“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.

Buju Redux: What Boom Bye Bye Means


This cartoon is a play on Banton’s 2006 hit single ‘Driver A’, which ironically makes references to a hypothetical secret ganja (marijuana) smuggling operation in the U.S. Taken from Dancehall Mobi‘s website.

I just came across this rather nuanced and critical post on Buju on Afrobella’s blog and found myself responding at length. Thought i may as well cut and paste my response here. Afrobella was making several points (among them the absurdity of denying that Buju seems to have had more than a close encounter with a certain white powder) but I was responding to her point that contrary to what is claimed Buju does often still perform Boom Bye Bye. Here’s what she said:


“I know there are those that deny that Buju still performs the song, but I’ve seen him tease it, freestyle it, and rile up an audience with it more than once — most memorably in 2006, at Best of the Best in Miami. I turned and left that Buju concert because of that switch in his personality, from incredible entertainer to hatemonger at the drop of a beat…”


I found myself leaving the following response. My thoughts on all this are really developing in response to the opinions i come across on the subject in blogs and other online fora. i’ve added and edited my original response a bit here:
I too find the argument that Boom Bye Bye is such an old song, Buju doesn’t do it anymore etc, specious because at almost every concert he is required by the audience to at least gesture towards it in the way that you’ve mentioned, if not actually perform it. I’ve always believed that Jamaica’s anti-homosexual rhetoric especially as expressed in the music is much more than merely an exhortation of violence against homosexuals.

This one song Boom Bye Bye probably captures many of the varying targets for public disapproval in Ja in its seemingly straightforward lyrics originally written to protest the rape and kiling of a male child by, presumably, homosexuals. From targeting one particular homosexual rapist and murderer, the song went on to become an anthem targeting all such predators. The problem is that in Jamaica (as in many other places) male homosexuals are invariably seen as predatory and the proscription against predatory homosexuals then becomes one against all homosexuals.

Unfortunately matters have now got to the point where in addition to this conflation the figure of the homosexual has also become conflated with the evils of globalization in Jamaica. It is in effect as if the culture believes it is being raped by the outside world (as my Facebook friend Paul Anthony Vaughn would say: Violation!), and one of the manifestations of this is the demand by developed nations that homosexuality should be legalized or de-criminalized; another is the addition of programming on American/UK cable tv with central characters who are unabashedly homosexual; and of course there is the recent direct, concentrated pressure from international gay rights organizations on Jamaican musicians. I believe that when Buju’s audiences demand that he sing Boom Bye Bye and he playfully gives them the intro, wheels etc and appears to perform it or actually performs it it is an affirmation of Jamaica’s resistance to the onslaughts of globalization and not so much any longer a mere call to rid the nation of homosexuals. The audience’s response is one of jubilation at their mutual refusal to back down in the face of ‘unreasonable’ and arbitrary demands to change the culture from the outside.

anyway, that’s my take on all this. For me it’s actions, not so much lyrics, that count and Buju lost his stature in my eyes when he was accused of actually breaking into the house of and beating up some homosexuals so severely that they needed to be hospitalized. that’s when i stopped listening to his music as i used to before.

So in summing up, just as you and Sarah Manley have pointed out the good and bad sides of Buju, presenting a more nuanced portrait of this conflicted figure it’s necessary also to nuance what homosexuality represents in cultures such as Jamaica, that homosexuality too has its good and bad sides, to differentiate between predatory homosexuality and just being a homosexual…because its the latter that we want to defend not the former. And people do have a right to protest the former.

So in effect Boom Bye Bye has what in academic parlance is called ‘multivalence’. It is a multivalent allegory or text, meaning simply that it has multiple meanings. I now await the wrath of Long Bench and various anonymous friends. Please be gentle.

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!