What it means to be homeless and LGBT in Jamaica: Solutions(?) from two wandering minds

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The displacement of persons is a problem common to many countries of the world including developed nations such as Canada, France, the UK and the US. In 2005 the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing – Miloon Kothari – reported that over 100 million people were homeless worldwide.  As a small island developing state Jamaica suffers from a severe lack of resources often spent on band-aid solutions to our socioeconomic problems.

The pintsized respect for minority populations in Jamaica is at best depressing for well-thinking individuals. We have a nauseating culture of teasing, mistreating and bullying persons who are different in one form or another, and the state has failed miserably in its handling of the economically and socially vulnerable. This has given rise to civil groups, lobby groups and non-governmental organisations. These organisations try to fill the large gaps that result from state neglect. Some organisations do not have the capacity and/or resources to effectively fill these gaps, so the economically challenged has been forced to take matters in their own hands, create their own states and social nets in an attempt to navigate their way out of poverty and social derision.

Homelessness is a social problem that has plagued Jamaica for several decades. Our treatment of homeless persons leaves much to be desired; we regard them as decadent members of society to be dumped near mud lakes or transferred in Holocaust fashion away from tourist, upper class spaces into non-tourist middle and lower class spaces. I recently read a few articles from the Jamaica Observer, which revealed a certain debasing characterisation of this minority population as “uncontrollable”, “outlandish” and of which some residents were “disgusted”.

Further, when I examine the academic literature (Elliot: 2010, Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute: 2012, Charles: 2012) on deported migrants for example, I find upon their return home, because of the discrimination and shaming associated with their “deportee” status they end up being homeless, moneyless, jobless and defenceless. The state has abandoned these persons so it should be no surprise that individuals who are displaced because of their “abominable” sexuality and gender non-conforming persona, experience this bane of homelessness and neglect.

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The plight of homeless LGBT persons is exacerbated by the abuse, assault, battery and murder that have become characteristic of being LGBT in Jamaica. And let me just point out that homelessness among the LGBT population is not limited to the poor. Our culturally-guided and Christianity-inspired homophobia cuts across all social classes; no one is exempt from being homeless or displaced. While those who are closer to being economically and socially affluent, will, more often than not find it reasonably easy to relocate or “kotch” with friends from time to time, this does not change the fact that they are evicted because of homophobia. The circumstances for those without such wealth are worse – they become intermittent residents of abandoned buildings, bus stops and the streets.

This is one problem I wish I could commission Professor Albus Dumbledore to resolve. It frustrates my existence to live each day beleaguered by the knowledge that some members of my community have to pray to God at nights on cardboard, concrete, tar, or blocks of sponge before going to sleep. My cerebral cortex will soon explode from attempts at engineering a plan that will address this social phenomenon. I recently had discussions with a dear friend of mine who shares this passion and we have come up with a very skeletal crude idea that I hope will evolve into something practical and workable.

The following paragraphs are the result of such discussions with Rochelle McFee

We are perturbed by the disregard of the nation as a whole in how we present, represent and engage displaced LGBT persons. We must find a way to engage in a process of resocialisation for the displaced, create safe houses where they may reside temporarily until they are united with “new” sensitised families that understand their nuanced, precarious position. During their stay at the safe house (which will be monitored and managed by formerly homeless LGBT individuals), our displaced persons should engage in skills training on the premises or at educational institutions, counselling, experience sharing workshops and civic education on a daily basis, as part of a much needed resocialisation programme. Some persons, depending on their age may qualify for the Career Advancement Programme recently instituted by the GoJ.

The safe house is the first critical space since this is where skills will be learnt or harnessed. After this intensive skills training education programme, participants will, for a 2-3 months period, provide volunteer service to participating businesses and/or organisations. The purpose of this is to provide experience, develop professionalism, foster relationships, and improve time management skills while embracing civic duty.  During this period we recommend the welcome of participants in their respective new families. Parents and other family members of these persons should be engaged (if they are willing) and reunited, if possible, with their loved ones. If reunion is not possible, then the sensitised families mentioned above will become their new home until they are able to provide for themselves economically.

