude all too common on the island, where gay rights activists say homosexuals suffer pervasive discrimination and occasional attacks. They some LGBT people have even been the victims of brutal sexual assaults intended to force them into becoming heterosexual or punish them for not fitting societal norms.
Jamaica has long had a reputation for intolerance of male homosexuality. The influence of fundamentalist Christian groups, is strong in the island nation, with many on the island same sex relationships as a ‘moral perversion’ imported from abroad. But the stigma against Jamaican homosexual women and the underreported crime of targeted sexual assault of lesbians is receiving growing attention.
Last year, US Vice President Joe Biden mentioned Jamaica’s struggle with “corrective rape for lesbian women” while speaking about global gay rights. The phrase emerged years ago in South Africa where attacks targeting lesbians have occurred again and again in predominantly poor neighbourhoods.
Angeline Jackson is a leading lesbian voice in Jamaica. She directs Jamaica’s only registered organization for lesbians and bisexual women.
In 2009, Angeline and a friend were ambushed at gunpoint and sexually assaulted on a wooded trail outside the Jamaican capital. But the police initially seemed less concerned about the attack than the fact she is a lesbian.
“The first policewoman I spoke to told me I should leave this lifestyle and go back to church,” Jackson recalled of the 2009 attack, shaking her head in frustration.
The scope of the problem is impossible to gauge with accuracy in Jamaica. There’s no clear definition of what constitutes a hate crime and police do not specifically record threats or sexual attacks targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Activists say Jamaican homosexuals targeted because of their sexual orientation prefer not to formally report attacks or threats, fearful of being stigmatized or blamed. Human Rights Watch last year reported it knew of 10 cases of sexual assault in Jamaica targeting eight lesbians, one transgender woman and one gay man, including cases of rape at knife or gunpoint.
“It is clear from victims’ testimonies that anti-LGBT animus is a factor,” said Graeme Reid, LGBT program director for HRW in New York.
Even when attacks are reported, prosecution is difficult in Jamaica’s inefficient, overwhelmed criminal justice system. The main alleged assailant in Jackson’s case, in fact, was acquitted in 2011, though he previously was accused of a number of rapes and sexual assaults.
President Barack Obama singled out Jackson’s advocacy during his 24-hour visit to Jamaica, telling a crowd that she courageously chose to speak out even though “as a woman and as a lesbian, justice and society were not always on her side.”
With a population of less than 3 million, few incidents of sexual attacks are reported to LGBT activists. The island’s main gay rights group, J-FLAG, has documented several cases over the years and Jackson’s organization has heard of about a dozen.
Police Superintendent Enid Ross-Stewart, head of the island’s sex crimes unit, said investigators have never received a report of someone targeted because of their homosexuality and she believes that “all the people who are raped come forth.”
Angeline Jackson is gaining recognition for her work with her group, Quality of Citizenship Jamaica. But few women are willing to risk exposure.
In the city of Montego Bay, a lesbian told AP she wasn’t ready to pursue justice for a 2011 attack she described as a “corrective rape” by a friend’s brother.
He cornered her, she recalled, remembering his Jamaican patois: “You think me no know who you be? You go on like you’re a man. Me see how you dress and me know who you be,” she said.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by her attacker and banishment by relatives, conceded that perhaps she never will report the crime.
“I once thought if I had a gun I’d kill the man who forced himself on me,” said the woman in her late 20s, her voice weighted with sadness. “But I’m doing my best to just move on.”
Sometimes, female victims of sexual violence wait to leave Jamaica before revealing their experiences.
Reggae singer Diana King, who in 2012 became the first Jamaican musical artist to publicly come out as gay, recently tweeted from her Florida home that when she was a 13-year-old on the island, she was “gang raped for looking at a girl too long.”
In her 2010 memoir, Brooklyn-based writer Staceyann Chin writes she was ostracized after coming out as a lesbian on a Kingston college campus, and one day was herded into a bathroom by several male students, who sexually assaulted her while telling her that women were created for men to enjoy.
Some Jamaican lesbians have sought asylum abroad. In 2008, Simone Edwards survived an attack by two gunmen who hissed the anti-gay epithet “sodomite” at her as she lay bleeding on a street from two bullets. She later received asylum in the Netherlands and her story was told in the 2013 documentary “The Abominable Crime.”
“Before the gunshots, guys would always call me sodomite girl, lesbian girl. They would come up to me and say, ‘You just need one good night of sex with a man,’” Edwards said in an interview to the associated press.
Although there are some pockets of LGBT tolerance in Jamaica, anti-gay attitudes continue to be fuelled by some church leaders and dancehall reggae performers who disparage homosexuality.
Sex between men is unlawful in Jamaica, with violators subject to 10 years imprisonment and hard labour, although the anti-sodomy law is rarely enforced.