Discussing attitudes towards homosexuality in Jamaica is a topic that I have so far avoided in my blogs. Writing from Jamaica, this could be paralleled to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. The island has repeatedly received international attention for its "anti-gay" social climate, particularly as it relates to the lyrics of some reggae and dancehall artistes. On deeper and broader levels, however, these attitudes towards homosexuality have permeated many aspects of life here, and have culminated in a strong sense that "to be Jamaican" is to disapprove of, at best, and abhor and eradicate at worst, homosexuality and more specifically homosexuals.
As a non-Jamaican, albeit one who has lived here for years, this has been a grey area for me, because the issues of sexuality in general, and homosexuality in Jamaica in particular, are very complex ones. In Jamaica, attitudes towards homosexuality seem to more visibly relate to relationships between men, and are typically placed in opposition to cultural ideas about masculinity and what it means "to be a man." Even in reference to same-sex relationships between women, the term "sodomite" is often used, again drawing the parallel between "aberration" and male homosexuality.
This strong adherence to gendered ideas about appropriate behaviors and relationships between women and men is further deepened by the overt and covert presence of a strong fundamentalist Christian base, which has resulted in cultural attitudes that call for fire and brimstone to be brought down on those who challenge – through their sexuality and sexual practices – these ideas of appropriateness.
What has clearly emerged is an environment marked by an unwillingness to change, despite the obvious impact that Western (in particular American) society has had on Jamaica. Coming out of this has been a strong sense of "Jamaican-ness,"
i.e. what it means to be Jamaican and "of Jamaica." Homosexuality is positioned in direct opposition to this "Jamaican-ness," and is taken to be a result of external influences on the island.
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This "Jamaican-ness" came sharply into focus for me in the past week. A textbook that was allegedly proposed by the Ministry of Education for inclusion in the home economics school curriculum came under fire due to its mention of same-sex unions and families. The home economics textbook in question includes a section stating, "When two women or two men live together in a relationship as lesbians or gays, they may be considered as a family. They may adopt children or have them through artificial insemination."
In response to the public outcry about the proposed inclusion of the text, Minister of Education, Andrew Holness, made reference to the "offensive clause" in the text, denying that it had ever been ministry-recommended, and further stating: "We want to make it absolutely clear that the Ministry of Education does not endorse or support the teaching of homosexual relationships as the accepted standard of family. We don't teach it and we don't recommend it."
This position has been supported by the Jamaica Teacher's Association (JTA), whose president Ena Barclay stated: "It [homosexual relationships] is not something that we embrace in Jamaica, and we can't ask our teachers to teach such a matter to students."
To put such a text in a public forum specifically for the use of children has been taken as an assault on the way things are done in Jamaica, resulting in a response that has unified many Jamaicans, rich and poor, who have been able to transcend social boundaries to condemn the text in unison.
Crime and murder rates in Jamaica are persistently high. Domestic and child abuse have continuously been cited as serious issues compromising the rights and lives of large numbers of women and children. There are serious social issues that warrant attention in this island, and it just seems to me that the collective energy that was brought to bear in the past week could be so much better used by focussing on issues such as those just mentioned.
In the meantime, "Jamaican-ness" reigns supreme, resulting in a climate in which an issue such as homosexuality are so taboo that it only seems to warrant wide-scale discussion when there is a collective move to clamp down on it, and ultimately, to eradicate it. This past week held the potential for serious discussions about the rights of human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation. There was the opportunity for us to really begin to talk openly and honestly about the lives and realities of members of this society.
Instead, Jamaican-ness has prevailed…and the gay textbook is out.