Jamaica Could Be Next Country to Overturn Laws Banning Gay Sex

Jamaica is poised to be the next country to revisit its colonial laws banning gay sex.

Earlier this week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced that it will hear a challenge to Jamaica’s 1864 Offenses Against the Person Act, which prohibits acts of “gross indecency.” A remnant of British rule, the law penalizes the “abominable crime of buggery” with up to life imprisonment.

The case was brought forward by Gareth Henry and Simone Edwards. The plaintiffs claim the laws subject LGBTQ people to extreme violence and persecution, leaving them no choice but to flee Jamaica.

Henry, a gay man, was routinely targeted by police and violent mobs before leaving his home country. In 2008, a pair of homophobic gang members reportedly shot Edwards, who is a lesbian, several times and threatened to murder her family. One of her brothers is also LGBTQ.

Edwards claimed her assailants were “emboldened” to target her family “by the very existence of these homophobic laws.”

“One of the few family members I have left in Jamaica was even forced to leave his job because he was harassed merely for having gay and lesbian siblings,” Edwards claimed in the complaint, as originally reported by the local news website Caribbean 360.

Henry applied for asylum to Canada a decade ago, and Edwards currently lives in the Netherlands. They say the anti-sodomy laws make it impossible to return.

“I was forced to flee Jamaica in fear of my life simply because of who I choose to love,” Henry claimed. “I am convinced that putting LGBTQ people in Jamaica outside the protection of the law leaves us vulnerable to violence and harassment.”

Their suit was originally filed in 2012 but took six years to reach the IACHR.

While the court cannot formally overturn Jamaica’s criminal codes, it has the ability to make recommendations to member countries. The IACHR claimed in a January 2018 verdict that nations under its jurisdiction should treat same-sex couples “without discrimination,” appearing to pave the way for marriage equality.

Jamaica is one 35 countries subject to the IACHR’s rulings, after it signed the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969.

But despite the long delays in the case, representatives from the Jamaican LGBTQ advocacy group J-Flag tell INTO that they are “delighted” Henry and Edwards will finally have their day in court.

“The admissibility of the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) highlights the seriousness of the claims which detail the multiple ways in which LGBTQ Jamaicans are marginalized by laws that seek to preserve a status quo of discrimination and prejudice,” the group claimed in a statement.

“This case is just one of the many ways that LGBTQ Jamaicans are …  affirming their equal existence within society,” J-FLAG added.

The IACHR case isn’t the first time LGBTQ Jamaicans have attempted to challenge the country’s criminalization of homosexuality. In 2015, activist Maurice Tomlinson claimed the sodomy law is a “gross violation of [his] human rights and those of all LGBTQ people in [his] country” in an appeal to the Supreme Court of Judicature.

Tomlinson’s suit also cited the widespread violence against queer and trans Jamaicans resulting from the law.

Three years ago, a video went viral of a young gay man being stoned by an angry horde, who screamed homophobic slurs at the victim as he was pummeled to death. His assailants called him a “batty boy,” a pejorative term used to refer to effeminate men.

OutRight International told INTO that “momentum is building around the repeal of the buggery law, given the recent decision in Trinidad and Tobago.”

“We hope to see the IACHR make a clear recommendation to repeal the buggery law in Jamaica,” said Neish McLean, who serves as Caribbean program officer for the global LGBTQ advocacy group. “It would be important for the IACHR to carry out their mandate in supporting the protection of life and liberty as outlined in the American Convention on Human Rights.”

“Such a decision could help to change the culture of harm and the atmosphere of fear, not just for gay men, but for all LGBTQ people,” McLean added.

Last year Trinidad and Tobago struck down their colonial-era sodomy law. A historic ruling from the Indian Supreme Court, which repealed its gay sex ban in September, has given advocates further hope that countries like Jamaica will follow suit.

Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra called laws criminalizing homosexuality “irrational, arbitrary and indefensible.”

But even if the IACHR issues a verdict favorable to LGBTQ Jamaicans, advocacy groups note that the country still has a tremendous amount of work ahead before queer and trans people will be fully equal under the law. Jamaica forbids same-sex couples from jointly adopting children and has yet to take action against anti-gay conversion therapy.

Amnesty International further called upon Jamaican lawmakers to enact “comprehensive anti-discrimination laws that could protect LGBTQ Jamaicans from routine discrimination and human rights violations.”

“That the IACHR has accepted to look at this case is another important step in the struggle to ensure the human rights of all Jamaicans are protected,” said Elina Castillo Jiménez, a campaigner in Amnesty’s Caribbean team, in a statement to INTO. “Instead of defending laws that legitimize discrimination, Jamaica has the opportunity to go a step further.”

The IACHR will soon begin looking into the merits of legal arguments surrounding the sodomy law but has not set a timeline for its ruling.

Image via Getty


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.

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