“Out and bad”? The politics of homosexuality in Jamaica

A response to the statement by Senior Jamaican police officer Bailey about the role of homosexuals in crime here.

Clovis, Jamaica Observer, July 13, 2011

The news media in Jamaica continues to score high on the #fail scale. Yesterday several media entities reported that Senior Superintendent Fitz Bailey had announced that young gay men were behind most organised crime in Jamaica. If you watch the video below you will hear Bailey explaining that what he said was that 80-90% of the culprits arrested for the infamous lottery scam which has generated an alarming number of murders in recent years were homosexuals.

Bailey never said anything about organized crime. He was very specific, he was talking about the Lottery Scam and the high number of homosexuals implicated in it.

“I have empirical data to support that. We have the responsibility to investigate these cases (and) we’re not targeting any specific group or saying people should go and attack anyone. All I’m talking about is the profile of the individuals (involved in the lottery scam) just like we talk about the profile of persons who are involved in child sexual exploitation,” SSP Bailey stated Tuesday evening, July 12, on RJR’s daily current affairs discussion programme Beyond The Headlines.

What empirical data is he talking about? According to an interview Bailey gave on Newstalk 93FM this morning the criminals self-identify as homosexual when they are charged so that they can be protected from hostile, gay-hating inmates in prison. Bailey said there was even one ‘area leader’ or don who declared his sexuality openly when arrested. For some reason this puts me in mind of something Marlon James told me in an interview I did with him on The Silo six or so months ago–that he was fascinated by the idea of balletic young [Jamaican] men dancing, machine gun in hand as it were. Here’s a few outtakes from that interview:

–you need the person firing the short sharp shots–the jackhammer–but you also need the person who can survey coz jackhammers can’t heal–

–you need the nuanced take as well…the nuanced take is just as important as the polemic…

–my new novel is about killers, in fact its about the killers of killers…something i’ve always been fascinated by–the people who do the actual killing, not the ones who decide on a hit–

–its funny–you go to Passa Passa (the most hardcore event on the dancehall calendar), there was one guy–you know jamaican dancehall moves are very sort of graceful,  almost effeminate, i know i’m going to get killed for this but its very  ornate and very delicate…and somebody pointed him out to me and said y’know that’s one of the biggest gunmen out here–this whole idea of the super graceful killer, i find it fascinating, you know? almost like a ballet dancer who kills on the weekend…

So its not true that Bailey’s statement, abhorrent as it may seem, was based on observing such superficial tendencies as clothing, mannerisms and speech patterns on the part of the criminals the police had apprehended in the Lottery Scam or the credit/debit card scams–it was based on the high number of those arrested who told the police that they were gay! And as Bailey further explained this was not surprising because if gay prisoners are not kept separate from the straight prisoners it could result in tragedy as it did in 1997 when 16 homosexual prisoners were brutally killed in anti-gay prison riots.

This morning I recieved an email from an old friend. I quote it verbatim for what its worth:

Remember that 60s slogan “I’m Black and I’m Proud?”
Its back with a twist.re: Policeman’s statement that gays are open about their orientation and not hiding it. He said they are major players in lottery scam and Credit Crad/Debit card scam. Also said last kidnapped victim was tortured:

I do believe that the gays are “Gay and Proud” and not afraid to flaunt it.

They are not hiding anymore, at least not the younger, effeminate ones.

We had a couple in our community who would flaunt it in your face, sat on verandah in female panties and bra, ran down one another with machete, had female names for each other, had male only parties, cross dressed, made passes at the census taker and the male teens, prostitution.

Anyway they were sent on their way.
Sure others are still here, male and female but those behave without violence toward one another nor threats to the neighbours.
They moved nearby and started the whole thing all over again so the neighbours marched on their residence.

The situation has changed so Gomes/Jamaicans for Justice must keep up.

I think that before we can proceed all sides need to be heard. The gay rights position has been articulated loudly, clearly and frequently, bolstered by the muscle of international gay rights organizations. It’s time to listen to what some Jamaicans are saying about why they are often driven to hostile thoughts and actions. The fact is that the behaviour described in the email above would attract the same reaction were it heterosexuals who were causing such problems instead of homosexuals.

I end by quoting the kind of nuanced take Marlon James probably had in mind when he mentioned it in that interview. It’s by my dear friend Kei Miller, whose sharp new blog Under the Saltire Flag  has considerably enriched the blogosphere in recent times:

Elephant Man’s 2001 hit ‘Log On’ has always seemed to me to contain contradictory instructions. On the one hand he encourages us to ‘log on’ – to actively participate in the new virtual world of the internet, and perhaps more broadly, to sign up to the future (quite literally, for the act of logging on often requires a name and a password). On the other hand he asks that we ‘step pon chi-chi man’ – that we continue in a posture of virulent homophobia, a regressive attitude which most will agree is incompatible with this other idea of progress.

