Examining Jamaica's Homophobia
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you might dream of just one of your kids making it as a pro athlete. Well, Gordie Gronkowski is batting four for four with another in the wings. We'll hear from Gordie and two of his sons in just a few minutes. First, though, we want to talk about an issue that's been in the headlines in this country. The issue of gay rights was front and center at the Supreme Court term that just ended. Legal advances were celebrated by LGBT activists everywhere.
But just days later, a brutal attack on a lesbian couple in Chicago reminded the country that the challenge of acceptance still remains. And if that challenge remains in this country, activists elsewhere in the world say stories like those are all too common. So now we go to a place where activists say LGBT citizens face ongoing threats, not just to their dignity but to their lives. We're talking about Jamaica. For many people around the world, it stands for sun and fun, but for too many of its LGBT citizens, it can be a living hell. So says a new film that tries to describe the toll of living that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS STORY)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A man was killed after a heated argument with men who labeled him as homosexual.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The gruesome killing of 16-year-old Oshane Gordon, as well as the injuring of his mother.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The bodies of two men who are believed to have been homosexuals were found in an open lot on Trafalgar Road.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: This is the second chopping incident in recent times in the parish.
MARTIN: The film is called "The Abominable Crime" and it follows the personal stories of several gay and lesbian people in Jamaica. It also chronicles the stories of activists who are challenging anti-gay laws and attitudes there. The filmmaker is Micah Fink. He's with us now. Also with us is Maurice Tomlinson. He is a gay rights activist and lawyer who was also featured in the documentary. Welcome to you both, and thank you both so much for speaking with us.
MICAH FINK: Hi, Michel, glad to be here.
MAURICE TOMLINSON: Thank you. Same here. I'm Maurice.
MARTIN: Micah, how did you get interested in this issue?
FINK: I originally was commissioned to do a series of short films by PBS in Jamaica about HIV and AIDS. Jamaica has one of the highest AIDS rates in the gay community in the world. And the question was, why was that happening? And as we dug into it, it became apparent that there were very intense social factors that were driving the epidemic. And one of the social factors is the rampant homophobia that has come, to some degree, to define current, contemporary Jamaican society.
MARTIN: Maurice, I just want to mention here, by trade, you're an intellectual property rights lawyer. How did you become a gay-rights activist?
TOMLINSON: I was, as you said, intellectual property lawyer, commercial lawyer in chambers, and I was pretty comfortable, but I had a desire to do some kind of social work.
MARTIN: Were you out at that point yourself?
TOMLINSON: No, no.
MARTIN: It's my understanding that you really had no intention of being out.
TOMLINSON: No, no, no, absolutely not. It was, I mean, commercially that would have been professional suicide for me to be out. So once I started doing that, I started being confronted with these abuses, which I had no idea were happening, because I lived in a bubble. I am from a privileged class and background. I am a lawyer, a university lecturer. I, you know, drive wherever I need to go. I live in a upscale community. So I wasn't really exposed to the virulent homophobia. I mean, as Micah said, you read reports, but it really didn't touch on, concern my life. But once I started talking to people about their rights as LGBT, it started forcing me to confront some issues that I wasn't very willing to do before.
And then I started, in response, writing to the newspapers, just interrogating, why are we so homophobic? Why are we doing these acts of violence to our LGBT brothers, sisters? And the backlash was, to me, astounding. I mean, people started calling for my death, saying that if we decriminalize private consensual acts of intimacy between men, it's going to lead to Sodom and Gomorrah or earthquakes on the magnitude of what happened in Haiti. What was most, I mean, unnerving for me, that these statements were coming from people who I thought were intelligent and educated and, you know, exposed.
MARTIN: Micah, you interviewed Ernest Smith. He's a former Jamaican parliamentarian who you ask for perspective about the laws which remain on the book. I mean, homosexuality remains a criminal act. You ask him about his perspective on this. Let me just play a short clip from what he said to say. And he's talking about a group, Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, or J-FLAG. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "THE ABOMINABLE CRIME")
ERNEST SMITH: J-FLAG seeks to tell the world that homosexuals in this country are being violently abused. My answer to that, straight, is no, N-O, no. Most homosexuals got killed by other homosexuals because of jealousy.
