The time is overdue for Jamaica to have a candid dialogue about the scourge of homophobia and celebration of hate that has afflicted our otherwise well-thinking, Christian-minded and law-abiding Jamaican citizens. For too long our politicians and civil society organisations, including the church, have ignored or dismissed the issue, hiding behind masks of culture, morals, laws, religious doctrine or "popular opinion". Regardless of the source of our comfort and justification, we cannot continue to live in a Jamaica where at the very mention of the word homosexual or gay, our people become "irrational", begin to behave like barbarians and become vicious and like animals in the jungle.
It is the pervasive and toxic environment of homophobia and hate which resulted in the beating of a university student at UTech recently. The jury is still out on whether the young man was caught in a compromising position, but once he was publicly accused of being gay, a mob was likely to be formed to exact justice. Instantly, this Jamaican youth, who has a mother, father, sister, brothers, cousins and grandparents, would become worthless, his humanity ignored, and his rights as a human suspended. He would be relegated to the lowest end of the totem pole, below any rapist, murderer, paedophile, the drug peddler and even a common dog.
This is why he would be chased and set upon by an angry mob, comprised mostly of Jamaica's next generation of intellects, and beaten, even by the security forces with whom he sought refuge.
This unfortunate incident which will again embarrass Jamaica, academia and the university internationally is not an isolated incident of the discrimination that results from homophobia, hate and gay stigma. There have been many cases of students who cannot return to high school because of homophobic bullying, just in the same way this young man from UTech will never complete his education in any university in Jamaica. Jamaican men, who have been suspected of being gay, have been violently driven out of their communities, separated from their means of income, and have had their assets taken from them.
But this toxic environment of homophobia, hate, stigma and discrimination equally affect the general population of Jamaican men too. Outside of being arrested, charged and convicted for unfounded and senseless violence, like the security guards at UTech most likely will be, some Jamaican males, including those in high school, have labelled learning as a "gay thing" and as such have been losing out on opportunities for obtaining a good education.
It has also stymied efforts to improve the health-seeking behaviour of our Jamaican men, particularly as it relates to HIV, because they perceive an important action like getting an HIV test as admitting to homosexual behaviour. Further, the whole family income, growth and development is affected when young men like this one from UTech cannot complete their education, find or retain employment or execute simple acts such as walking on the streets without fear of losing their life. The family income of the security guards too will be affected as they also have children to feed and educate.
We have known for some time that where stigma and discrimination are high or commonplace in communities, key vulnerable populations are subject to social exclusion, ostracism, marginalisation, violence, extortion and poverty among other negative outcomes. Stigma and discrimination militate against the right to health because key vulnerable populations avoid contact with social services, including health, due to shame or for fear of discrimination, judgement, ridicule, sanctions and arrest in some instances. This reality has severe implications for the general public health of communities, incomes of individuals and families, living standards and quality of life.
The fact is that we are all a bunch of victims: the student was a victim of homophobia and hate in the same way the security guards and the mob are victims of our toxic environment. So how do we change this untenable situation? Will we wait until a mob beats the "wrong smaddy pickney"? Will we wait until one of these victims returns to a school with a rifle, or in our case a bucket of gas oil and box of matches? Or will it take civil war, similar to that led by our enslaved forefathers who were subject to similar discriminatory treatment?
There needs to be high-level leadership from politicians, the church and civil society in implementing anti-hate and anti-homophobia programmes as opposed to the usual tacit condemnation of violent acts similar to that released by Marksman, the security firm at the centre of the incident, and UTech's administration.The prime minister made bold pronouncements about homophobia and the buggery law during her pre-election debate. However, repealing laws will at best serve as a garnish for advocacy efforts, and is no magic bullet for addressing homophobia and hate. The answer is in programmes executed at scale to fight hate that capitalises on the finer attributes of our well-thinking and law-abiding Christian Jamaicans such as warmth, love, family care and kinship.
Marvin Gunter is a social and behaviour change communication specialist with expertise in sexual and reproductive health programming addressing advocacy and prevention.