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Where Killas Get Hung: Anti-Queer Violence in Jamaica

We can go to the tropics
Sip piña coladas
Shorty, I could take you there
Or we can go to the slums
Where killas get hung
Shorty, I could take you there…

Sean Kingston, Take You There

“…the only Jamaicans who aren't some combination of homophobic, drug addicted and savage have been murdered by the ones who are.”

Comment at former HRC activist Wayne Besen's blog in response to his column on anti-queer violence in Jamaica

Like most people, I am appalled by the anti-queer violence and terrorism that seems to have gripped the island of Jamaica. The stories of murder, cruelty and mob-violence are gut-wrenching and the rhetoric coming from Jamaican churches, political leaders and ordinary citizens is frightening. Let me reiterate that I support the use of violence for self-defense and if that is an option queer Jamaicans are considering, they should have our full support.

Yet, as terrible as these acts are, those of us in the US watching these horrors (and let’s not forget our own horrors here in the “civilized” USA, such as the murders of teenagers Simmie Williams and Lawrence King) need to be very careful about how we characterize Jamaica and think about our political response to the violence there.

I’m not a West Indes scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I can tell you as a religious studies student that to simply say that “Christianity” is causing the problem is incredibly naïve. Religious expressions are tied to social and economic factors—and this is true regardless of whether we are talking about the ancient world (my area of study) or the modern world.

A political response to anti-queer violence in Jamaica requires careful attention to economic and social issues in Jamaica—something I have seen precious few commentators on anti-queer violence in Jamaica address. On the other hand, I have seen plenty of stereotypes about Jamaica and the Third World that are, if not outright racist, are borderline racist.

Jamaica has one of the lower poverty rates among “Third World” countries and it seems to have experienced economic growth over the last few years. But class stratification, lack of opportunity, crime and even poverty remain large problems. Kingston has the second highest murder rate in the world, so many people—not just queers—are killed violently on a regular basis. I suspect, and again I must emphasize that I am not a West Indes scholar, that anti-queer violence has the same roots as these other expressions of violence and is tied to the broader social problems faced by Jamaica. As Jamaican-born lesbian poet Staceyann Chin put it:

When it comes to the poorest of the poor what it comes down to is bread and butter. They are willing to have conversations and are willing to protect people who protect them in different ways. You can’t talk about gay rights in Jamaica when a black boy does not even have food and clothes. How the hell are you going to tell him to allow somebody to be gay, when he is not even being allowed to eat?

Which is why former HRC activist Wayne Besen’s haphazard call for an attack on Jamaica’s economy is extraordinarily misguided. Besen, who has great faith in the power of American gays to affect the economy of foreign countries, says, “It is time to hand an ultimatum to Jamaica's public officials: Stop allowing rampant abuse of gay people or your economy will be crippled.” Not only does the imperialistic tone of this statement slap you in the face, it shows that Besen could care less about the social factors that may be the cause of anti-queer violence. For all we know, an economic crisis in Jamaica might actually make the situation worse for queer people by exacerbating the island’s social problems!

This isn’t the first time the white-dominated gay community in Europe and the US have responded to Jamaican homophobia. In the early 2000s, Peter Thatchell, a gay activist in Jamaica's former colonial master, organized protests against violently homophobic lyrics in Jamaican reggae and hip-hop. Some raised concerns about whether or not these protests were playing into anti-black images and stereotypes in Britain and did not appreciate the complexity of the social situation in Jamaica. But such concerns fell on deaf ears. Apparently, Thatchell argued that people should just fall in line with his (Eurocentric) analysis and response to homophobia in Jamaica.

Before cavalierly proposing to, say, wreck the economy of a third world country, those of us concerned about forms of oppression besides just anti-gay oppression, would need to integrate the other forms of oppression that exist in Jamaica such as sexism, class stratification, poverty, etc in our analyses and responses to anti-gay violence.

One political response I think that may be consistent with these principles would be to welcome queer Jamaicans who immigrate to the United States and elsewhere (this would require us to support lenient immigration laws), and help exiled queer Jamaicans organize and strategize about ways to organize queer people in Jamaica—if that is a concern of theirs. We could also express solidarity with indigenous queer organizations in Jamaica (like J-FLAG) by providing them with whatever support we can. Perhaps, instead of calling for boycotts, Besen could call for fundraisers for queer Jamaican organizations and groups.

Raising awareness about the plight of queer Jamaicans as well as showing solidarity by demonstrating can be appropriate, if the political message is one of solidarity and support for queer Jamaicans and respect for queer Jamaicans as the ones who should ultimately take the political lead in response to the violence there. I don’t have a problem with the Metropolitan Community Church’s response per se, but I do believe that all people who want to show solidarity with queer Jamaicans should show that they are working in consultation with queer Jamaicans.

Regardless of what solutions there could be, I strongly believe that queer Jamaicans—not white, gay men like Besen and Thatchell—should be taking the lead on how to respond to anti-queer violence there. If an organized political expression of exiled queer Jamaicans or indigenous queer Jamaicans want to call for a boycott or some other form of external political pressure, that would be their decision to make—and of course then we could support such measures. It is not, however, up to the mainstream gay community in the United States to dictate to queer Jamaicans what they “need” and how to “help” them.

See also Staceyann Chin's "On Leaving Jamaica" and her interview on

P.S. Take a look at some of the racist comments Besen’s column provoked. Besen sometimes steps in to a discussion when it gets too problematic. He was silent about these:

“I never had any desire to go to that shithole anyway, and I never will, even if they stop the attacks (not likely). I'd rather spend my money on civilized people and cultures. Sounds like a place where rush limbo would show up with his suitcase full of viagra. Barforama!”

“A bunch of stoned savages. What a bunch of immoral a-holes. I would not spend a dime there. These people can go to HELL.”

“Personally, I think batty boys should ban together and shoot Jamaicans. The world would be better without them. They are disgusting, unshowered creatures with roaches in their hair.

"Notice these fucking cowards hunt gay people in packs. They always outnumber the gay people and have weapons. Why can't they fight one-on-one? Because Jamaicans are a bunch of low-life scum sissies.”

I’m sure the posters would howl with indignation at the suggestion that these statements are clearly racist even as they employ classic racist letimotifs and terms (e.g. the generous use of the term “savage”). Never mind that many of the queer people they are supposedly concerned about are a part of this culture of “savages.”

1 comment:

kat0189 said...

I wonder what is at stake for these racists who are motivated to "fight" for the lives of gay Jamaican men, despite the fact that they openly devalue the lives of Jamaicans in general. Any interpretations of this paradox?

A crippling boycott? Hasn't the IMF done enough damage to Jamaica's economy for the benefit of American corporations? I am also a little disturbed by the masculinist language used to describe these gay male victims -- (describing them as outnumbered by mobs of sissies). It seems like masculinizing the victims makes them more 'deserving' of an American intervention.

That said, I am left wondering what can be done. Stacey Ann Chin has some mainstream cultural/artistic clout, but I certainly hope she isn't the only audible voice regarding this issue.