Jamaica: Gay hell on earth - Will an American-led Red Stripe and Myers's Rum boycott help end the violence?
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Jamaica: Gay hell on earth - Will an American-led Red Stripe and Myers's Rum boycott help end the violence?
by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

In 1974, Jamaican singer-songwriter and musician Bob Marley told fellow Jamaicans, "Get up, stand up; don't give up the fight." Nearly 35 years later, those words still apply to a select group who inhabit the Caribbean Island - LGBT Jamaicans.

Jamaica is in peril. The economy is in crisis, the country has the world's largest murder rate, and its rampant violence against Gays and Lesbians prompted human-rights groups to call Jamaica the most homophobic place on earth.

Forget the beach for a moment and all the images that accompany a nice day in the Caribbean sun. Nokia Cowan drowned at the beach this year. The Kingston man was chased by an angry mob shouting "batty boy" (a Jamaican slur for homosexual), prompting him to jump off a pier, ultimately ending his life.

Forget scenes depicted in beautiful paintings or photographs of Jamaica because the streets are filled with blood. This year, witnesses say, police egged on a mob that stabbed and stoned a Gay man to death in Montego Bay.

Do you see a pattern forming here? Mob violence, aided by police who look the other way while atrocities take place on their watch. Not even places of worship are safe.

On Easter Sunday of this year, a crowd of 100 men gathered outside a Kingston church where people were attending the funeral of a slain Gay man. The crowd broke the windows with bottles and threatened to kill the mourners. When the police were called to the scene the officers stopped Gay men from leaving - which led to some of them being threatened with sticks, stones, and machetes as they tried to escape.

The wave of anti-Gay and Lesbian violence to hit the island nation is more like a tsunami pushed along by monsoon force winds. The bad news: there seems to be no end in sight. It's almost as if LGBT Jamaicans are destined to drown in a pool of violence. The island's Gay rights organization, Jamaica's Forum for Lesbian All-sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), said that between 2006 and 2008, more than 150 homophobic assaults and murders were reported to the agency. Gay men and Lesbians have been chased, chopped, beaten, raped, and shot.

One of the country's leading websites for tourist information, All-Jamaica.com, warns Gay and Lesbian tourists:

"Jamaica is an adamantly homophobic nation. Homosexual intercourse between men is illegal, and anti-Gay hysteria is a staple of musical lyrics. Homosexuality is a subject that evokes extreme reactions among Jamaicans, and it is difficult to hold a serious discussion on the topic. Most Jamaican Gays are still in the closet. Don't expect to display your sexuality openly without an adverse reaction."

People outside the Jamaican border have taken notice.

Each year, the U.S. State Department issues a frightening report on the murders and human rights abuses of Gays and people with AIDS in Jamaica. Along with the report - regardless of political party affiliation, who is sitting in the Oval Office, or leading the State Department - the general consensus is to condemn the violence facing LGBT citizens of Jamaica.

But for many Gay rights activists groups and organizations simply condemning the violence is not enough. The time to act is here. For many LGBT Jamaicans it is the difference between life and death.

U.S. Gay rights activists launched a campaign early this year encouraging a boycott of Jamaican products, tourism, and services as a form of protest against the Jamaica's treatment of Gays and Lesbians. A campaign website, www.boycottjamaica.org, was set up by former Human Rights Council Spokesman Wayn Besen, along with prominent LGBT rights activists Jim Burroway and Michael Petrelis, which campaigns for Jamaica to become a pariah state until social attitudes on the island towards homosexuality change.

Organizers ask the question, "Knowing what we do about the violence and murder taking place in Jamaica, does that sound like a place we want our Gay dollars to go?"


The Jamaica boycott was launched March 28 at Harvey Milk Plaza at the Castro district in San Francisco, CA. The event, coined "Rum Dump Protesting Jamaican Antigay Laws," brought together activists, bar owners, and supporters of the cause to develop awareness. Less than a month later, another boycott took place at Stonewall Inn - birthplace of the gay rights movement - in New York City. At both rallies bar owners and boycott supporters dumped Jamaican liquor, such as Myers's Rum and Red Stripe beer, down the sewer.

Bill Morgan, Kurt Kelly, and Tony DeCicco, who own the historic Stonewall Inn, issued a statement to the press saying, "We refuse to support, in any way, shape or form, the oppression of any people, especially Gay brothers and sisters in Jamaica."

The statement went on to say that as long as they [Jamaican people and their government] continue to allow and condone hatred and violence toward the Gay community, we will neither buy their products nor support their tourist trade. To do so is to tacitly support the current climate of oppression, they said.

"If you love your Gay friends and family members, you won't visit Jamaica," said boycott co-organizer Wayne Besen. "If you care about the human rights of LGBT people, you won't buy Jamaican products. We hope that all Gay and Gay-friendly bar owners and restaurateurs across the nation will participate in rum dumps."

Locally, in and around Capitol Hill, there have been no organized efforts to participate in a boycott of Jamaican products.

Although J-FLAG often reaches out to U.S. LGBT organizations, they are not behind a boycott involving Red Stripe beer and other Jamaican products.

Last week, J-FLAG issued an open newsletter saying, "We find it unfortunate that a campaign has been launched calling for the boycott of two Jamaican products. In April 2008, Red Stripe took the brave and principled stance to cease sponsorship of music festivals that promoted hate and tolerance - including that against members of the LGBT community."

"The naming of Red Stripe, therefore, as a target of this boycott is extremely damaging to the cause of LGBT activists in Jamaica."

Their American counterparts disagree. In the past, peaceful boycotts and demonstrations not only brought awareness to human and civil rights issues, but swayed momentum towards the cause whenever the opposition was affected, monetarily speaking. Think Harvey Milk and the Coors beer and Florida orange juice boycotts. Think Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Regardless of who sees eye to eye over the boycott, both sides agree it will take many political and economic strategies to bring about the change LGBT rights groups want to see in Jamaica - partly because, although Jamaica may be the worst offender of LGBT rights, much of the Caribbean also has a long history of intense homophobia. Islands like Barbados still criminalize homosexuality, while others seem to follow Jamaica's more violent example.

Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding recently reaffirmed the government's attitude towards homosexuality. "We are not going to yield to the pressure, whether that pressure comes from individual organizations, individuals, whether that pressure comes from foreign governments or groups of countries, to liberalize the laws as it relates to buggery [Gay sex]," he said.