"No support for these anti-murder music campaigns" (english)

Interview with: 
Dane Lewis

Why Jamaican LGBT rights organization J-FLAG maintains that the boycott of homophobic Jamaican artists is not an option.

migrazine.at: The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays (J-FLAG) was founded in 1998 to work for "the fair and equal treatment of gays and lesbians under the law and by the ordinary citizen". It was the first organisation in Jamaica to stand up for "Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays". [1] Can you give us a short introduction to the way you have been working over the years?

Dane Lewis: At the beginning there were about twelve persons from various fields – education, human rights, HIV treatment and care and persons from the media – who had a keen interest in advancing the interests of the LGBT-community outside of an HIV/AIDS discourse. A lot of the cases at that time were being done around HIV. One of the aims of the founding members of J-FLAG was to sort of separate that stigma from LGBT-people.

How open can you act today? Which consequences does it have for you to be working for J-FLAG?

J-FLAG still does not publish its address as a security strategy. There are no public faces of the organization since the murder of Brian Williamson. There are seven members of staff who themselves have experienced varying degrees of risk because of being associated with the work of the organization. 

Is J-FLAG connected with other sexual-right groups in the Caribbean or in the Caribbean diaspora in North America?

There is a group called CARIFLAGS that is an alliance of groups doing human rights and LGBT-work across the Caribbean region. Certainly our strongest links are with the Caribbean and then North America. Partnerships really are those with the Caribbean because of a common interest, you know.

Academics working in the field of pop culture, like Carolyn Cooper, say that music has played a significant role in the history of Jamaican politics. Which role has the critical examination of homophobia in Dancehall played within your work?

Dancehall forms a major part of our pop culture and has served to propel homophobia amongst their audiences as shown by results of our first national survey on attitudes and perceptions to homosexuality. We must acknowledge that the legislation regarding buggery and the church have also played their part in influencing how Jamaicans view non-heterosexuals. Interestingly a follow up study showed that almost two in five Jamaicans felt the government wasn't doing enough to protect the LGBT Community.

Many of those who have made reports to us about incidents of human rights abuses because of their sexual orientation have said that the perpetrators either referred to the law that says it's illegal or quoted some lyrics from some Dancehall tune that's homophobic.

The root of homophobia I think really is the pressure to respond to this other than a masculine identity: To secure your own masculinity requires you speaking about the other. It doesn't require you speaking positively about your identity. The music seems to speak from a point of what you are not. It advances the careers of Dancehall artists to have at least one tune in their repertoire that speaks out against this other. Certainly those artists who come from a fundamentalist Christian or Rastafarianism background feel that this is part of their identity, part of their responsibility. Sex and sexuality is not spoken about very widely except in the dancehall. I think the Dancehall genre is possibly the one space that people are allowed to express themselves. But what to do to allow this for a dialogue to advance the conversation?

A call for protest against a concert of Sizzla in Vienna at the beginning of this year was using the term "hate-singer" to describe Sizzla, referring to his homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. It seems to be a very common term in the debate. What do you think about it?

I want to make it clear that J-FLAG is not directly involved and does not support these "anti-murder music campaigns" anymore. That has sort of taken on a life of it's own. It initially started with two groups out of the UK and J-FLAG, and then just blossomed as people in various spaces recognized the need to take on the issue of the promotion of homophobia through the cultural form of Dancehall.

The goal/aim of the campaign needs to be revised. Much of the individual effort has been to label people and ban them from performing instead of ensuring that there are strict contractual agreements, so that – if these are breached – artists are penalised. They may have lyrics in their repertoire but this does not mean they should be allowed to perform them.

We maintain that boycotts cannot be the first option as they prevent objective dialogue. The legal piece is one piece that supports the widely held societal belief as to how LGBT should be treated. The strategies to tackling these are many. Getting to see LGBT as humans endowed with the same rights is the major hurdle as the perception of human rights has been muddled by the anti-gay Christian right groups.

How would you describe the situation for LGBTIQ in Jamaica?

At the beginning of August 2011 there was a guy who was murdered in a community called Torrington Park. He was attacked by daylight, one aggressor had a machete cutting almost his neck off, the other one was beating his head with the stick of a pickaxe. That speaks loudly to the fact that violence towards the community continues. We have had an increasing number of reports to us about incidents in 2011. So far for 2012 we have exceeded 120 incidents reported to us. We are not sure if it's attributed to a documentation training we have had and a campaign called "Fight the Hate" in which we are trying to encourage people to report incidents of abuse.

In the previous three years we had an average of thirty a year, in 2011 it was forty. It could also be an increase of attacks because of a number of public events we have had almost on a monthly basis – just silent protest. We go to a busy traffic junction and give out flyers or just stand up with our placards silently. Thankfully we have also had support of the police. They recognized their role in being able to serve and protect, so all these events happened with the presence of the police and without incidents.

How would you explain that international organizations often seem to consider Jamaican LGBTQ as voiceless victims who have to be saved by external intervention?

[Laughs] Well, we have had groups who have criticized the work of J-FLAG saying that we are not doing very much. But how battles are won in the Caribbean context is a silent one to one advocacy. So certainly there is a lot going on that we can not be public about. It's those conversations with the change-makers on the inside that will influence the real change. So we have had the criticism which could suggest that we're voiceless, but it's just a different strategy to what has been used in other spaces.

Portia Simpson Miller was re-elected as prime minister of Jamaica last December. Earlier she had publicly stated that she would work against the discrimination of Homosexuals and for a change of the so-called "Buggery Laws" that criminalize – inter alia – anal sex between a man and a man. What do you think were the motives leading her to these statements?

Genuine motive. She said her party would call for a conscience vote. This does not speak about the actual repeal of laws. The media however misrepresented her on many instances but also served as a useful avenue through which to continue to highlight the issues faced by LGBT.

While the government has not taken any action yet, you have recently started a legal cause to actually remove the three relevant clauses of the "Offences Against Persons Act" of 1864. The case will be decided upon in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and will therefore only have an advisory function for the Jamaican Legislation. Can you inform us about the details of that process and the public reactions so far?

It is very early in the process but we are hopeful that the case will be heard sooner than their normal timeline. There has been some press locally but the feedback has been very localised. 

It seems as if the debate about homophobia was actually mostly a debate about hate against gay men and misogyny. Which role does a lesbian identity play within the public discussion about homophobia in Jamaica?

They are often downplayed. Part of the hypocrisy. Women appear less of an issue but they get raped in some violent ways when they boldly oppose men's attempts to engage them sexually. Anything that opposes or challenges a man's sexuality is what is contested.

This text is mainly compiled out of an interview that Patrick Helber did with Dane Lewis in October 2011, complemented with some additional information from an email-interview with Lewis in October 2012 by the magazine "MALMOE".

Endnote

[1] The term "all-sexuals" was adopted at a Caribbean regional meeting in Curaçao in 1997 which brought together people doing community-organizing and building around sexual orientation or gender identity. It was intended to reflect a continuum in sexual identity, which captures the consensual bisexual and transgender experiences of LGBT persons more so than any sexual activities or behaviours.