Unsurprisingly, the song drew the ire of international human rights activists. Yes yes – that again! If you’ve begun to roll your eyes, I can forgive you, because it truly is a tiresome issue. About this, I have always been conflicted. On the one hand I support the idea that basic human rights should be extended to each and every citizen, and wherever this is culturally ambiguous, the law should be made to underline these rights clearly.

On the other hand I feel that a lot of the international human rights campaigns have been compromised by a deep contempt for the societies on whose behalf they campaign.

Look – people are not idiots. There is what a man says, and then again, there is what he actually means. Most people are fully capable of hearing beyond the noise of the first, to the subtlety of the second. So when an activist, in London for instance, says, ‘Oh this is outrageous! Jamaica really ought to protect the rights of its most vulnerable citizens, especially members of the glbt community!’ … what Jamaicans actually hear (and they are usually right) is:  ‘Oh Jamaica, how I pity you! You primitive, savage and barbaric people! Also, I would like you to know that I am better than you!’

You know, it really is contemptuous that a country that took a few hundred years to ‘progress’ in its own attitudes should feel that the rest of the world (very often her former colonies saddled with her discarded laws and her old ideas of morality) should be ‘up to de time’ as soon as she is. And it is a very hard thing for the people of a former colony to accept lessons in human rights from people who for centuries had denied them theirs.

Jamaican attitudes towards homosexuality are shifting. Those who militate on behalf of gay rights here and elsewhere need to respond to this, rather than to non-existent straw men.

The LGBT Community and Rhetorical Rastas/DJs

Its the last day of a long weekend which began on Thursday evening with a really special experience for me. I was invited to be part of a forum in San Francisco. For details see the poster below where i’m listed as ‘Prof’ Annie Paul (chuckle).
No Title
The comments below the poster were borrowed from Yardedge.net, a great site for news on the entertainment and cultural scene in Jamaica.

Here’s an interesting forum happening next week on the dancehall music/culture scene- a simulcast between gay and straight folks in the San Francisco area and Kingston.

The forum will be addressing relevant issues including a proposal to initiate a BUYCOTT of artists, instead of BOYCOTT of artists. The “bUycott” is being put forward as a socio-politically conscious economic initiative in which LGBT-allied consumers (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people) offer their business to Jamaican recording artistes, small exporters, international brands, tourist destinations, etc, with demonstrated progressive human rights attitudes and practices. The forum will explore some ideas and strategies for organizing and undertaking the LGBT-allied Jamaica bUycott. The idea is to basically to reward artists who are promoting non-violent, positive vibes.

The forum will take place at the Hall Of Culture, African-American Art & Cultural Complex in SF. Contact ajawowheel@gmail.com for the Kingston location information.

The forum hopes to encourage progressive dialogue and partnership between Jamaicans and people abroad as well as to raise U.S. awareness about dancehall music’s current role in Jamaican culture and society and to present the music in a broader context for the San Francisco audience.

So it was really cool linking with the folks in San Francisco from my living room in Kingston. I was on for the full two hours and a thorough discussion was had along the lines described by Yardedge above. One of the other participants was Andrea Shorter, the woman with locks in the top centre of the infamous photograph above. She was a bit of a tough customer but Nic Ming, a Jamaican self-styled LGBT, moderated us out of troubled waters with engaging calm and wisdom.

I made several points that evening. One that if the homophobic rhetoric in Jamaican music was really taken seriously by the people who consume it there wouldn’t be a single gay person left alive in the island. On the contrary a number of very high profile individuals who occupy the highest positions in this society are homosexual, although they cannot publicly admit this. And therein lies the rub. Jamaicans really don’t have a problem with homosexuals as long as they remain in the closet. And older generations of gay men and women have generally obliged.

