Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Inefficacy of American-led Boycotts Against Jamaican Homophobia

I have always been ambivalent about the renewed call for a boycott of Jamaica by North American gay-rights activists. Though I believe that inaction should never be an option, I am mindful of the complexity of the situation at hand, and know fully well that a boycott of Jamaican products and tourism will not be sufficient to make the social environment more tolerant of minority sexualities and genders. The question one must then ask is this, whose interests are being served by calls to boycott Jamaica? The evidence on hand suggests that gay and lesbian Jamaicans who lead lives shrouded in fear and shame are not always a primary concern. 

Over the last decade, different organizations have sustained an assault on Jamaican musicians, who sing lyrics they deem objectionable. Much of Dancehall music is indeed homophobic, as much as it is sexist, misogynistic, and murderous. But, it is important to acknowledge the cultural context which gives rise to such an abhorrent reality, and holistically consider feasible strategies to induce progressive change. I have noticed that some of the translations of music from Jamaican Creole to English muddle the meaning of words and phrases, by using literal and superficial interpretations.

In their Dancehall Dossier published a few years ago, Outrage! deliberately attempted to portray Dancehall music as hate speech, supported by poor translations and misleading texts. For example, the first line offered as unequivocal proof that one Jamaican artiste, Beenie Man, spouts hate speech, is from his song, An Op De (Throw Your Hands in the Air). The line in the promotional document reads:
“Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope.”

One would imagine that the song’s primary intent is a directive to kill lesbians by hanging, but further consideration of the lyrics in their entirely yields a different truth. In my analysis, two lines in the chorus stand out as being particularly homophobic:

“Ef yu bon batiman mek mi si di an a go op”
“Ang chichi gyal wid a lang piis a ruop”

Someone without an understanding of Jamaica’s sociolinguistic culture would translate these two lines in English as follows:

“If you burn homosexuals let me see your hands going up”
“Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope”

In the literal English that is reminiscent of the misinformed translations in the dossier, the chorus continues:

“Burn hypocrites, let me see the hands going up”
“Hang witch doctors with a long piece of rope”

Jamaican is a language coloured with many violent metaphors, perhaps a reflection of the high levels of physical violence and aggression that are permissible in the society. In the song, the same murderous regard is offered for ‘hypocrites,’ or ‘haters’ as they are better known in America, and for witch doctors, who in Jamaica are thought to possess the ability to thwart your potential for success, if someone commissions them to do so. The assumption would be that Jamaicans dislike witch doctors to the extent that they do lesbians, and are advocating for them to be hanged en masse, but this is not the reality. Obeah men are feared, even revered, and their services are much sought after. “Burn” and “Hang” are not meant literally; they are not proclamations of war against the groups named, but denunciations of those groups whose actions are an affront to personal growth, and heterosexual hegemony- both important aspects of the Jamaican psyche.

The advocacy group singles out and reduces the content of An Op De to one objectionable line from the song, then characterized the artiste and his music, as homophobic. Clearly, there is an unaknowledged complexity to the imperative to denounce homosexuality in Jamaican popular culture. There is no equivalent world for homosexuality in Jamaican Creole, so it is possible that the artiste is denouncing homosexuality, and not homosexuals as a group of individuals. A more culturally sensitive, translation of the first line of the chorus could read:

“If you disapprove of homosexual lifestyles, let me see your hands going up.

This clearly reads very differently than "burn homosexuals." Fi bon out sitn (to "burn" something or someone) is a spoken show of disapproval, or distaste. So Jamaicans "bon out" witnesses to crimes who testify in court (infaama); oral sex practitioners (pusi soka); and the covetous among us, who do not like seeing others prosper (ipokrit).

The belief in a homosexuality-free global African cultural traditions is very prominent in Jamaica. Thus homosexuality is viewed as a foreign-derived corruption. Homosexuality is widely regarded as morally reprehensible, and few would deny the religious nature of Jamaican society, and the pertinence of such beliefs. The activists are decrying the wanton proclamation of violence against homosexuals, but it is perceived that they are forcing immorality upon the nation, or otherwise, an enlightened ideology, which again is evocative of centuries old European imperialism.

We need to act decisively, and with exigency, but not with ignorance of Jamaican culture, and misguided, singular approaches to dealing with its unique manifestation of homophobia. American gay rights activists have a very important role to play in the offensive against entrenched conservative values, but their efforts will only be fruitful if it is coupled with advocacy efforts within Jamaica. Homosexual, like Hispanic or Italian, is an identity marker in America, but in Jamaica, it is regarded as a lifestyle choice, a behaviour, akin to smoking, or exercising. We need to mobilize support in Jamaica to educate people about what it means to gay or lesbian. It is not enough to tell god-fearing Jamaicans that their opinion of homosexuality is bigoted and wrong, because then, we become bigoted ourselves.

No one culture has the authority to dictate morality. We seek to educate, not intimidate, as that could result in an epic backlash of violent proportions. Jamaicans will surely defend the legitimacy of their cultural mores, however retrograde we perceive them to be. This is their sovereign right.
We know what needs to be done. Let us do it well.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ragashanti Interviews 'Male Cross-Dresser'

I find the content of this interview quite objectionable, because Raga’s analysis is characterized by misunderstandings, and ignorance about human sexuality and gender identity. Sadly, she too supports the anachronistic gender binary, which renders people like her invisible.

