Examining Jamaica's Homophobia

Jamaica is known for beaches and warm weather, but for many gay and lesbian people living on the island, it's a place of hatred. A documentary, The Abominable Crime shines a light on homophobia and anti-gay violence in Jamaica. Host Michel Martin finds out more from filmmaker Micah Fink and human rights activist Maurice Tomlinson. This segment initially aired July 22, 2013 on Tell Me More.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It is Labor Day, a day to honor the world of work. Later, we'll meet a man whose work draws royalty and other well-heeled men to London's Savile Row for fine tailoring and design. And he's the youngest and first black tailor to make his mark there. We'll have an encore of our conversation with Ozwald Boateng.

But first, we want to head to a place where some lucky folk might be heading to enjoy the last days of summer. We're talking about Jamaica. For many people around the world, it stands for sun and fun. But for too many of its LGBT citizens, it can be a living hell. At least, according to a recent documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE ABOMINABLE CRIME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A man was killed after a heated argument with men who labeled him as homosexual.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The gruesome killing of 16-year-old Oshane Gordon, as well as the injuring of his mother.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The bodies of two men who are believed to have been homosexuals were found in an open lot on Trafalgar Road.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: This is the second chopping incident in recent times in the parish.

MARTIN: The film is called "The Abominable Crime" and it follows the personal stories of several gay and lesbian people in Jamaica. I recently spoke with filmmaker Micah Fink and gay rights activist and lawyer, Maurice Tomlinson, who was featured in the documentary. And I began our conversation by asking Micah, who's not Jamaican, how he got interested in this story.

MICAH FINK: I originally was commissioned to do a series of short films by PBS in Jamaica about HIV and AIDS. Jamaica has one of the highest AIDS rates in the gay community in the world. And the question was, why was that happening? And as we dug into it, it became apparent that there was very intense social factors that were driving the epidemic. And one of the social factors is the rampant homophobia that has come - to some degree - to define current contemporary Jamaican society.

MARTIN: Maurice, I just want to mention here, by trade, you're an intellectual property rights lawyer. How did you become a gay rights activist?

MAURICE TOMLINSON: I was, as you said, a intellectual property lawyer, commercial lawyer, in chambers. And I was pretty comfortable, but I had a desire to do some kind of social work.

MARTIN: Were you out at that point yourself?

TOMLINSON: No, no.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that you really had no intention of being out.

TOMLINSON: No, no, no, absolutely not. It was - I mean, commercially, that would have been professional suicide for me to be out. So once I started doing that, I started being confronted with these abuses, which I had no idea were happening because I lived in a bubble. I am from a privileged class and background. As Micah said, you read reports, but it really didn't touch and concern my life. But once I started talking to people about their rights as LGBT, it started forcing me to confront some issues that I wasn't very willing to do before.

And then I started, in response, writing to the newspapers, just interrogating, why are we so homophobic? Why are we doing these acts of violence to our LGBT brothers, sisters? And the backlash was, to me, astounding. I mean, people started calling for my death, saying that if we decriminalized private consensual acts of intimacy between men, it's going to lead to Sodom and Gomorrah or earthquakes on the magnitude of what happened in Haiti. What was most - I mean - unnerving for me that these statements were coming from people who I thought were intelligent and educated and, you know, exposed.

MARTIN: Micah, you interviewed Ernest Smith. He's a former Jamaican parliamentarian who you ask for perspective about the laws which remain on the book. I mean, homosexuality remains a criminal act. You ask him about his perspective on this. Let me just play a short clip from what he had say, and he's talking about a group Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, or J-FLAG. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "THE ABOMINABLE CRIME")

ERNEST SMITH: J-FLAG seeks to tell the world that homosexuals in this country are being violently abused. My answer to that, straight, is no, N-O, no. Most homosexuals are killed by other homosexuals because of jealousy.

MARTIN: Is that a common point of view?

FINK: It is. I mean, the reason we kept that in the film is because I heard that from countless people, countless educated, mostly upper-class Jamaicans. They absolutely denied anything was going on. And then I would meet with members of the gay community, and literally, the room was overflowing with people who said they had been attacked, stabbed, murdered, had friends who were chopped to pieces, had friends who were burned out of their houses. There's a profound disconnect in how people are thinking about this issue in Jamaica. And I found that, as a journalist, just fascinating.

MARTIN: One of the people you highlight in the documentary is a woman named Simone. And at the time of the documentary, she had been shot by some neighborhood men. She and her brother both were attacked. They're both gay. And she tried to get a visa to the U.S. to leave. And she said in the film that she feels like the walking dead.

Maurice, maybe I should go to you on this. How is it possible that people can have that level of violence and it still be under the radar, to even somebody like yourself who wasn't really aware of it until it was directed at you?

