Why It Can Be Hard to Be Tolerant

When you think of the word, “tolerance” what comes to mind? I’ve pondered on this word many times since I’ve arrived to Jamaica. If you Google the term, it can be defined as, “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions, beliefs, and practices that differ from one's own.”[1]

Our favorite driver’s statement accessory for his car.This definition seems simple and easy to uphold, but in my opinion, it is not, and continues to be a default word used in many circumstances while working abroad. After partaking in daily conversations and learning sessions here in Jamaica, I think tolerance in some circumstances will be an uphill battle for me throughout my 6 months here. Being Canadian, we are privileged with the opportunity to partake in free speech and as such, I am used to not keeping a “permissive attitude” to topics and ideas that I strongly believe in.

Let's hope I am put to good use!Thus, I am going to use this opportunity and safe space to contest my thoughts and opinions of some of the pressing issues here in Jamaica today, because lets face it, most of us only really associate Jamaica with beaches, Usain Bolt, Bob Marley, and a relaxed culture. But first, I want to provide a disclaimer, this is not an attempt to prove my opinion is right and things here in Jamaica should be done a certain way. It is instead a chance to express my opinion and share some facts and stories to ponder. I am still naïve and I am not claiming to be an expert in human rights. Finally, and most importantly, I highly respect the Jamaicans who I continue to meet and work with here, it is a unique country and an incredible place for anyone to experience, if given the opportunity.

I would like to talk about gender rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Jamaica, as it pertains to my work for the next 6 months. Here, myself and two other interns are working for the Jamaican Family Planning Association (JFPA) - one of the oldest family planning organizations in the Caribbean and the Americas. It is an organization committed to increasing health services to poor and vulnerable communities and to advocate for the rights of those who remain excluded for a variety of reasons. St. Rachel Ustanny, our CEO, is a highly educated and strong woman who I look forward to work with, and learn from over the next 6 months. Our first task was to research, research, and do more research on everything to do with sexual and reproductive health, human rights, and health advocacy within Jamaica.

Conference activities collaborating with other great minds! First off, do yourself a favor and read up on the amazing and powerful work carried out by Jamaicans for Justice[2] (JFJ) and J-FLAG (the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays).[3] These organizations are made up of educators, lawyers, human rights activists, and media and public relations personnel. They get hot issues out to the public, educate, and provide safe spaces for individuals to express their rights and opinions freely. In fact, on the second day we arrived in St. Ann’s Bay, tired and hungry, we received a gracious invite to attend a human rights conference put on by these organizations. At that point, we were immediately thrown into the politics and problems Jamaica currently faces today.

A mural of Dr. Lenworth Jacobs and Beth Jacobs –founders of JFPA. Many heated debates can be brought forth with regards to current Jamaican laws, as it is evident that throughout history (as in many parts of the world), diverse groups have been victims of hate crimes because of their religion, ethnicity, economic, political and/or sexual orientation. LGBT persons in Jamaica face legal and social challenges where the 1864 Offenses Against the Person Act (OAPA) states that it prohibits anal sex between men in public or in private, punishable by 10 years in prison with hard labour (see section 76 “buggery” law), and that “gross indencency” between two men is a misdemeanor punishable by 2 years in prison.[4] This Act goes back to the colonial days, and  although Britain has changed their laws, Jamaica became independent before the amendent to their constituion was made.

Taking a closer look, you can see in this definition that it applies only to men. Women are usually “turned a blind-eye” to, but still face discrimination and are victimized. Contrary to what you may think, it is not illegal to be homosexual in Jamaica, the law simply makes specific “acts” illegal. Talk about complicated. See articles 76 to 79 of the OAPA for greater detail.[5] As such, the state’s intolerance to the LGBT community has lead to actions such as public fear of expressing oneself on a daily basis, assault and/or murder, and the denial of freedom of expression and protection from violence.

