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Commentary. After Belize decriminalized homosexuality, the most backlash was felt in Jamaica. Will the island's dangerous and antiquated laws every change?

Homophobic Jamaica should change

It’s taken more than a century to soften up hardline prohibition against marijuana possession in Jamaica, but finally, by introducing the limit of two ounces (27 grams) per person, the country took a step forward in April 2015 with its amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act. Before that, consumers were arrested and sent to jail even for a single joint. A week in prison, a fine and, sometimes, even death in custody, as was the sad fate of Mario Deane two years ago, beaten to death in the Montego Bay lock-up.

It is time now to amend the Buggery Act, the infamous law persecuting homosexuals all over Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica. First decreed in England in 1533, the Sodomy Law was abolished there in 2003, but it still rules over most of the former English-speaking colonies. And yet that may be starting to change.

First step from Belize

At the beginning, it was the death sentence by hanging, commuted during 1861 to life sentence. Now, one can receive 10 years of hard labour for sodomy, or seven with or without hard labor for attempted sodomy. The text of the law, spelled out in 1861, read as follows:

Article 76: “Anyone who is caught committing the abominable crime of buggery (anal intercourse) in public or private, shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a term not exceeding 10 years.” And Article 77: “Whoever attempts to commit the abominable crime referred to above, shall be liable to be imprisoned for a terms not exceeding seven years, with or without hard labor.”

The protection of privacy for two consenting adult males is not in accordance with the Offenses Against the Person Act, neither inside their own bedroom. On Aug. 10, the head of the Supreme Court in Belize, Kenneth Benjamin, ruled the Sodomy Law, which in Belize appears in section 53, as unconstitutional because it’s an infringement of privacy, following a legal challenge by a gay man.

The Belize attorney general has not yet filed an appeal before the court, and it looks like the state won’t pursue it. Instead, the Belize decision caused a clerical and legal turmoil in Jamaica. The attorney general, Marlene Malahoo Forte, supported by defense lawyers, has stressed that the Belize judgment doesn’t apply to other Caribbean nations. While the Buggery Act in most Caricom countries is often disregarded and its infractions tolerated, sodomy charges are taken very seriously in Belize and especially in Jamaica, where informing against and ambushing gays is enabled by police.

A similar action has been pursued by Maurice Tomlinson, a gay lawyer married to a Canadian citizen. He has been fighting for gay rights for the last 20 years, trying to amend the Sodomy Act with a lawsuit, pushing to recognize also legally same-sex marriage in Jamaica. A group of fundamentalist churches has opposed him relentlessly. They’ve even gotten themselves attached to the case as interested party.

The case now awaits an appeal from Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry to be heard in court, after the Supreme Court barred her on July to be attached to the trial as interested party as well.

Dwayne Jones and cross dressing

It is ironic to note when the British Privy Council, the highest Court in Caribbean, decriminalized homosexual acts in private, only Anguilla, Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos signed the reform. The majority of local legislatures refused to do so.

In Tower Street correctional centre, on the way to Kingston airport, homosexual inmates are kept in custody with others charged for murder. This section is called Special Location; we can image how the safety of those people is guaranteed, due to the issues gays face daily, even in freedom.

In the same way, cross dressing is persecuted in the island. In 2013, Dwayne Jones, a 16-year-old boy, was slaughtered by an angry mob armed with machetes during a party in Montego Bay, just because he was dressing as a woman. The murder didn’t provoke any change in public opinion, and the perpetrators are still walking free, unpunished. Jones was nicknamed “Gully Queen” due to the tendency of young poor gays, kicked out of their homes because of their “vice,” to gather together under the gully tunnels. The wealthy ones, meanwhile, secure themselves inside closed circles, some taking a wife to save appearances.

In such a religious climate, there seems to these victims no other option. Pastors, during their sermons, mention the harshest passages from the Bible in order to lash out at the qedeshah (“those who enter from behind”) according to the Old Testament (“If intercourse happens between two men, both shall be put to death by stoning because they have committed an abomination.” Leviticus, 20:13).

The judge in Belize explained his decision, saying that decriminalizing adult gay sex would encourage more treatment of HIV, which has reached a toll of 300,000 in the Caribbean, mostly among gay males. The old homosexuality laws discouraged testing, for fear of being reported to the authorities and arrested. Obviously, the issue concerns more than solely legal rights.

The core of the problem is social and cultural: to the extent that Attorney General Forte posted on Twitter after the massacre of gay men and women in Orlando, complaining about the rainbow flag flying at American Embassy. If theoretically in the Caribbean a referendum concerning the matter could be held, I bet voters opposing an amendment would win by a large majority, especially in Jamaica.

Sad to note, once again the efforts of civil groups to change this mentality have failed, just as has happened in the fight against the extrajudicial crimes perpetrated by the police, or to restore inmates rights violated inside the Tower Street Adult Correctional Center. The government’s legal aid office has done less than useful work, and endless press conferences and recommendations by international NGOs have bounced off Jamaica’s institutions without leaving any mark. The country is paying dearly for its lack of action to improve conditions, starting from its inner city slums.

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