Noted human rights attorney Maurice Tomlinson announced earlier last month that he’s suing the Jamaican government over the country’s 150-year old buggery law, a funny-sounding but seriously awful statute that makes gay sex a felony punishable by up to two years in jail.
Tomlinson, a Jamaican with dual Canadian citizenship, is a controversial figure in his home country. After his 2011 wedding in Toronto, conservative national newspaper Jamaica Observer published an unauthorized wedding photo, which led Tomlinson and his partner to flee the island amid death threats.
The buggery law criminalizes anal sex and dates back to 1864, when Jamaica was a British colony. No one has been prosecuted under the law since 2005, but that hasn’t stopped the country’s gay men from living in fear, or from becoming easy targets for blackmailers.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller promised to review the Anti-Buggery Act when she was campaigning in 2011, but once elected she said that the review was no longer on the table since it “does not affect the majority of Jamaicans who are poor.”
Tomlinson disagrees. “Repealing this law is a matter of utmost importance for the health and human rights of all Jamaicans,” he said in a Jamaica Gleaner editorial. “There is overwhelming evidence that [the law] provides license for abuse, discrimination and, too often, the assault, torture and murder of LGBTI Jamaicans, including through cases of violent ‘corrective rape’ perpetrated against lesbian and bisexual women.”
The lawsuit was initially filed last year by Javed Jaghai, with Tomlinson acting as his legal counsel, but Jaghai withdrew his claim after he and his family received death threats. Unable to find anyone else willing to lead the charge, Tomlinson himself took over as plaintiff in the suit.
In a letter to the editor in the comparatively liberal Jamaica Gleaner, Michael Dingwall admires Tomlinson’s fearlessness:
I will say that Mr Tomlinson is indeed one brave man, and I must admit that I do admire his bravery. He has decided to stand alone against the entire State in his quest for what he considers justice. Not very many of us have that strength of will that he has…
Unfortunately, Dingwall doesn’t see a lot of hope in the case.
Jamaica is decades, some may say even centuries, away from ever becoming the type of accepting society that he wants. Same-sex marriage in Jamaica is like expecting Jesus to come back. It simply will not happen in our lifetimes!
Despite the obvious invasion of privacy, polls show that most Jamaicans support keeping the law, despite outside pressure from international human rights organizations.
Things are tough for queers in Jamaica. Really, really tough. The island that Time famously called “The Most Homophobic Country On Earth” is making very small strides into acceptance – Jamaica had its first-ever Pride festival this summer – but huge percentages of Jamaica’s LGBT population are homeless, HIV-positive, and living in fear. Homophobic hate crimes are all too common.
Jamaica has the highest HIV rate among men who have sex with men (MSM) in the western hemisphere. And things haven’t changed much at all since the 2011 murder of Oshane Gordon, a 16-year old who was killed during a home invasion for “questionable relations with another man.” The killers cut Gordon’s foot off as he tried to flee out a bedroom window.
Jamaica is just one of nine Caribbean island nations with anti-sodomy laws still on the books.
(featured image via GLBTQ Jamaica)