LGBT activists greeted with excitement the official White House photo for April 8th of President Obama waving goodbye as he left Jamaica. Many had urged the President to raise the issue during his visit (the first visit by a U.S. president in 33 years) of the host government’s inadequate response to the discrimination and violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jamaicans, and President Obama did not disappoint.
At a town hall meeting at the University of the West Indies, he recounted the experience of Evangeline Jackson, the Executive Director of Quality Citizenship Jamaica, who was sexually assaulted at the age of 19, noting that “as a woman, and as a lesbian, that justice and society were not always on her side.” He praised her courageous activism and her role in making Jamaica “… a place where everybody, no matter their color, or their class, or their sexual orientation, can live in equality and opportunity.”
While all attention at the Summit of the Americas—where the President was en route—was understandably, if somewhat predictably, drawn to Cuba’s historic presence at the Summit and the anticipated conduct of Venezuela’s President Maduro when he met President Obama, the attention given to LGBT rights was historic as well.
There was no discussion of LGBT issues at all in the 2009 and 2012 summits. This year, however, not only did President Obama make specific references to LGBT rights and inclusion at the Youth and Civil Society Forum, but Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff included them in her address to the Summit plenary. Additionally, the final communiqué from the working group on education and culture specifically called for an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors—a historic sign of progress and a cause for celebration.
Some 100 LGBT rights advocates from across the region participated in the civil society forum, which did not include an LGBT-specific panel or roundtable. The omission was framed in an optimistic light by some, including Marcelo Ernesto Ferreyra of the Global Initiative for Sexuality and Human Rights, who said “It interests us that the LGBT experience factors into each of the issues highlighted during the Summit …. To us this makes the work that we do much more visible.” Other voices were more critical, including the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, which in an April 10 statement condemned organizers of the Summit and the civil society forum for blocking efforts to “acknowledge” LGBT and intersex people and “non-traditional families” in the various forums.
LGBT issues have increasingly gained their rightful place within Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IAHCR) agenda. There are currently 50 petitions before the commission from OAS member states that are at various stages of consideration. In 2011, IACHR established a unit which, in 2014, became the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Persons in the Americas.
The newly established Registry of Violence monitors the situation of violence against LGBTI persons in the Americas. It has documented that in a 15-month period between January 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014 at least 594 persons were killed and 176 were victims of serious non-lethal attacks in 25 Organization of American States (OAS) member states due to their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression. Because the majority of OAS member states do not collect data on violence against LGBT persons, the Registry has to resort to other sources of information such as media coverage and reports from civil society organizations.
Jamaica is among the worst countries in the Western Hemisphere for LGBT people to live. They experience astonishingly high levels of stigma, family and community rejection, verbal and physical abuse by state and non-state actors, and housing, health and employment discrimination. J-FLAG, a Jamaican human rights organization, recorded 231 reports of discrimination and violence based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation between 2009 and 2012. In its 2014 report Not Safe at Home: Violence and Discrimination Against LBGT People in Jamaica, Human Rights Watch noted some encouraging signs of progress, particularly with regard to new policies on diversity training for police officers, documentation of hate crimes, and measures to prevent and sanction police mistreatment and misconduct against LGBT people.
Prior to her election, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller called for the legislature to revisit Sections 76, 77 and 79 of the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1864 which call for prison sentences of 8 to 10 years for the “abominable crime of buggery.” In June 2013, she indicated that she would call for a parliamentary conscience vote on laws criminalizing consensual sexual intimacy between men. However, in 2014 she reversed herself, stating that repealing sodomy laws would have to be based on the will of constituents and that it was not a priority for her government.
The Obama Administration, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and international donors need to exercise ongoing moral leadership and provide ongoing support for civil society and government efforts to reverse the shameful treatment of LGBT Jamaicans in their own country. On April 8th and the following Summit a small, but important step was made in that direction.