Metro Weekly

Human rights body calls on Jamaica to repeal its colonial-era ban on gay sex

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights find anti-sodomy laws violate LGBTQ people's human rights

jamaica
Mahogany Beach in Jamaica – Photo: Jimfbleak, via Wikimedia.

The top human rights body of the Americas has called on Jamaica to repeal its colonial-era ban criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships.

In a first-of-its-kind ruling for LGBTQ rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that criminalizing LGBTQ people or same-sex behavior violates international law. The decision was made in September 2019, but remained strictly confidential under the commission’s orders until Wednesday.

In 2011, the commission, the human rights arm of the Organization of American States, heard complaints from two Jamaicans: Gareth Henry, who was attacked multiple times because of his sexual orientation, even being chased by a crowd of 200 people chanting that gays should die; and Simone Edwards, a single mother who, along with two of her brothers, was shot multiple times by two men outside her home, because they suspected she was a lesbian and one of her brothers was gay. Edwards lost a kidney and part of her liver as a result of the attack.

Both Henry and Edwards claimed they were forced to flee Jamaica in 2008 and seek asylum in Canada and the Netherlands, respectively, out of fear they’d be killed if they remained in Jamaica. In their compliant, the two argued that the 1864 ban on “buggery” and “gross indecency” — one of the relics of British rule over the island nation — was being used to justify violence against LGBTQ people, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

People who find themselves on the receiving end of violence often refuse to complain to authorities, fearing that admitting their sexual orientation could result in them being prosecuted by the state. In Jamaica, the penalty for same-sex intimacy is up to 10 years in prison, with hard labor.

The commission found that Jamaica’s law violated Henry and Edwards’ right to human treatment, equal protection before the law, privacy, and freedom of movement. It urged the Jamaican government to repeal sections of the law criminalizing consensual same-sex activity between men, and recommended that the country adopt nondiscrimination laws protecting LGBTQ individuals, and provide LGBTQ competency training for police and security forces.

See also: Bhutan lawmakers vote to roll back part of anti-gay sodomy law

While the commission lacks enforcement power, some advocates are hopeful that the ruling will prompt lawmakers to repeal the anti-sodomy law.

“It’s a huge legal victory that’s relevant not only for Jamaica but for the entire region,” Tea Braun, director of the Human Dignity Trust, said, noting that eight other Caribbean nations have similar laws. “It is an important pressure point and hopefully it will accelerate the repeal of these laws.”

Henry told Thomson Reuters he was “overwhelmed with joy” at the decision.

“All my life people have told me that who I am and who I love is wrong,” he said. “Now, for the first time ever, I finally feel I am right,” he said. 

However, he warned that a single ruling by the IACHR will not change the law nor the societal attitudes that condone violence against LGBTQ people.

“Gays and lesbians continue to be killed and tortured because they are deemed to be different,” he said.

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