#SMH: The Christians who would deny shelterWednesday, January 20, 2021
Whenever legislators, judges, and lawyers engage in discussions about what constitutes “immorality” you can be sure the arguments will run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Those were the words of Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 case, Jacobellis vs Ohio, on whether certain obscenity laws applied to a film entitled, The Lovers, about an adulterous woman rediscovering love. Justice Stewart later mused his regret at his choice of words.
Presumably the Lawyers Christian Fellowship's (LCF) vocal opposition to the clarity sought by Equality for All Jamaica Foundation Limited as to what is “immorality” under the Rent Restriction Act in debates concerning its amendment is because the LCF's membership knows it when they see it.
For too long Jamaicans have generally been preoccupied with homosexuality. They know it exists. They know it is in their workplace, school, neighbourhoods, churches (including many Christian fellowships), hospitals, and even in Parliament. Let's just accept that as a fact without trying to identify or disqualify anyone from consideration, as in “not in my Cabinet” or their “impeccable credentials as a lifelong heterosexual”. This subset of our society who we now also call “gay” often have anything but a gay experience navigating ordinary life. But it always seems to be the LCF's primary objective to ensure that if there is a last nail anywhere to drive into the coffin of the gay man or woman's experience in Jamaica, they will supply it.
Let's face it, the LCF and its President Helene Coley-Nicholson have privilege. Theirs is the privilege of having a platform from where they can shout their narrow opinions knowing full well that we Jamaicans who are the subject of their discourse are largely faceless and nameless for fear of their lives and their livelihood. We have seen how privilege of another kind, white privilege, has caused the perpetuation of bigotry, hate, and even death of black men and women at the hands of whites in the United States. It is no different in Jamaica with some — not all — Christian groups and the gay community.
I do not know if Coley-Nicholson or anyone else in her group or the wider society is interested in any of the statistics of the number of gay people who have been chased and beaten to death or run out of this country in the past 30 years for no other crime than being gay. Add to that, the ones who have committed suicide because they do not belong and have been exiled by their church and their families for being sexual deviants. Add to that the ones who escaped mob attacks but are unable to hold a basic wage-paying job and who roam the streets homeless. Add to that the subset of those homeless numbers who have lost their mental and emotional battles to drugs and those forced to eke out a survival on the streets, stealing or selling their bodies and living on the circumference of all humanity.
Being a lawyer, herself, Coley-Nicholson would be familiar with the seminal case, Shaw vs Director of Public Prosecutions, an English House of Lords decision. Statute made it a criminal offence for a man to live off the earnings of prostitution. There is no need to wade any deeper into the case, but an interesting observation was made by the court that prostitutes, like any other person in society, need somewhere to live and need to eat. A grocer does not “live off earnings” of a prostitute because he sells her groceries, and neither does a landlord for renting accommodations, unless, of course he is charging an excessive rent because of her use of the premises for prostitution. The House of Lords observed that it was not the policy of the legislation that a prostitute was to be denied the necessities of life, or even the luxuries of life if she could afford them. Yet, here we are, 50 years later, with the LCF unable or unwilling to appreciate the reasoning behind the Equality for All Jamaica Foundation's call for some specificity or clarity as to what constitutes “immoral purpose” and “annoyance/nuisance” under the Rent Restriction Act.
Given that gay men and women have been evicted for being gay and nothing more, the request that Parliament issue guidance is justifiable. Otherwise, landlords will continue to withhold the necessities of life from gay people. The evidence: Evictions of tenants who only have same-sex visitors, male tenants evicted for being effeminate or for singing only the female parts in songs, and female tenants evicted for male-looking haircuts or wearing men's clothing. Yes, this happens, LCF.
I think to myself, if Jesus were to come today, which group would he likely embrace or be attentive to, and what would the content of his message be? Using the book that should be familiar to the LCF, I know of no instance in the Bible in which Jesus's message was “shut out or pass on the other side of that homeless man”. Would his message be “don't let that sinful, diseased woman touch the hem of my garment”? Or, maybe, stone that adulteress for the immoral harlot that she is? His message was incredibly simple: God is Love. The first and greatest commandment, we are told, is love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, might… And the second is like the first, love thy neighbour as thyself.
You simply cannot profess to be for God and at the same time not be for your fellow man or woman. As a practical matter, it seems that many Christians, including the LCF and its leadership, struggle mightily with this teaching. It is not asking of them to go against their Christian beliefs if the law says that a gay man in need of shelter may seek and not be denied one from a Christian landlord. Imagine Mary, today, appearing with her fiancé Joseph, she unwed and with child, and they both trying to rent from someone whose notion of morality extended to shutting out or evicting unmarried couples. Would Jamaica's Rent Restriction Act protect them? Does it protect the single gay man or gay couple? Where does your argument take you, Coley-Nicholson? Where would you have us draw the line?
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