It is not Racist to Condemn Black Homophobia

Solidarity with black gays suffering persecution is a duty, not an option.

"It is like living in Afghanistan under the Taliban," one gay Jamaican told me. "I wake up in the morning not knowing whether today I will live or die."

Until three years ago, when gay rights group OutRage! began its campaign to expose the queer killing fields of Jamaica, hardly anyone knew, or cared, about this reign of terror. Now the whole world knows.

At the request of gay Jamaicans, and working with black gay people in Britain, we organised an international solidarity campaign that has spread across Europe and the US. It is targeting eight reggae singers whose songs incite listeners to shoot, burn, stab and drown gay people: Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Buju Banton, Capleton, Elephant Man, Sizzla, TOK and Vybz Kartel. These artists have a right to criticise homosexuality, but free speech does not include the right to commit the criminal offence of incitement to murder.

The encouragement and glorification of queer-bashing is especially irresponsible and dangerous in a violently homophobic society like Jamaica, where the release of "kill queers" hit tunes has been followed by an increase in anti-gay attacks.

OutRage! is defending the right of black gays and lesbians to live in peace, without threats to murder them. It is therefore laughable the way some sections of the black press suggest we are waging war against black music or the black community. Our targets are a tiny number of artists. Our reasons: they incite the killing of lesbians and gay men. Why can't queers have the equal protection of the law?

Already, our campaign has raised world-wide awareness about the suffering of Jamaican gays and secured the cancellation of dozens of concerts. The huge financial losses incurred, together with the threat of prosecutions, have put Jamaican music chiefs on the spot. For the very first time, they are talking seriously about abandoning murderous homophobic lyrics.

Whatever our critics may say, these successes show our tactics were right. To paraphrase one of my inspirations, Malcolm X: by any (peaceful) means necessary.

We want to end attacks on Jamaican gays and to stop murder music that encourages and glorifies homophobic violence. Is that too much to ask?

It seems so. We are now accused of racism by sections of the black community and the left - mostly supporters of the Socialist Workers Party and Respect. These critics never lifted a finger to help gay Jamaicans, but they happily attack our efforts. I ask myself: how can it be racist to support black victims of homophobia and oppose violent homophobes in the music industry?

The real racism is not our campaign against murder music, but most people's indifference to the persecution of gay Jamaicans. No one would tolerate such abuses against white people in Britain; it is racist to allow them to happen to black people in another country - whether in Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Sudan, West Papua or anywhere else.

Some of our critics disagree. The say black people are an oppressed minority and therefore any criticism of aspects of black culture is de facto racism. But since when has being oppressed given anyone the right to oppress others? Or the right to be immune from rebuke? People who suffer injustice are entitled to fight back against their persecutors, no matter who they are. I refuse to tolerate racism in the gay community. Why are some people making excuses for homophobic black music?

They say it is "cultural imperialism" to challenge gay rights abuses in Jamaica. Funny, I don't remember anyone accusing me of cultural imperialism when I supported the Zimbabwe and South African freedom struggles against white minority rule. In those days we called it international solidarity - a forgotten concept on much of the left when it comes to the plight of gay Jamaicans.

Some of our critics defend violently anti-gay reggae music on the grounds that homophobia is "part of Jamaican culture". Racism was part of Afrikaner culture in apartheid South Africa, but that did not make it right. By this logic, we should also accept cultural traditions like pogroms, female circumcision, lynchings and honour killings.

In any case, homophobia is not authentic Jamaican culture at all. It was foisted on the people of Jamaica in the nineteenth century by British colonisers and their Christian missionary allies.

There is no evidence the Africans bought to Jamaica as slaves were homophobic. On the contrary, homosexuality was common in several of the west African societies from which they were stolen. It became more or less accepted among many slaves in Caribbean exile, especially given the dislocation of traditional family life by the slave system.

The prejudices and laws against homosexuality were very clearly imposed by the British. Yet most Jamaicans now claim homophobia is part of their own African-derived culture. They are in massive denial; unable to acknowledge, let alone accept, the historical truth that Jamaica was founded on the twin pillars of slavery and sodomy - the first a cruel subjection, the second a sexual and emotional refuge from colonial oppression.

Later conversion to Christianity provoked massive guilt and self-hatred among Jamaicans concerning their sodomitical past. This shame lingers on today in the vicious homophobia of contemporary Jamaican society. It represents a collective displacement onto the tiny queer minority of an historically-rooted, religious-inspired homophobic self-loathing. Lesbians and gays are paying the price for the failure of most Jamaicans to come to terms with the homosexual foundations of their nation.

The descendants of Jamaica's same-sex loving slaves today worship in churches that brainwash them to hate their black gay brothers and sisters - the same bigoted churches that, in the past, supported the enslavement of their African ancestors. How can any self-respecting black person endorse a fundamentalist Christianity that sanctioned the greatest ever crime against humanity - slavery - and which today preaches a gospel of divide and rule, setting straight Jamaicans against gay ones?

Jamaica won its independence in 1962, but the mind of Prime Minister PJ Patterson remains colonised by the homophobic values of nineteenth century British imperialism. He is Jamaica's most servile defender of the British-imposed anti-gay laws, which continue to stipulate 10 years hard labour for same-sex relations.

In contrast, black liberation heroes like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu support the struggle for gay human rights; with Tutu condemning homophobia as "every bit as unjust as apartheid". Hallelujah!

An edited version of this article was published in The Guardian on 31 August 2004, under the title: It isn't racist to target Beenie Man.

Copyright Peter Tatchell 2004.
Published: 17/07/2004