Two gay Jamaicans have launched a legal challenge to colonial-era laws, which in effect criminalise homosexuality, on the grounds that they are unconstitutional and promote homophobia throughout the Caribbean.
The landmark action, supported by the UK-based Human Dignity Trust, is aimed at removing three clauses of the island’s Offences Against Persons Act of 1864, commonly known as the “buggery” laws.
The battle over the legislation – blamed by critics for perpetuating a popular culture of hatred for “batty boys”, as gay men are derided in some dancehall music – has also drawn a British lawyer into the debate, who said that Jamaica should not follow the legislative example of the UK.
The legal challenge is being taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is modelled on the European Court of Human Rights. Jamaica is not a full member and any ruling would only be advisory and not binding; it would, nonetheless, send out a strong signal of international disapproval.
When the Jamaican prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, was elected last December, she said she would hire a gay person to serve in her cabinet and condemned discrimination. Despite early sympathetic signals, her government has not attempted to repeal the laws.
The Offences Against Persons Act does not formally ban homosexuality but clause 76 provides for up to 10 years’ imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for anyone convicted of the “abominable crime of buggery committed either with mankind or any animal”. Two further clauses outlaw attempted buggery and gross indecency between two men.
Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Murders of gay men are increasing, according to Dane Lewis, executive director of the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-Flag), who is one of those petitioning the commission.
“This year alone there have been nine [murders],” he said. “The violence in Jamaica is having a spillover effect on other parts of the Caribbean: St Lucia now has a murder or so every year.”
One prominent victim was John Terry, the British honorary consul in Montego Bay, who was found dead in 2009 having been beaten and strangled. A note left on his body read: “This is what will happen to all gays.”