Early August is a special time for Jamaicans. The Emancipendence holidays celebrate both the end of slavery in 1838 and the country’s break away from British colonial rule in 1962.
But this year has seen a very different kind of symbolic even, one that for LGBT campaigners in the country marks an equally important moment in the future development of this young nation.
It started not with a proclamation or a flag being hoisted up and down a pole but with a flash mob, an art day and a chance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jamaicans to show things are changing for the better.
PRIDE JA was the first public gay pride celebration in the English-speaking Caribbean, after a similar event had to be canceled due to security concerns in the Bahamas last year.
For those involved in the week’s activities – organised by JFLAG, the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays – it was a chance to be proud and visible. “It felt liberating”, said Nicki who attended the arts performance. “It was safe with no fear. When you go out in public, if you express yourself in a particular way or use certain mannerisms you have to be on your guard but this really felt like it was ours.”
Jamaica has often been described as one of the most homophobic countries in the world, a country where hostility toward gays and lesbians is voiced from the church pulpit to the sound system.
Sexual activity between males is illegal and threats of physical violence and discrimination are all too common.
Last year JFLAG reported more than 80 homophobic incidents including threats, physical attacks, sexual violence and displacement, while the high-profile 2013 mob kiling of transgender teen Dwayne Jones remains unsolved.
Safety was a concern for the organisers of PRIDE JA, said Latoya Nugent, JFLAG’s education and outreach manager.
“We had an awesome and incredible week of events,” she said. “What we’re hoping for next is to engage leaders in business, in the church, in civil society to make Jamaica a more inclusive place for the LGBT community.”
Some in this highly religious and conservative country are inevitably outraged by what they see as the growing boldness of the LGBT community. Others will see it as a logical step forward for a nation that prides itself as being culturally more significant than its physical size or its population of a little less than 3 million people.
But the national preoccupation with what happens in consenting adults’ bedrooms is a hinderance to the country’s development and image.
President Obama’s visit to Jamaica in April was widely anticipated but he too faced protesters upset that his visit might promote more tolerance toward the gay community as its politicians bid to improve its human rights record.
Angeline Jackson, whose LGBT advocacy work was praised by US president Barack Obama in a speech in Kingston, said that much work remained.
“This allowed the LGBT community and its allies to feel free, to have a safe space for a week but we need more, we have to change society. It’s not only the law but it’s changing the hearts, the minds and attitudes of Jamaicans that’s going to be difficult – we need to move people away from the mob mentality,” she said.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller raised hopes among gay rights activists in the run-up to the 2011 elections, when she said she would not discriminate against gay politicians. Her comments offered a marked contrast to the previous leader, Bruce Golding, who vowed he would never allow a gay member in his cabinet; but many activists now feel that Miller missed an opportunity for change. . Nearly five years later, the colonial-era legislation that outlaws homosexuality remains on the statutes. .
During last week’s historic Pride celebration, justice minister Mark Golding sent a message of support to organisers, saying: “I believe that the views of the Jamaican society are evolving towards greater tolerance and against violence and other forms of discrimination”.
He urged that the country’s motto – “Out of many, one people” – become “a fundamental guiding principle by which we all abide”.