Additional lobby efforts will be required to place participants in salary-paying jobs in order to facilitate economic independence and create space for others. A written commitment to dedicate their time to the sustainability of the project may be encouraged. A virtual crisis management centre should also be created (until a physical one can be located) for all participants and past participants to air grouses, share ideas and experiences, and resolve any problems that may arise. We must point out that before such a project is undertaken, it is best to locate and sensitize the supporting families and places of employment needed for the initialisation of the project, which is especially crucial for sustenance. Will somebody please tell us this is doable and lend their expertise and resources . . . ???

We are of the belief that homelessness is a social problem to be addressed by the GoJ. But the GoJ is not doing enough so we must find creative and effective ways of engaging corporate Jamaica perhaps in partnership with the government and civil society. We need focus group discussions and evidenced-based perspectives on this issue to more persuasively implore those with the resources to help in meaningful ways.

As far as I’m concerned the streets should never be called home. Adequate housing is a human right!

Peace.

In search of a new opium of society: Human rights

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Karl Marx in his deliberations on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right opines: “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes”, that is, “religion is the opium of the people”; one hundred and sixty-nine years later Marx’s position remains the “spiritual aroma” of the society. In many nations across the globe such as Afghanistan, Jamaica and the United States, religion plays a critical role in cultural design and expression as well as the administration and management of state affairs.

In an article written by Ian Boyne titled: “Is the Church Helping Us?” he quoted a study conducted by Gregory Paul who concluded that “in general, higher rates of belief in, and worship of a Creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early-mortality, STI rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in prosperous democracies”. Additionally, Boyne highlighted research conducted by Gary Jensen who posited that “religious passion [was] linked to high homicide rates”. Another interesting observation in Boyne’s article is the fact that secular societies such as Switzerland, Denmark and Japan are considered to be “more peaceful, harmonious and certainly boast a greater quality-of-life index in many indices than the most religious society in the developed world, namely the US”.

Religious societies are far more violent and have higher crime rates than secular societies. The problem, in my opinion is that religion has been used to ostracise some members of the society and in so doing denied the human rights of minority, powerless populations, including LGBT persons.  Why is religion on the opposite side of human rights?  Isn’t human rights about love and respect? About loving and treating our neighbours as ourselves? About peace and understanding? And aren’t those principles and maxims common to many religious groups (or so they say?)? But when we examine how Christianity, for example was used to provide “justification for slavery for a much longer time than it has preached against it” (according to Hilaire Sobers), perhaps we should not be surprised.

I am baffled by the way we have used religion and “Imaginary Friends” as tools of indoctrination and acculturation.  In Jamaica, Christianity is being used to condemn, exclude, malign and ridicule LGBT persons. Even persons who do not wield the bible on a daily basis in respect of other ‘sins’ vehemently use it to justify violence and discrimination against this minority. This brings into perspective, Hilaire Sobers’ position that “Christianity has been less than stellar in its stewardship of human dignity. . . [and] secular humanism, which does have human dignity as a core value, has been as unremitting in protecting this value, as religion has been in devaluing it in people seen as ‘different’ or ‘not like us’ or ‘inferior’”.

In a conversation with one woman I was alarmed at the fact that she would poison her own child or “throw him inna de gully” if she discovered he was gay. She proclaimed that God would forgive her because he would’ve understood, and homosexuality was the Cardinal Sin. Now there’s a kind of hegemonic power of homophobia and religion that I am not able to rationalise. How is it that a mother who gave birth to, breastfed,  loved,  nurtured,  cared for,  defended against all odds,  would turn her back on her son because of his non-heterosexual orientation, much like Dwayne Jones’ parents did? At best, it justifies Marx’s claims of the opiate quality of religion.

So if this opium is so powerful, so intoxicating, so omniscient, so omnipotent, I want it to be human rights.  Let us make laws, policies and curricula that are pivoted on the pillars of dignity – human dignity.  Let us approach development from a rights-based perspective.  Let us create a rights-based democracy where all persons regardless of disabilities, HIV and AIDS status, sexual orientation, religious persuasions or gender identity etc. will have access to, and respect for their inalienable rights.

We need to build social capital and this cannot be achieved without community and respect for all. As a developing middle income small state, if we continue to abuse minority populations or those who do not subscribe to the popular culture, we will not grow, we will not develop, and life will continue to be “nasty, brutish and short”.

May we just try the rights-based approach? Let’s make human rights the new opium of society.