MARTIN: Is that a common point of view?
FINK: It is. I mean, the reason we kept that in the film is because I heard that from countless people, countless educated, mostly upper-class Jamaicans. They absolutely denied anything was going on. And then I would meet with members of the gay community, and literally, the room was overflowing with people who said they'd been attacked, stabbed, murdered, had friends who were chopped to pieces, had friends who were burned out of their houses. There's a profound disconnect in how people are thinking about this issue in Jamaica. And I found that, as a journalist, just fascinating.
MARTIN: One of the people you highlight in the documentary is a woman named Simone. And at the time of the documentary, she had been shot by some neighborhood men. She and her brother both were attacked. They're both gay. And she tried to get a visa to the U.S. to leave. And she said in the film that she feels like the walking dead. Maurice, maybe I should go to you on this, 'cause I'm fascinated by this.
On the one hand, here's a woman who was shot down the street from her own house by people who actually - she knew who they were. One person was arrested at one point, but the other person was let go. So how is it possible that people can have that level of violence and it still be under the radar, to even somebody like yourself who wasn't really aware of it until it was directed at you?
TOMLINSON: Well, you have to put it in context. In Jamaica, the level of violence is so high that, as one ministry official told me, why are we making such a big deal about attacks against gays? In Jamaica, we kill straight people, too. The reality is our murder rate is equivalent to some countries with civil wars. So the few quote, unquote gays that are killed really are easily ignored.
MARTIN: Simone made some really tough choices that you, in the course of the film - do you want to talk little bit about that?
FINK: Sure. Well, Simone, when I met her, was recovering from having been shot. As she says, the gunmen, as they stood over her, you know, said that the lesbian fi dead, which means the lesbian must die, as they shot her. When I first met her, she had a beautiful 7-year-old daughter, Kayla, who she was a single parent taking care of.
And as she recovered from her gunshot wounds, came out of the hospital, she realized that the men who had shot her had heard that she had survived and were actually out hunting for her. So her and Kayla went into hiding over the next few months. When I would return, I'd meet with them in their safe house. And she would just express the anxiety she had that if anybody recognized her, they would simply kill her.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new documentary that takes a look at homophobia and violence directed at the LGBT community in Jamaica. We're talking about this with filmmaker Micah Fink and gay rights activist Maurice Tomlinson, who's also featured in the film. Micah, you have to assume that part of her concern was that her daughter could be harmed, as well. If somebody would shoot her in the street that way, that maybe the concern for her daughter's safety wouldn't be paramount.
So, you know, to that end, Maurice, you made a difficult decision to leave at some point. You are married to a man in the states, but you've gone back and forth to Jamaica. But at points, you have been concerned about the safety of your family members, correct? So tell me how you navigate that?
TOMLINSON: Well, I have had to make a tough decision not to return to my home in Montego Bay, where my parents still live, because I'm too well-known, and it's such a small community. And it's just not safe. On one occasion, when I returned after my marriage was made public, I was at a stoplight, and some guy saw me in the car and started calling a crowd. And there is the batty man, and that's the Jamaican term, the derogatory term for homosexual. And he started calling a crowd, and, thankfully, the light changed and we drove off.
The challenge in Jamaica is that you never know what's going to be the trigger to an attack. You know, you'd think it's because of how you dress or your notoriety. One never really knows. So as a result, when I do return, it's generally just to do the work I'm required to do. And I'm holed up in one particular location. And that has sucked the life and the joy out of returning to Jamaica.
MARTIN: Well, why is it worth it to you?
TOMLINSON: If every single LGBT left Jamaica, then the situation would not change. And so I have to be there to show the face of a professional LGBT willing to fight for his liberation. Otherwise, nothing will change.
MARTIN: Can I just ask you, Maurice, how do you feel the media, the local media, covers these issues? 'Cause clearly people know about these things, because the stories are covered. But how is it covered?
TOMLINSON: That is a show in and of itself, as Micah will tell you. We have two major newspapers and two major television stations. And it's Fox News versus MSNBC, you know, one very tolerant, trying to be very balanced, and the other just way out there, wacko, gays are an abomination and we are, you know, going to lead to Sodom and Gomorrah, the whole nine yards.
