Last week, United States President Barack Obama made history when he visited Jamaica as he was the first sitting president to do so since 1982. But that wasn’t the only reason that Obama’s visit was monumental – he also used his time in the country to speak about LGBT rights.
This was a surprise for many not just because Obama spoke about LGBT rights on a big stage but because Jamaica is regarded by some as one of the most homophobic countries to visit. Although intercourse between two women is legal, sex between two men is not and Jamaica has no anti-discrimination laws that protect people against discrimination based on sexuality, gender identity or gender expression. It’s also not uncommon for people to be beaten or even stoned to death once other citizens find out that they are gay.
Angeline Jackson, who is the executive director of Quality of Citizenship Jamaica (an “organisation which focuses on women’s issues; especially those faced by lesbians, bisexuals and other women who have sex with women”) has faced this discrimination, something Obama mentioned in his speech:
Several years ago, when Angeline was 19, she and a friend were kidnapped, held at gunpoint and sexually assaulted. And as a woman, and as a lesbian, justice and society were not always on her side.
But instead of remaining silent, she chose to speak out and started her own organisation to advocate for women like her, and get them treatment and get them justice, and push back against stereotypes, and give them some sense of their own power. And she became a global activist.
But more than anything, she cares about her Jamaica, and making it a place where everybody, no matter their color, or their class, or their sexual orientation, can live in equality and opportunity. That’s the power of one person, what they can do.”
Obama also gave a nod to the younger generations of Jamaican people, saying that “You’re more eager for progress that comes not by holding down any segment of society, but by holding up the rights of every human being, regardless of what we look like, or how we pray, or who we love” and that this gave him hope.
So are Obama’s words likely to change anything for LGBT Jamaicans? In 2012 the Jamaican government said that it “is committed to the equal and fair treatment of its citizens, and affirms that any individual whose rights are alleged to have been infringed has a right to seek redress” while Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller has said that “no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation”, but still, nothing has been done to address Jamaica’s widespread LGBT discrimination.
With Obama’s speech only shedding light on the hardships faced by Jamaica’s LGBT community, it’s far more probable that Jamaicans will begin to discuss discrimination even if no action is taken to deal with it right now. That’s not tremendously encouraging but hopefully, change will arrive in Jamaica soon.