TOMLINSON: Well, you have to put it in context. In Jamaica, the level of violence is so high that as one minister official told me, why are we making such a big deal about attacks against gays? In Jamaica, we kill straight people, too. The reality is our murder rate is equivalent to some countries with civil wars. So the few, quote-unquote, gays that are killed really are easily ignored.

MARTIN: Simone made some really tough choices in the course of the film. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

FINK: Sure. Well, Simone, when I met her, was recovering from having been shot. As she says, the gunmen, as they stood over her, you know - said that the lesbian fi dead, which means the lesbian must die, as they shot her. When I first met her, she had a beautiful 7-year-old daughter, Kayla, who she was a single parent taking care of.

And as she recovered from her gunshot wounds, came out of the hospital, she realized that the men who had shot her had heard that she had survived, and were actually out hunting for her. So her and Kayla went into hiding over the next few months. When I would return, I'd meet with them in their safe house, and she would just express the anxiety she had that if anybody recognized her, they would simply kill her.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about "The Abominable Crime," that's a film that looks at homophobia and violence directed at LGBT people in Jamaica. We recently caught up with filmmaker Micah Fink and Maurice Tomlinson, who is a gay rights activist and lawyer who's featured in the documentary. Micah, you have to assume that part of her concern was that her daughter could be harmed as well. If somebody would shoot her in the street that way, that maybe the concern for her daughter's safety wouldn't be paramount.

So, you know, to that end, Maurice, you made a difficult decision to leave at some point. You are married to a man in the states, but you've gone back and forth to Jamaica. But at points, you have been concerned about the safety of your family members, correct? So tell me how you navigate that.

TOMLINSON: Well, I have had to make a tough decision not to return to my home in Montego Bay, where my parents still live, because I'm too well known, and it's such a small community. And it's just not safe. On one occasion, when I returned after my marriage was made public, I was at a stoplight and some guy saw me in the car and started calling a crowd. And there is the batty man, and that's the Jamaican term - the derogatory term - for homosexual.

And he started calling a crowd, and, thankfully, the light changed and we drove off. So as a result, when I do return, it's generally just to do the work I'm required to do, and I'm holed up in one particular location. And that has sucked the life and the joy out of returning to Jamaica.

MARTIN: Well, why is it worth it to you?

TOMLINSON: If every single LGBT left Jamaica, nothing will change.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, Maurice, how do you feel the media - the local media - covers these issues?

TOMLINSON: That is a show in and of itself, as Micah will tell you. We have two major newspapers and two major television stations. And it's Fox News versus MSNBC, you know, one very tolerant, trying to be very balanced, and the other just way out there - wacko, gays are an abomination and we are, you know, going to lead to Sodom and Gomorrah - the whole nine yards.

FINK: Michel, it may help you just to set your barometer here. When I first went to Jamaica, I interviewed the Reverend Harold Blair. And you know, this is the most liberal voice. And what he said is he had recently taken a courageous stand and came out and said that gay people should not be killed by violent mobs. That was the radical progressive voice in Jamaica.

TOMLINSON: But he then also said he dislikes homosexuality and, you know, he would prefer his son to be a thief rather than be...

FINK: Yes, and he said that gays may ultimately lead to the destruction of life on earth, but still, publicly speaking, he is one of the most liberal voices in Jamaica and the national peacemaker.

MARTIN: How is Simone doing, by the way? How is she doing?

FINK: Simone and Kayla are doing great. They've really firmly rooted themselves in Holland, where they've sought asylum. And Kayla's excelling in school and Simone is training herself to be a nurse.

MARTIN: Wow, that was an amazing story.

TOMLINSON: Yes, it touched a lot of people at the screening. People were very moved by it - by Kayla's story.

MARTIN: Maurice, how old is your son?

TOMLINSON: My son is 12.

MARTIN: Twelve, and is he with you?

TOMLINSON: No, he lives with his mother in Belize. A country I cannot...

MARTIN: In Belize, oh...

TOMLINSON: ...Yes.

MARTIN: Well, how does your former wife feel about your coming out, is she OK with it, or is she mad at you?

TOMLINSON: Well, the thing is, she knew about my homosexuality for 10 years before we got married. I mean, she was my quote-unquote fag hag for 10 years. I mean, she knew all my boyfriends, etc. But then when my last gay relationship failed and her straight relationship failed, we thought, well, you know, let's try the marriage thing, it might cure me and will help her.

And of course, when that didn't work, it was an acrimonious divorce. But we maintain our civility because of our son. And as I was saying earlier, that she now lives with him in Belize and because of the law in Belize, which bans the entry of homosexuals, I am trying to sue that country to get access to see him.

MARTIN: Maurice Tomlinson is a lawyer and human rights activist who divides his time between Jamaica and the U.S. He joined us from member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. Micah Fink is a filmmaker and producer of the documentary "The Abominable Crime" in which Maurice Tomlinson is featured. He joined us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

FINK: Thank you, Michel.

TOMLINSON: Thanks, Michel.

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