Today however there are younger gay men and women who are not willing to live closeted lives. They want to be out–dressing effeminately if they choose, or not, but letting everyone know who and what they are. I made the point that a few years ago there was a local hit called Out and Bad by Elephant Man (first heard Agostinho Pinnock refer to the song in this context) which though not explicitly referencing being gay–it was a celebration of the dance scene and the latest dance at the time–the Willie Bounce–could nevertheless be read to be a defiant assertion by the very gay-appearing dancers who populate Kingston’s street dances. Dance will never die/Out and bad so badly bad/It a get intensify/…

The other thing i pointed out and i’m by no means the first to do so, is that the pressures of globalization, that is, the huge cultural changes that have taken place here and all over the world in response to the forces of economic globalization, are somehow mapped onto the body of the homosexual. He/she embodies, even personifies, the negative influences seen as penetrating society from the outside, from ‘foreign’. “Keep us free from evil powers” goes a line in the Jamaican national anthem and i would argue that gays/homosexuals are seens as the emissaries of unnamed ‘evil powers’.

This in turn has to do with the power relations undergirding the battle for space and legitimacy by the LGBT community. LGBTs often claim that their struggle for recognition and equal rights is no different from similar struggles by other once disenfranchised groups–Black people’s continuing fight against racism, women’s struggles against gender discrimination, the war by the colonized against the colonial yoke, the fight for freedom from slavery and so on. But as i pointed out there is one major difference between all these groups and the LGBT lobby and that is this: the LGBT lobby has power, it has economic power, and is able not only to flex its muscles but to cause severe damage as it has shown in recent years with the ongoing targeting of so-called murder music by Jamaican DJs. The marginalized groups previously mentioned were all waging wars from below; the campaign waged by Tatchell and others is, like the US embargo against Cuba, one that is fought from a position of power. And like the Cuban embargo, i maintain, it will have limited success and the people who suffer the consequences will be the very people on whose behalf you’re mobilizing.

By exclusively targeting Jamaican DJs, whose constituencies are the poor and marginalized, the ‘wretched of the earth’, LGBTs are re-inforcing the underlying power imbalance. They are now seen as representing not merely ‘evil powers’ but rich and powerful evil powers. And this is the message not only from Dancehall music but from the pulpit and parliament. As Tara Atluri pointed out in a groundbreaking paper titled “When the Closet is a region: Homophobia, Heterosexism and Nationalism in the Commonwealth Caribbean” some years ago, this is not a Jamaican problem only:

…From popular culture to constitutional inequity, homosexuality is dismissed, loathed and ignored by mainstream Caribbean culture. I feel that this fear of homosexuality keeps gender roles sharply intact, thereby normalizing sexism. Furthermore I feel that homophobia and heterosexism are reinforced by Caribbean nation states, based on a discriminatory nationalism that uses both religious conformity and conformity to capitalist patriarchy as a basis for inclusion.


Atluri remarked on the difficulty of finding material, research or willing interlocutors on the subject of homophobia. On the subject of dancehall music and offensive lyrics she made an interesting observation:

Silence and shame guard Caribbean homosexuality. Therefore, i have found few avenues upon which to form an analysis of heterosexism and homophobia in the region. Popular culture, in the form of dancehall and reggae seems to be some of the only and concrete cultural discourses in which attitudes towards homosexuality are expressed outright. While dancehall and reggae lyrics have come under fire for their crude portrayal of sexual politics, they offer an opening. They are explicit. And while they may be explicitly prejudiced, they do what respectable silences do not. They start the conversation.

I couldn’t have put it more eloquently. I’m glad that I was invited to to put in my two paisa worth in that forum in San Francisco. I’m glad that discussions such as this are taking place. And I don’t mean to close this conversation on an unpleasant note but the video below is extremely pertinent to the subject we’ve been examining in this post. It may make us want to tear our hair out but in this South African interview Sizzla clearly articulates a widespread set of attitudes in Jamaica. To combat such views nothing less than the most informed and sophisticated strategy of engagement is required.

Rhetorical Rasta

“Controversial reggae musician Sizzla Kalonji speaks to the Mail & Guardian about homosexuality, his music and Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe whom he recently met while performing at his birthday celebrations in Bulawayo during his African tour.”

(Unfortunately there was no means to embed this video in my blog so you will have to click on the link to get it.)

Pressure in Berlin: Will Mr. Vegas’s show be cancelled?

RT @MrVegasMusic: There’s a attack against reggae music,now they want me to meet with the head of police in germany to say I will not sing certain songs. they will also be sending their representative who speak patois to the venue to hear if I am singing certain lyrics, so if I do not meet with the police chief my show will be cancel,what is reggae gone to,the bible said it best,whosoever does not take the mark of the beast 666 will not be able to work,nor buy,nor sell,lord your word is coming to pass.

it does not matter if you sing about them or not, as long as you do reggae or dancehall,u will have to meet with them, we’re now being mocked. I don’t give a hell about these people I do not sing them, their shit is their shit, long as they stay in their lane mi nuh business with them. so it is provoking when you trying to get people involve who has stayed far from this shit.



