Recently, I was invited by the BBC World Service to be one of two weekend editors for the World Have Your Say ‘Blank Page’, a blog, where people from all over the world are invited to make entries on various topics of interests. Katharina, my co-editor, from the Netherlands and I ratcheted up a record number of entries for that weekend – a grand total of 173, after an acknowledged shaky start. We were both, unavoidably, absent for the opening segment of the blog – work and family commitments. Katharina had gone to dinner with her family, whereas I was late in getting back from work that Friday.
Secondly, Xtra, the gay and lesbian newspaper in Canada invited me to be a source in one of their stories which looked at the planned boycott of Jamaica’s tourism industry by Canadian gay rights groups. Excited at the prospect of speaking to an international audience about elements of my academic research which, in part addresses this issue, I was sorely let down when the story was printed. Despite my original request and repeated efforts to get them to change this part of the story, I was misrepresented as a Jamaican Government Spokesperson on the subject.
I was attributed the dubious distinction of being “a public relations officer with the Jamaican Government”, which though true, had nothing to do with the contents of the interview. They eventually altered it to say “but stresses that he does not speak on behalf on the Jamaican Government…” Still, dissatisfied I forwarded a letter of complaint to the newspaper voicing my concerns. I recieved a response from one of the editors offering to edit my letter, as it had gone over the three hundred word limit.
I later recieved an email from a colleague and friend in which I was quoted in another story by the newspaper. This time, however, I was cast in the especially unflattering role as flippantly denying the reality of homophobic violence in Jamaica. Portions of an interview completed with an editor from the newspaper here in Kingston were used, despite my wishes to contrary. Indeed, I was also misquoted in the story. Again, I sent another letter of complaint as well as explanation of my thoughts on the matter, elements of which are included in this entry below.
Before leaving this subject, I feel it important to make two related points. Firstly, the title of this piece is intended to draw attention to two of the reasons that I have not been able to update my blog in the last month, as well as to emphasise the growing importance of discussions about sexual rights and freedoms as crucial parts of identity politics, currently. Of course, I can jokingly refer to the Xtra issue as “stress”, almost by way of making light of the matter.
However, the gravity of representation in the current dispensation is real. In fact, it is downright political! Hence, I am not very keen on seeing this as a simple matter to be laughed away under the meaninglessness of a minor inconvience. Much to the contrary. My interests in the stories/ issue go well beyond the “stressfulness” of the matter to more directly target questions of trust in the context of media representations, especially where people are keen to (mis) judge you even without knowing who you are.
It may well be argued that there is no need for any more knowledge in a context where most Jamaicans seem to rally round certain expressed signifiers of identity, in this instance, the defence of the national identity as heterosexual, male, working class and black, for the most part. Hence, I am making this entry as a way of addressing some of the key issues which impact this (Jamaican) identity as well as how it is percieved, both locally and abroad.
Sexuality in Jamaica is a, largely, political issue given the complex ways in which race, class and gender intersect in its construction. (Homo)sexuality, as a result, is much more than a mere question of who one sleeps with but also an act of political affiliation. Discussions of same which do not adopt a condemnatory attitude towards male homosexuality, especially, runs the risk of being considered pro-homosexual and, by extension, opens one up to victimization. The rampant homophobia expressed in Dancehall popular/ culture, specifically, ensures the active policing of the boundaries of sexual desires, accordingly.
This does not mean there are no homosexuals here. Rather, that Jamaica is represented in our imaginations as a space in which heterosexuality is homogenised national identity. All Jamaicans are the equivalent of Bible thumping, religious zealots with a penchant for bigotry. Our raison d’etre is the persecution of all that is different which is also considered ‘un-Jamaican’.
The Xtra reports to which I refer, partly elide these concerns and seek to construct Jamaicans and ‘Jamaican-ness’, by extension, as a homophobic monolith. That the reporter, in the original piece, felt no pains in revealing my professional credentials, notwithstanding the fact that I had asked him not to, clearly highlight the contempt with which we are held. You are, in other words, guilty by national designation/ association. Beyond the clear breach of trust in terms of the revelation of other parts of my identity and the subsequent efforts to construct me as flippantly disregarding such ovewhelming hatred, these two incidents point very clearly to the troubling nature of these issues, currently. Any discussion of which, must necessitate common understandings.
I have long felt that a meaningful discussion of sex and sexuality in Jamaica is urgently overdue. Such a discussion cannot countenance the traditionally one-sided diatribes in which poorly disguised bigots articulate their own aversions to other expressions of sexuality, even while claiming the ‘need’ for tolerance. There can be no tolerance where there is no understanding, empathy and human compassion. Power struggles are not a sufficient substitute for real dialogue on this very important topic. Freedom has to encompass all members of civil society, a point I was especially careful to make to the Xtra editor who interviewed me in Kingston. By which means, one section of the population cannot be considered free and able to move about while others must operate under the cover of darkness, all the time fearful of infringing on the laws of the land.
Conversely, freedom also means respecting the rights of others, notwithstanding that we may sometimes be in disagreement. The ancient colonial laws in Jamaica which thinly veiled the xenophobia of the white colonial elite who drafted them, centuries ago, must be removed from the books as a matter of urgency. In their place, the strengthening of the institutions of civil society must be such that the notion of human rights are expanded beyond a mere question of “freeing unjust criminals” and granting rights to “batty man”, et cetera.
The efforts to recapture Victorian manners and custom, through the bastardised versions of ‘Britishness’ enshrined in parts of the Jamaican constitution must go. We must approach the twenty-first century with readiness and purpose. Political apathy and cultural disaffection cannot be the course of action. It is not ‘business-as-usual’. The effects of the colonial legal system, which it may be argued, were more about reconstructing Britain as an imagined space of desire, rather than a real society in which non-Britons (also) lived constructed ‘the natives’ as insignificant beings unworthy of rights and freedoms. These institutions must be abolished. We must come into the twenty first century and join the global struggle for human dignity in the post-slavery, postmodern era. We need to get with the programme!