You Can’t Understand Anti-Queer Violence In Jamaica Until You Understand Colonialism
Western news outlets run into an immense problem when discussing queerphobia outside of the United States. This becomes particularly troubling when addressing queerness in formerly colonized countries in the Afro-Atlantic and within the African continent. Perhaps few other countries inspire white-Western-journalistic-savior-voyeurism in the new millennium than Jamaica, an island globally noted for its pervasive homophobic and transphobic violence, and its ostracized queer community of gully queens who live in the sewers of Kingston, Jamaica.
There is a certain ahistorical smugness when Western journalists discuss anti-gay and anti-trans violence in Jamaica with regards to the island’s gully queens. As reporters rush to discuss the socio-political plight of queer Afro-Caribbeans in this developing nation, they also employ colonial language in framing the context of said violence. Vogue, who published a piece on transgender and gender-nonconforming folks appearing in UK artist Ray Blk’s video, “Chill Out,” entitled their article, “Meet the Gully Queens, the Transgender Women Defying Jamaica’s Culture of Homophobia” — without providing historical context as to the basis of virulent queer phobic attitudes in Jamaican society. VICE’s 2014 documentary about Jamaica’s gully queens briefly touches on the overwhelming percentage of Christian Evangelicals in Jamaica spreading anti-queer messaging and the classism in the country that protects upper-class queer activists, yet there is no mention of how colonialism materializes these experiences during the film’s duration (despite the host horrifyingly misgendering transgender sex workers at one point in an individual interview). The result of such an irresponsibility purports Jamaica into a monstrous place that possesses some of the most uniquely homophobic and transphobic ideas in the Western Hemisphere, while the original culprit escapes blame for laying the foundation for such anti-queer violence to ensue.
The “culture of homophobia”, as so crudely written by Vogue, is not one solely of Jamaican creation, but a legacy of British colonialism. In recent years, activists and researchers began speaking openly about Britain’s creation of a homophobic and transphobic environment through their buggery laws, influencing not only Jamaica, but Nigeria, Botswana, India, and the remainder of territories confiscated by the English crown. It was Henry VIII who introduced in the English Buggery Act of 1533, making sodomy punishable by death. The result of Britain's legacy on the island resulted in conservative Evangelicalism which internalized anti-queer socio-political policies adopted from the British constitution. “During its colonial rule, the British imperial power imposed a range of laws to govern its territories, including anti-sodomy laws. Section 377 of the British Penal Code proscribes ‘Unnatural Offenses,’ Macarena Saez explains in Same Sex Couples: Comparatives Insights on Marriage and Cohabitation. “Section 377 served as a model for British territories beyond the Caribbean, including Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Although the domestic iterations of Section 377 varied textually and substantively, many mandated capital punishment for same sex relations.” This is history that journalists fail to discuss in conjunction with Jamaica’s treatment of gully queens and the incitement of violence towards them.
Another particularly troubling facet concerning the voyeuristic painting of Jamaica as the ultimate anti-queer society is that it also reduces the severity of homophobic and transphobic vehemence in the United States, falsely placing predominately white Western countries as models of queer progressive politics. 2016 was the most violent year on record for transgender people in America, with 23 deaths recorded by activists, most of them being Black trans women. Black trans women face police harassment, high levels of incarceration, and high impoverishment. Queer homeless youth, mostly of color, are far more likely to face rampant homelessness. The 2015 Supreme Court ruling, making gay marriage legal, largely silenced the discussion concerning institutional repression that poor and working class queers of color in America continually experience, with advocates pleading with mainstream news media to bring more coverage to those of us with less resources and privilege. America’s spin on the gully queens feels less about decolonizing entrenched systems of anti-queer violence and more of, “Be more like us and not like Jamaicans,” while ignoring poor Black queer folks in the states who are still routinely criminalized.
It is the responsibility of journalists to decolonize their thinking, their political framing of queer oppression outside of America that Afro-Caribbeans and Africans endure. Queer people in Jamaica are not helped by sensationalist, click-bait stories about their experiences where they face danger from day-to-day — they are exploited for viral stories, falsely propped up by white savior complexes. By uplifting queer Afro-Caribbean activists groups on the island, such as RUDEBOI Society and TransWave instead, media can divest from the colonialist perception that only societies predominately white and Western can being able to “save” queer Black people from the rabid queerphobia that they face. Only by naming colonialism as the source can we ever hope to defeat it.