These heartfelt words come from dancehall singjay Mr. Vegas (one of my favourite ‘artistes’), who is touring Germany right now. Apparently the anti-oral sex crusader (‘Heads High’) is feeling the effects of the international gay rights ‘murder music’ campaign. Mr. Vegas uttered these sentiments on Twitter this morning (Dec. 9) in a series of tweets (which i’ve amalgamated here), each ending with the abbreviation ‘cont.’ to indicate continuation, a clever way of getting around the 140 character limit of the medium. Full marks to Mr. V for adept use of the technology. I tell you–if only our journalists would take a leaf out of his book. This, dear PAJ members, is how news is communicated these days; if you want to keep abreast of what’s going on, you need to tweet.

Because Tweety Bird gets the worm, coz Tweety Bird is the early bird! Will Mr. Vegas go to see the German Police Commissioner? Will his show be canceled (He is scheduled to perform in Berlin tonight)? We watch and wait…

5 pm
And a few hours later another series of tweets from Mr. Vegas apparently after he did the needful:
Read.You are not allowed to do public: Appeals,or statements for, discrimination,violation,hatred,or even murder,offensive or insult. no such statements,no such lyrics,no such gestures,against anyone or community,due to race, color,religion,ideology,political views, opinions,ethic,or social origins or lineage,sexual orientation,gender,disability,genetic,features,age or any other personal community, bound characteristics.to German law and German foundation any people living here are equal.any violation of these principles would be a criminal offense and may lead to an arrest and expulsion and will cause criminal proceedings by official [public] prosecutor. in addition a complete suspension for entering the countries of the European Union may be signed on you.[We will give a report to the authorities of other German cities,it might be the base for the decision of taking measures due to your concerts over the .signed vegas.

so I just took the mark of the beast, I sold out God for vanity and Gold.

    This is ironic because Mr. Vegas is not one of those who utters anti-homosexual lyrics. So as he points out the attack seems to be against the music now, not individual performers guilty as charged.


    Meanwhile here is a video of Mr. Vegas’s hit “I am Blessed”. Some wonderful footage. Hopefully the blessings extend to Germany…

    Eyeless in Gaza (and Gully): ‘Mi deh pon di borderline’

    Clovis Brown, Wednesday, October 7 2009, Jamaica Observer

    Gaza. Gully. The two words, inscribed in locations all over Kingston and Jamaica, signify internecine zones of conflict competing for supremacy in the dancehall universe here. For those who don’t know: Gaza=Kartel and Gully=Mavado. Mavado, popularly known as ‘Gully Gad (God)’, comes from Gullyside in Cassava Piece, an impoverished community in the foothills of Kingston. Kartel comes from a neighbourhood in Portmore that was once known as BORDERLINE.

    And thereby hangs a tale. A story you wouldn’t find in the normal media yasso which specializes in skimming the surface and shallow moralizing. The Jamaican media generously accommodates both sinners and sermonizers, protecting the former by voluntarily gagging themselves and the latter by giving them as many column inches as their sermons demand. In the US it is citizens who usually “plead the fifth” and have “the right to remain silent”, both stemming from the Fifth Amendment of their constitution. In Jamaica the media seem to have arrogated such rights to themselves; they provide a minimum of in-depth coverage of events apparently on the grounds that the information given could be used as evidence against them!

    So like me, you may not have known the etymology of the term ‘Gaza’ in the Jamaican context (Talk bout the media being eyeless in Gaza!) or why Borderline came to be so renamed. It’s a fascinating story which is intimately connected (as a batty is to a bench you might say) with this culture’s notorious attitude towards male homosexuals or ‘batty’ men as they are called here.

    http://www.facebook.com/profile/pic.php?uid=AAAAAQAQVI9_PpNzEuTOnAdJ4J37_AAAAAoXoDCB-q_XlO3LZXDM3JMF
    Shebada Ramsay, the ‘Gender Bender’

    It all has to do with an actor called Shebada, the star of a super successful series of plays put on by Stages Productions. This company produces what is known in local parlance as ‘roots plays’, a kind of farcical, over the top production with picaresque characters performing or acting out the issues of the day. Sex is a big part of it, and subtlety is not, but Stages Productions whose slogan is “Comedy is serious business” always plays to full houses.

    Stages Productions has also pioneered the explicit exploration of alternative sexualities and Shebada himself, whose stage persona is camp as they come and twice as provocative, sports a bleached face and gay-ish attributes that complicate the argument that Jamaica is unremittingly hostile to Gays. In fact international Gay rights groups who have targeted the island’s musicians repeatedly would do well to analyze such productions and feed the resulting insights into their jackhammer strategies at outing and combating what is touted worldwide as Jamaican homophobia.

