The Jamaican constitution clearly delineates the heteronormative boundaries of citizenship. It ostensibly outlines the rights of all Jamaican citizens, but flagrantly restricts gay men’s claim to the rights to privacy and equality.
The Jamaican constitution includes a number of savings law clauses, which preclude the repeal of prior statutes that might be in conflict with constitutional principles. One such statute is the colonial-era ‘Offences Against Persons Act’ that criminalizes the ‘abominable crime of buggery’ (anal sex) as well as ‘gross indecency’ (intimacy) between men in public and private.
Advocates for the retention of these laws argue that they exist to protect children and to safeguard public morals. By advancing this argument, they recklessly conflate homosexuality with pedophilia and consensual intimacy with rape. This framing is not accidental but is a calculated attempt to stigmatize non-heterosexual identities. By using a savings law clause to elevate anti-gay laws beyond judicial scrutiny, the constitution privileges unscientific and exclusionary religious perspectives on wholesome gender and sexuality. Furthermore, it renders sexually active gay Jamaican citizens unapprehended criminals.
Anti-gay Christian crusaders argue that decriminalization of male homosexual intimacy is the equivalent of positing that gay identity is equal to heterosexual identity. (Let us ignore for a moment the fact that it is very much so.) The potential subversion of religious notions of sexual morality unifies Christians in revolt against demands for a more inclusive Jamaica.
Retention of the buggery and gross indecency laws symbolically represents the precarious and conditional nature of citizenship for gay people. We are Jamaicans but we are outlaws. We can be gay but the legal framework demands that we forgo seeking companionship and intimacy. Unofficially, we can break the law so long as our transgressions remain a private matter that has no legitimacy in public discourse on relationships, family and citizenship.
Characterizations of Jamaica as homophobic, while apt, fail to recognize the complexity of gay identity negotiations and the impact of internalized homophobia. The gay community is largely invisible and there is great ignorance in the society about homosexuality. Many gay Jamaicans feel compelled to deny their sexual identities to avoid scrutiny, harassment and violence. However, some are simply holding on to the strands of privilege received as a condition for remaining silent about the oppressive status quo.
The dehumanizing narratives about gay men that are pervasive in the Jamaican cultural imagination are encouraged by acquiescence from influential gay men in the society. We occasionally decry the violence periodically meted out to vulnerable gay Jamaicans who are unable to camouflage their sexualities or to barricade themselves in upscale, gated apartment complexes. For the most part, though, we are unconcerned.
Some of my colleagues in advocacy openly disagree with my oft-repeated assertion that we are shamelessly negligent. They deny that we make concessions to the homophobic cultural order when we lie about our sexualities by omission. They deny that we hide behind professional titles and concern for respectability. And they deny that we willfully bolt our closet doors to exonerate ourselves from the obligation to educate and re-socialize the public.
I insist that we must break the tradition of complicity and proactively challenge those who guard the gates of normalcy and citizenship. If not for ourselves, then for those who feel the brunt of anti-gay animus. The routine abuses and anticipated limitations we subject ourselves to are not necessary conditions. If we truly believed we were equal and deserving of the rights of citizenship, we would not passively wait for our belief to be validated by the majority but would boldly claim our birthright.
Alas, for many gay men in Jamaica being closeted is virtuous and agitating for change is seen as a needless and futile pursuit. We claim we accept ourselves in private conversations with like-minded individuals, but our stoicism betrays a deeply rooted sense that we are inferior.
Jamaica is our home, but we are resident aliens. Too few of us are willing to invest in liberating ourselves from our homophobic and heterosexist socialization. We surrender to and are held hostage by the fear that if we should breach the terms of our residency we might be deported from our homes, communities and jobs.
But all of us are not vulnerable in the same way. In fact, some of us have secure jobs, are not likely to be evicted from our homes and are not vulnerable to physical violence. It is our fear of ourselves and our inability to believe that we are worthy of recognition and worthy of equality that keeps us invisible, disenfranchised and vulnerable.