FINK: Michel, it may help you, just to set your barometer here, when I first went to Jamaica, I interviewed the Reverend Harold Blair. And Harold Blair is the ombudsman for Jamaica. He's the peacemaker. He's the one who brings together fighting political parties. And, you know, this is the most liberal voice. And what he said is he had recently taken a courageous stand and came out and said that gay people should not be killed by violent mobs. That was the radical progressive voice in Jamaica.
TOMLINSON: But he then also said that he dislikes homosexuality and, you know, he would prefer his son to be a thief rather than be a homosexual...
FINK: ...Yes, and he said that gays may ultimately lead to the destruction of life on earth, but still, publicly speaking, he is one of the most liberal voices in Jamaica and the national peacemaker.
MARTIN: Maurice, you make the point in the film, I believe, that you attribute these attitude to...
TOMLINSON: ...The church.
MARTIN: ...The evangelical - no, no, that's, specifically the evangelical, because there's a strong Anglican tradition in Jamaica, right?
MARTIN: But you attribute this to the influence of white American evangelicals.
TOMLINSON: Oh, yes.
MARTIN: But the white, you know, American evangelicals in this country don't advocate people going around shooting people and killing people and harming people. That is not a part of our, you know what I mean, that's not a part of our - so what I don't understand is why do you think it's taken on - 'cause you do make the point that there was not this level of, kind of, vitriol and public harassment even 20 years ago.
MARTIN: So the question I would have is why now?
TOMLINSON: Right, and the reality is that we are now seeing the fruits of both your culture war being exported to us and also the fruits of 20 years or 30 years of indoctrination, homophobic indoctrination, by evangelical pastors from America. And there's evidence of that. The Jimmy Swaggarts, etc., their description of gays as abominations, as disease vectors, etc., it was incessant. The result was that the Jamaican pastors saw the success of people like Jimmy Swaggart and they started parroting that sort of rhetoric.
The majority of our musicians grew up in church. I mean, in Jamaica, you didn't have a choice, you had to go to church. And you sit there every Sunday and hearing this kind of stuff, and these guys then produced music. I mean, we have 200 songs which are calling for murder and, you know, abuse of gays. They produce these songs.
And when we interrogated why are you saying these things, why are you singing these songs? You're not in the vein of Bob Marley who was all about one love. And they'll you, no, the Bible says that homosexuality's an abomination, and, you know, that's the end of the discussion. And we now have a situation where that anti-gay animus, which was exported to us by the evangelicals, is now taking root in Jamaica. We now are producing our own version, which is much more virulent. And we are re-exporting it to the rest of the Caribbean.
MARTIN: How is Simone doing, by the way? How is she doing?
FINK: Simone and Kayla are doing great. They've really firmly rooted themselves in Holland, where they've sought asylum. And Kayla's excelling in school and Simone is training herself to be a nurse.
MARTIN: Wow, that was an amazing story.
TOMLINSON: Yes, it touched a lot of people at the screening. People were very moved by it, by Kayla's story.
MARTIN: Maurice, how old is your son?
TOMLINSON: My son is 12.
MARTIN: Twelve, and is he with you?
TOMLINSON: No, he lives with his mother in Belize, a country I cannot...
MARTIN: ...In Belize, oh.
MARTIN: Well, how does your former wife feel about your coming out? Is she OK with it, or is she mad at you?
TOMLINSON: Well, the thing is, she knew about my homosexuality for 10 years before we got married. I mean, she was my quote, unquote fag hag for 10 years. I mean, she knew all my boyfriends, etc. But then my - when my last gay relationship failed and her straight relationship failed, we thought, well, you know, let's try the marriage thing.
It might cure me and will help her. And of course, when that didn't work, it was an acrimonious divorce. But we maintain our civility because of our son. And as I saying, that she now lives with him in Belize, and because of the law in Belize, which bans the entry of homosexuals, I am trying to sue that country to get access to see him.
MARTIN: Maurice Tomlinson is a lawyer and human rights activist who divides his time between Jamaica and the U.S. He joined us from member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. Micah Fink is a filmmaker and producer of the documentary "The Abominable Crime," in which Maurice Tomlinson is featured. The film is currently on the film festival circuit now. He joined us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
FINK: Thank you, Michel.
TOMLINSON: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.