The Beauty and Beast of Advocacy

RainbowZebraFaceCloseMakeupInterest groups or lobby groups are essential to human, social and economic development.  Oftentimes they are the informed voices of reason, diplomacy and change. Developed nations tend to have more powerful lobby groups than do developing nations, especially smaller states.

Regardless of country, interest groups typically have one goal – to make the state more amenable to their cause and interests, particularly the constituents they serve.

Minority populations require more lobbying than the rest of the population since they are affected duplico by socioeconomic struggles. Access is a necessary condition for effective lobbying – access to the legislative, executive and judiciary. Access will only be achieved through two mechanisms: power and money.  Power may come in several forms, such as numbers, class, prestige, family, friendship etc. And money may be clean, dirty or conflicted. Such characterisation creates the impression that interest groups should follow the modus operandi of political parties.

In my opinion, despite similarities, interest groups are supposed to operate differently from political parties and garrison communities.  Sadly, as a budding LGBT human rights activist I’m realising that some of us see interest groups as mini political parties. Mini political parties characterised by the clientelism Carl Stone articulated and the plantation theory of George Beckford et al. Interest groups, like political parties need funding. Interest groups, like political parties serve constituents.  Therefore, what results on occasion is the conflict of being accountable to financiers (who sometimes want to dictate programming and methodologies to be employed in fulfilling the organisation’s mantra) and meeting the immediate, medium and long-term needs of constituents.

Some leaders of interests groups subscribe to Stone’s theory. So with monies from financiers, they provide band aid solutions to constituents (who will, in turn, endorse the organisation) while financiers are promoted, by demonstrating the progress, impact and positive influence of their money and support.

Other leaders subscribe to Beckford’s ‘ill-progressive’ plantation theory, so interests groups are operated and structured much like the sugar plantations of the past. Constituents are not a part of the decision making process, and programmes instituted are primarily those that reach higher numbers in atomic ways, regardless of qualitative impact.

And still others are managed with love, respect, sternness, prudence, accountability, and empathy. I prefer this kind, because with this type of management financiers cannot dictate programmes of action. Constituents are provided with visionary sustainable solutions and there is collective responsibility on all fronts.

Recently there have been calls for the resignation of the Executive Director of J-FLAG because he refused to claim that on a daily basis mobs were hunting us (LGBT persons) to kill us. Because he said on international television that progress was being made and Jamaica was experiencing pockets of tolerance.  Were those statements false? Absolutely not, in my opinion! Did they represent the lived realities of all LGBT persons in Jamaica? Certainly not! So tell me that his response should have been more comprehensive, that, I can accept.

The reality on the ground in some spaces and communities is one of constant dodging of assault and battery and it is not safe for some. Not all LGBT persons can live with a little human dignity in their respective spaces – and they would be better off as recipients of asylum in safer spaces. We need to be able to tell all the stories.  Help those who need to migrate while making Jamaica safer for those like me who want to stay.

My life as a lesbian is certainly not as bad and psychologically challenging as it was before. If it wasn’t for the strength of community I would probably remain partially closeted for the rest of my life. I became twice as bolder after participating in a workshop facilitated by J-FLAG which taught me how to tell my story as a form of advocacy. So I know firsthand that progress is being made.
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If there is anyone out there who is genuinely concerned about the interests of my community I suspect they would not promote hostility, selfishness, divisiveness or anything absent humility and cooperation.

Human rights advocacy ought not to be competitive. When it becomes a competition, we begin to fight for scarce resources to the detriment of our constituents. I want my community to unite. Let us benefit from each other’s strengths and address the weaknesses among us. Let us use appropriate fora; and if we must disagree, let us do so with love, respect and honesty. This is a selfless mission. There is so much more that we can achieve if we make unity the sine qua non of advocacy.

And let me just say to my boys (you know yourselves) I will dedicate my time, mind and brain to making Jamaica a better place for you and generation next.

Peace.

I want a JAMAICA PRIDE: Lessons from the land of the people who speak Sesotho

imagesCAX13CFM Some heterosexuals, especially anti-gay ‘first class’ citizens across the world tend to question the need for a day of PRIDE. They fail to appreciate the nuances of not being able to always publicly celebrate our queer sexuality. Having at least ONE day in which we can be free, happy and spiritually elevated in our sexuality is what church folks would call heavenly. It is civil, it is political, it is social, and it is sexual. It is self affirming and I suspect it can be psychologically euphoric.