    The induction of the name ‘Gaza’ into the Jamaican firmament came about because in the very first insanely popular Stages Production, Bashment Granny, there is a scene where a policeman confronts the sinuous Shebada asking “Yu a man or yu a woman?” “Mi deh pon di borderline” declares Shebada unabashedly, emphasizing his retort with an exaggerated wag of his hips. The phrase became so popular in the context of discussions about sexuality that Vybz Kartel decided that the name of his community ‘Borderline’ had been irrevocably contaminated by association. He therefore adopted the name of the most violent place he could think of at the time—Gaza in Palestine.

    Again Fernando Guereta, or Mr. Previous, as I have nicknamed him, the man responsible for the film, Why Do Jamaicans Run so Fast? has been quick off the mark. He is already in the middle of his next film, which documents the Gully Gaza phenomenon (please note he was NOT the source of information for this post). The interview with him I promised is still pending. I will unveil it over the course of the coming week. In the meantime check out these two video clips of Shebada in Bashment Granny (the relevant declaration is four and a half minutes into the first one). The second one has some priceless footage of Shebada teaching Bashment Granny how to walk and dance with credibility. Enjoy!

    Gay Courage

    Alright, so Active Voice wasn’t such a good choice of a blog title considering it’s been more than a month since my initial posting. How active is that, right? Its one thing to celebrate being rid of editors, but what’s hard to cope with is the accompanying loss of deadlines. It’s a terrible thing to admit but I’ve discovered how abjectly dependent I am on deadlines to get the words flowing.

    Anyway, this morning I’m cracking the whip on myself so let’s see how far I can get. Try as one might it’s hard to get away from the subject of the police in Jamaica and the lamentable excesses they can’t seem to help perpetrating in the course of discharging their duties (the latest is that an 11-month old infant was killed by a police bullet yesterday while in another part of the country a number of legit farmers lost their crops after a fire set by police officers in a neighbouring ganja field got out of control). Some weeks ago the nation was convulsed by the confession of Detective Constable Cary Lyn-Sue, who admitted to falsification of witnesses and evidence and on the heels of this came another cop confession—this time from Constable Michael Hayden, announcing that he was gay and proud of it and that he was suffering active discrimination and abuse from his colleagues because of this.

    I had started a blog on the subject some weeks ago but then the New York Times carried a substantive article on both Hayden and the abuse and harassment of male homosexuals in Jamaica (February 24, 2008) so I thought it redundant to express my views on this vexed issue right then. Suffice it to say that far more education and honest debate on the subject needs to take place here. At the same time international gay rights organizations also need to educate themselves on the very complex reasons for what is being termed Jamaican homophobia.

    What I mean by this is that just as white feminists realized gradually that they could not determine the feminist agenda for the rest of the world because of differing social, cultural and historical conditions elsewhere so must organizations such as GLAD, Outrage and others develop a more modulated and nuanced strategy when trying to intervene in the sexual politics of places such as Jamaica (in this context they could start by reading Marlon James latest blog ). A ‘one size fits all’ approach is bound to fail; in the process it also makes the terrain that much more dangerous for the most vulnerable homosexual of all, the impoverished, working-class male.

    The climate of terror and violence towards homosexuals is to be condemned unequivocally. I had the opportunity to talk with both Andre and Michael Hayden, two of the principals mentioned in the NYT article on a local radio show that I was co-hosting. Andre was among a group of men in Mandeville whose home was stormed by a mob of cutlass-wielding men who proceeded to beat and ‘chop’ them for nothing more than their sexual orientation. It was hard to look at Andre, a gentle, dreamy-eyed youth sitting in front of me covered in ugly scars and bandages and not want to reach out and hug him and apologize for the barbaric treatment that he had recieved.

    Likewise it was impossible not to admire the courage of young Michael Hayden who decided to come out and defend his rights both as a police officer and as a human being. According to him it was rumours spread by policemen at the station he worked at who knew that he was in the habit of visiting the house that may have incited the mob attack (According to Hayden female police officers–perhaps he reasoned, because they go through the experience of childbirth–were far more sympathetic to him and the gay cause in general). It is refreshing to see such fierce and forthright outspokenness in someone who has finally decided that he’s not willing to remain silent any more. If only more of the rich and powerful gays here could find the courage to speak out too it would make all the difference; it’s hard to see the situation here changing anytime soon unless this happens.