Media outlets and reports often present your country, Jamaica, as a place where homophobic attitudes are widespread: what is the real situation for LGBTI people there?
Homophobic and transphobic attitudes and intolerance are prevalent: studies have shown that the a majority of Jamaicans are intolerant to LGBT people, and living openly as LGBT – or even being perceived as such while still being in the closet – is very challenging for many. However, while this is the case, I take issue with labelling the country as ‘the most homophobic place on earth’.
There are people who have been beaten, harassed, intimidated, exploited and threatened because of their real or perceived LGBT status, and it is important to note that their families and friends are affected by the levels of intolerance. Over the last six years, we reported more than a hundred cases of people who were displaced on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many of them experienced homelessness, even at a very young age. In some cases family members were the ones to evict them, but sometimes it is the community that forces families to kick LGBT people out of their homes even if their families tried and protected them. There are also cases in which LGBT persons end up being further stigmatized when they report a hate incident or go to seek other services from the police and other agents of the state.
Things are improving to an extent for some LGBT people in Jamaica, though, but we know that those who come from low-income communities are more likely to be affected. This is especially so because the 2012 National Survey on Attitudes and Perceptions towards Same-Sex Relations shows that those who are low-educated and have a low economic status are more likely to perpetrate homophobic attitudes.
Is the Jamaican government trying to protect the LGBTI community?
There have been some improvements. A number of initiatives have been implemented through the HIV response to empower the community and protect and promote their human rights. Other government ministries and entities have also been taking further steps to improve human rights and protect the community. For example, the police now has a Diversity Policy, based on our advocacy, which provides guidance to all members of the police force in how to treat which all Jamaicans, including those from vulnerable and marginalised groups such as LGBT people.
Government representatives are beginning to speak publicly about the rights of LGBT persons: the minister of Justice, for example, condemned the murder of a homeless trans teenager in July 2013, and this year he provided a public statement for the first Pride event to ever take place in Jamaica. At that very Pride opening, the mayor of Kingston & St. Andrew spoke in a very passionate way, explaining why she supports LGBT rights, and she also passed a motion with other counsellors committing to do more on HIV response.
A lot is happening right now in Jamaica: both civil society and governmental entities will be crucial to build up changes in public policies in the next two years.
How did you become involved in the defence of human rights?
I got involved because I wanted to make sure to contribute to people’s lives, and to make good for me and my friends as well. It all began for me shortly after completing my secondary education in Jamaica, when I worked with the Social Development Commission – a government agency – in 2002. Then, for most of my university years I worked on the MDGs, youth participation and education issues. I later realized how critical the work on human rights can be: I guess this is really one of the most profound ways we can help people reach their fullest potential, improve their livelihood and benefit from development in their country.
You work as a program coordinator at J-FLAG: what kind of work is the organisation doing on a local level? What issues should be addressed more urgently?
J-FLAG is the largest and oldest LGBT-focused organisation in Jamaica: it aims at promoting social change by empowering the community, building acceptance and strengthening partnerships with allies. We mainly provide support to LGBT people, particularly in cases where their rights have been violated, conduct research on LGBT-related issues, work to guide policy and legislative changes and help building LGBT people’s capacity to advocate for themselves and participate in policy and decision-making fora.
In the last few years we have had a number of successful initiatives: we held our first Pride in August, and organized two trainings with the Ministry of Youth to ensure that youth and community development workers are sensitive to the needs of LGBT persons and know how to respond effectively to discrimination and stigma.
We have also trained and sensitized more than 300 health care workers on how to provide non-discriminatory HIV services to LGBT people, and done trainings with LBT women to help them participating in the public policy process – an initiative that led to the formation of a new affiliate to J-FLAG called Women’s Empowerment for Change (WE-Change).
Finally, we have also been able to increase the number of people we can offer services to in situation of crises: last year we helped more than 400 persons who were in need of support.
You were here in Geneva for the Universal Periodic Review considerations on Jamaica: what kind of recommendations have you delivered, and what follow-up do you expect to receive?
Our recommendations for the government were largely about improving a response to the issue of homelessness – a response as LGBT-friendly as possible. We also asked the government to enhance its human rights education programmes in school, making sure they are mandatory and include sessions on the rights of vulnerable groups. We also recommended to keep working on the creation of a national human rights institution, an entity that can relate also to international bodies, ratified treaties and conventions.
Do you think that doing advocacy on an international level can have some impact, locally? In other words: do governments really listen to recommendations and put them into practice?
Absolutely: the work done on an international level with such organisations as ILGA is quite critical, and has a profound impact on local movements. The use of such spaces, though, is very challenging: international fora must not be seen as an opportunity to shame and embarrass governments, but as places to dialogue with them on a different level, and to provide recommendations which experts and international entities can help put into practice.