I have never experienced a Gay Pride march even though they exist all over the world; I’m too poor to go. So I want my own day of public pride right here in Jamaica. Jamaica is where my LGBT friends are, Jamaica is where my allies of the community are, Jamaica is where my family members are, Jamaica is where I drink rum and party, Jamaica is where I work, Jamaica is where I live, Jamaica is where I found the (former) loves of my life, Jamaica is where I pay my taxes, Jamaica is my home.

I want to celebrate my sexuality here while demonstrating to the nation, the region and the rest of the world that I am a proud Jamaican lesbian. I want my dad and his congregation to see how happy and fulfilled I am as a lesbian despite their own beliefs. I want my favourite aunt to look on and say: “you go girl!” with a smile.

I am willing to bet that every ‘out’ or partially ‘out’ LGBT person in Jamaica would experience a day of eternity in the company of like minds and supporters of the community – people who appreciate our human quality and dignity, to just be. And for those who have to remain comforted by the warmth of their closets they will recognise and be inspired by the flame and fire of coming out! A fire that will ignite them into visibility, spirited by community and support, and elevated by love.

In 2010, some media houses claimed that Jamaica had its “first ever Gay Pride”. Sadly, that headline was exaggerated truth. It was a “walk for tolerance” for minority populations particularly LGBT persons and persons living with HIV and AIDS. There was no celebration of gayness; I would call it a public human rights appeal. I didn’t participate (at the time I was still wearing a few items of clothing from the closet). And although I appreciate the impact of the walk and the role it played in awareness, that’s not what I want. No matter how small, no matter how short (well, I prefer to keep going for a few hours) I want PRIDE! Jamaica Pride!

This is not a request or desire blinded to the logistics, homophobic culture and costs associated with such a venture. I know it will take quite a bit of funding. It will also require much manpower in respect of security among other things. But I know it can be done. There are dangers yes, risks even, and when I explored the case of Ukraine (ironically where homosexuality has been legalized) I felt quite fearful and wondered if this was something we should take on in Jamaica. But then I read the success story of the “first ever held Gay Pride march in Lesotho” – an African territory with sufficient similarities with Jamaica – and I was inspired.

There are laws in Lesotho that criminalize some sexual acts between homosexuals and there is strong cultural support for homophobia. Homosexuality and homoeroticism are condemned in Lesotho, a small territory also once colonised by the British. Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy with a struggling economy in which the majority of its approximately two million people indentify as Christians. But despite all that and despite religious condemnation and legal shackles, Lesotho successfully organized and executed its first Gay Pride organized by the Matrix Support Group – “a Lesotho-based NGO working to advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals in the country”. I believe the stakeholders in Jamaica should further explore this success story, Pride in other African territories such as Uganda and even those in the European and North American cities. Also, if all goes well in Curacao next month, best practices may be adopted from that experience.

This is something that can be done and I would really want to experience it before I delve further into my 30s. I am therefore using this opportunity to appeal to all the relevant human rights organisations in Jamaica and the region to work cooperatively to develop a proposal for Jamaica Pride in order to receive the kind of funding and support it will need. Upon receiving the required funding we should proceed to engage experts and volunteers (especially members of the community), security forces and relevant government agencies, which will be necessary to make this a success.

Additionally, it may be a good idea to engage the not so dogmatic members of our churches in dialogue about what this will mean for the community, in a bid to get them to appreciate that it’s not so different from staging concerts and crusades that celebrate in a special and different way, their spirituality (except we are not trying to win straight souls).

As a mater fact, I want a whole weekend of activities inclusive of debates, colloquia, exhibitions, drink-ups, screenings, open mic poetry and sounds, a ‘coming out’ soca party, an evening of dance and maybe sports day on the beach.

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Just close your eyes for a few minutes (after this paragraph, lol) and imagine what the streets of New Kingston would look like, coloured by fabric woven with rainbow pride, fashionable couture, vuvuzelas ringing our eardrums, a truck pumping some EDM and soca, a little spirit in our cups, flags “floating on de big stage high ova wi problems, [since] we doan have no time for dem is [PRIDE] wid wi best friends now. . .’

We will “break and move and stop and dance, then keep moving forward with an easy, effortless rhythm” as did the people who speak Sesotho.

Eternal happiness for a day, hmmmm.