Ragashanti ignorantly refers to her as being “gay” numerous times, as if to suggest that gay men typically cross-dress. This is a fallacy. Being effeminate does not equate to being a woman, and even so, many gay men are not effeminate. Therein lies a popular misperception that Ragahanti uses the interview to perpetuate. His insistence that she is not a woman is ridiculous, but understandable, since it is common knowledge that most Jamaicans conflate genitalia with gender identity. A baby with a penis is male, which means he must like trucks and the colour blue, and he will be attracted to girls. This reductionist model of human sexuality and gender fuels our belligerent reaction to gender non-conformists.

What does it mean to be male or female? When we meet people, we assume their gender based on their gender presentation- clothing being the most significant gender marker. It is improbable, that you would ask someone if they have the genitalia to match their gender presentation. This woman clearly has a feminine gender presentation, and has genuine interest in undergoing gender reassignment surgery. If the genitalia of all your friends whose genitalia you have not yet seen is insignificant to your understanding of their gender, then it shouldn’t be used to disqualify this woman’s claim that she is a woman.

Ragashanti expresses his desire for her to stop “deceiving” people. Gender is not something you turn off or on at will; it is inherent to your being. It is unfair to expect that this woman should conform to unrealistic gender norms that do not reflect the way she identifies herself. Deception is unavoidable in this situation, because she cannot speak truthfully about her gender without realistically fearing that she might be on the receiving end of vigilante justice. And for what? Many Jamaicans do not fit into the binary model of gender and sexuality. This may be hard to imagine, but males do not always have a penis, and having a penis does not necessarily indicate that someone is attracted to women. The sky will not fall, and the world will not end with the acknowledgement of this truth.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Gleaner on 'The Jamaican Gay Issue'

Does this venerable newspaper have an opinion on the 'homosexual issue'? Oftentimes, it publishes editorials slamming politicians and vigilante groups for perpetuating hatred, and using wanton violence against homosexuals. Other times, its pages are filled with poorly argued, homophobic rants without any disclaimer. The Flair this week includes an article entitled 'The Jamaican gay issue'. This inflammatory piece argues that violence against a minority group is acceptable when it is culturally sanctioned, and that crimes against gay men should not be taken seriously, because in all likelihood, the person was killed by their violence-prone lover.

Firstly, how is it logical to compare someone's choice to play cricket or baseball with their sexuality? The analogy is weak, when one considers that sexuality is an immutable human characteristic, and that homosexuality exists in every strata within every culture. When a country's laws and cultural practices sanction violence against a group of its people who have historically been marginalized, then I understand that foreign organizations will be moved to counsel us. Jamaicans are being hurt everyday- if not by physical violence, by feelings of guilt and shame about something that is normal. They feel that they do not belong in the country of their birth, and fear that mob murder is inevitable and imminent. Had the writer been the parent of a gay or lesbian child, I am sure s/he wouldn't support the status quo so vigorously. The world didn't stand by and wait during Apartheid, assuming that it was culturally acceptable to marginalize Black South Africans, so it'll have to wait till things change from within. People everywhere are able to identify injustice (or their perceptions of injustice) and will speak out against it in whatever capacity possible.

The writer ignorantly declares that foreigners should keep their baseball and allow Jamaicans to play their cricket. But, acknowledging someone's right to 'play baseball' has nothing to do with what game everyone else plays. To borrow from the weak analogy, why can't we play baseball and cricket in Jamaica, as we already are, albeit covertly? What s/he, and many others, fails to recognize is that there are thousands of gay men in Jamaica. This class of individuals does not have a powerful voice, and foreign groups have stepped in to help, so that this disenfranchised class can be acknowledged and one day guaranteed the rights that are offered to all Jamaican citizens, freedom from persecution and protection from the state. In the same way that it took great pressure from international organizations and nation states to overcome apartheid in South Africa, it might take a similar effort to dismantle the foundations of anti-gay rhetoric and action that flourishes on the island, and around the world. Cultural imperialism? Absolutely. Some things are just wrong. I accept that people can believe that homosexuality is sinful, but it cannot be okay to advocate for violence against a group of people.

Lastly, The Soloist supports the misconception that homosexuals are more violent than heterosexuals. This cannot be proved empirically, and belief in this libelous statement justifies police and government inaction in times when the rights of gay Jamaicans are being infringed. Typically, many have considered gay men only when they are casualties of homicide, or mob murder, so it is reasonable that they characterize gay men as jealous, violence-prone maniacs, or cross dressing, limp-wristed pseudo females- but these are stereotypes, and should be regarded as such. I do not doubt that there are gay men who were murdered by their lovers, but I will trust that the axe wielding lover is a minority, akin to their heterosexual counterparts, until I see evidence to the contrary. There has to be a rational voice in any discussion of homosexuality. The Soloist's published article gives credence to parochial propaganda. Through publishing this unsophisticated opinion piece, the Gleaner actively retrogresses from the advances it has made championing equal rights for all Jamaicans.