In one conversation we had with our bright and enthusiastic colleague, they stated that they have a patient that comes in to the clinic who is rumoured to be gay in the community. When other patients see him walk in, they get upset and angry at our clinic for allowing him to be in the same room as them. As such, JFPA invites him to come in at odd hours of the day for his safety and comfort to receive services. Our colleague reminds us that we have to be tolerant sometimes of these situations, as the last thing they want to do is deny him healthcare. It is estimated that only 30% of key populations (defined as transgender adolescents, gay and bisexual adolescent boys, adolescents who inject drugs and adolescents who sell sex), are being reached to receive HIV and sexual and reproductive health services.[6] As an advocate for accessable healthcare for all individuals, this is a statistic I struggle with.

As interns, we have a moral duty to remain neutral on political issues, this is primarily to protect ourselves and live safely in a foreign country with different laws. Therefore, we have to remain tolerant to the wide intolerance towards individuals who are denied certain rights and freedoms, unfortunately. Here’s another example, my roommates and I went to a bar on Saturday, the music was great and everyone was having fun. All of a sudden the DJ announced on the microphone, “In Jamaica, we don’t like dem ‘batty boy’”, and proceeded to play a song I can only assume related to this. In exception to myself and the other two interns, no one was phased by these words. “Batty man” (or boy) is an aggressive slang word used to label gay men, and it is dangerous to be used in conversation. Infamous dancehall stars here in Jamaica such as Buju Banton, Vybz Kartel, and Beenie Man, are widely known to have homophobic lyrics, although they are argued to just be metaphorical. In any case, many people have been attacked or killed when held under this label, and there are no laws against such hate crimes to protect them.[7],[8]

JFPA is a member association with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).I hope you can get my drift that coming from a priviledged environment of free speech, different laws, protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity (although there are always exceptions to this in Canada), tolerance isn’t easy and will continue to be a challenge for any international worker. I am also not saying that every person who believed in the Buggery Law is a terrible person. It comes down to politics, culture, safety, and alloting to the theme of this blog, tolerance vs. intolerance.

I have a huge respect for organizations such as J-Flag and JFJ that exist here. They have made great strides in attempting to change the laws and attitudes here in Jamaica today, seeking justice for individuals of such crimes when possible. Work is being done to tackle this issue, and stumbling across a news article that states, “…work is finally being done in Jamaica, by Jamaicans, to tackle this aggressive policing of heterosexuality. And this is integral for change to happen; more than we need western intervention, we need Jamaicans who are ready to take the initiative”.[9] This in my opinion, is a noteworthy step.

I’ll end with this quote:

“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. You care less about the world as it has been, and more about the world as it should be and can be”–President Barack Obama, Town Hall with Young Leaders of the Americas, Kingston, Jamaica.[10]

Our new Friday hang out spot!Georgia Venner is working as Health Education Programme Manager with Jamaica Family Planning Association/FAMPLAN in Jamaica.

[1] Tolerance. (2016). Retrieved from: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/tolerance

[2] Jamaicans for Justice. (2016). About. Retrieved from: http://jamaicansforjustice.org

[3] J-Flag. (2016). About. Retrieved from: http://jflag.org/

[4] J-Flag. (2014). What Jamaican Law says about Homosexuality – “Buggery Law”. Retrieved from: http://jflag.org/what-jamaican-law-says-about-homosexuality-buggery-law/

[5] Ministry of Jamaica. (1864). Offenses Against the Persons Act. Retrieved from: http://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Offences%20Against%20the%20Person%20Act_0.pdfhttp://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Offences%20Against%20the%20Person%20Act_0.pdf

[6] Jamaica. (2014). National Integrated Strategic Plan for Sexual and Reproductive Health & HIV, 2014-2019.

[7] Human Rights Watch. (2004). Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/11/15/hated-death/homophobia-violence-and-jamaicas-hiv/aids-epidemic

[8] Vice News. (2014). Young and Gay: Jamaica’s Gully Queens. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILXVpFQVEbw

[9] The Guardian. (2014). Why do so many Jamaicans hate gay people? Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/06/jamaica-music-anti-gay-dancehall-homophobia

[10] The White House. (2015). Remarks by President Obama in Town Hall with Young Leaders of the Americas. Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/04/09/remarks-president-obama-town-hall-young-leaders-americas