Tucked away down the list of Time magazine’s 100 people in the world this year was Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller.
Her entry, by Brooklyn Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, lists her achievements, but the real reason she was included was because of what Time called her brave stance on supporting LGBT civil rights.
Jamaica does have a reputation as a very homophobic country — Time magazine itself asked the question in 2006 if it is ‘The most homophobic place on earth?‘ Its production of ‘murder music’, reggae and dancehall with lyrics encouraging the killings of gays, draws perhaps unwanted international attention every so often, as someone is found out to be sponsoring it or an artist is blocked from touring. While the actual violent murders of gays, lesbians and transgender people in Jamaica draws little attention, it does keep happening.
It was before her election at the end of last year that Simpson Miller said during a TV debate that no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and that, if elected Prime Minister, she would review the anti-gay buggery law.
The opposition tried to use her comments as a wedge issue during the last week of the election, but she still won.
Activists praised her comments as “historic” and they have also welcomed her inclusion in Time’s list. They regarded it as ‘incentivizing’ her to follow up on a commitment, a better way of ‘nudging’ her and Jamaica as a whole rather than tactics like boycotts, which have been threatened in the past with the consequence of a nasty backlash against gay people in Jamaica.
The country has seen slow but steady progress. ‘Murder music’ is declining as well as being increasingly seen as unwelcome in the culture. Polls show majorities, but decreasing ones, expressing anti-gay views. And the country has had a LGBT national organization, J-FLAG, now for 13 years, chipping away slowly and changing hearts and minds. More national figures than ever before are speaking out for LGBT people, though no one yet who is in the parliament.
Simpson Miller’s government has given little indication of when she might bring the colonial-era buggery law up for a vote in parliament, a vote which would also certainly see it kept in place. But it does have bigger concerns.
Four months after the election, the government is widely seen as having got off to a bad start with a badly handled and delayed budget, failure to secure an IMF agreement, Jamaican dollar depreciation and governance failures such as thousands of Jamaicans being exposed to toxic fumes for days from a city dump fire, while the government pretended that air quality was at acceptable levels.
Nevertheless, what Simpson Miller might do for Jamaica’s gays remains a Jamaican media concern — see this cartoon in the homophobic Jamaica Observer, for example. Even if comments from her ministers on her Time 100 appearance don’t make reference to just why she was listed and her official comments only make an indirect reference: “The Prime Minister continues to work to ensure that Jamaica is a better place for all its citizens.”
Even if the buggery law stays unreviewed in Jamaica’s parliament, the country will still have to decide whether to defend it, as it is was announced last year that the law would be petitioned at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Image courtesy of Government of Jamaica