gender bent: an interview with jamaican lawyer and activist maurice tomlinson
By Gender Bent
January 6, 2014
Maurice Tomlinson wouldn’t have it any other way. That is, he can’t imagine a life void of helping marginalized and displaced. Unlike the Jamaican government, lawyer and activist Tomlinson is choosing not to turn a blind eye to the harsh treatment of Jamaica’s vulnerable LGBT population. He’s a modern day hero, one reminiscent of America’s 60s era civil rights leaders—even risking his life to do activism work. After a summer filled with anti-gay bashings and killings in Jamaica’s seemingly proud homophobic culture, Tomlinson’s presence is needed now more than ever.
Interview by Andrea Dwyer, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Q: You have been doing LGBT work around the world, especially in the Caribbean for over 14 years now. How did you come to do this type of work?
A: I was a corporate lawyer. I had some spare time and I wanted to do volunteer work so I worked with Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL) on their board doing legal work. They needed a lawyer to help with human rights training for LGBT especially as it related to MSM (men who have sex with men). We quickly realized they (MSM) were being marginalized and victimized and very vulnerable to HIV. No other lawyers wanted to work with them because they deemed it professional suicide…Once I started doing these trainings; I realized just how badly things were. As a result, I started writing about the experiences to newspaper editors because so many people didn’t know what was going on and a lot of people didn’t care. It was very hostile. I continued doing that for a while and in 2011 the organization I work for now, AIDS-Free World realized the link between homophobia and HIV in Jamaica so they asked that I come on board.
You were just in St. Lucia doing work with the police department there.
Right. My husband is the former LGBT liaison officer for the Toronto Police Service and while he worked there he developed a program called “Report Homophobic Violence Period,” which has been used to train police services around the world in Europe, Australia, United States and Canada. The program trains the officers on how to interact and respond to human rights abuses against LGBT people. That program won several awards and AIDS-Free World has facilitated this training being brought to the Caribbean. So far, we’ve done trainings in St. Lucia, Barbados and Suriname.
Q: You travel quite a bit. Especially between Toronto (where you now reside) to Jamaica to do activism work. How’s that experience been; being in such polarizing circles?
A: Due to the death treats that I’ve received; going back to Jamaica has not been as good an experience as it used to be. Now I have a dedicated driver and I go directly to where I need to be. I can’t go out and do social things like I would like to. I have been recognized. A car that I was in was recognized and was nearly mobbed at a stop light. Thankfully the light changed but persons were making a commotion to form a mob. It’s so crushing in some instances you feel like you’re a prisoner in your own country but I continue to do it because the work has to be done.
Q: I recently wrote about my experience growing up in Jamaica and my mild occurrences of homophobia while visiting. I received an overwhelmingly positive response but the few negative responders believed I was trying to paint Jamaica in a negative light and that “they have Jamaicans friends who haven’t experienced homophobia.” What words of wisdom would you impart to those people who seem to have a veil over their eyes?
A: I’m not surprised that some people really are ignorant about what’s going on in Jamaica. I lived in Jamaica for many years and was ignorant myself of homophobia. If you have the financial means you can insulate yourself. You can afford to live in a gated community, drive wherever you need to go, don’t take public transportation… The reality is people need to understand that even the local media are doing a better job at uncovering homophobia than many of the LGBT groups locally. The persons who are coming to them are people of the lower socio-economic strata who can not insulate themselves from the violence. That’s the reality! Acts of violence are being perpetrated against persons who are not able to insulate themselves…look at the last six months. There’s been a barrage of reporting by independent news outlets in Jamaica. This isn’t something foreign journalists are making up…I wish Jamaicans would stop living in denial and accept that we have a problem.
Q: You speak about the lower socio-economic community—the homeless LGBT population in Jamaica are especially at risk to cruelty and discrimination. Can you shed some light on the issue?
A: The news media are quicker to respond to what’s happening in Kingston because that’s where they are based but it’s all over the island (Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios, etc) all major cities. Parents are kicking their kids out as early as twelve.
These kids are selling sex to survive and being paid to have unprotected sex with mostly married men. That allows for the kids to be exposed to HIV and other STI’s. The parents don’t understand same-gender attraction or gender expression and they just respond in the fundamentalist ways they are trained to by their churches so therefore they are kicking out their children and they end up forming these roving bands…That’s what we’re trying to resolve through “Dwayne’s House.” Hopefully, we’ll get the funds to establish a place where we can provide some stability for these persons and hopefully reestablish them into society.
In November of 2014, you’re set to challenge Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law on behalf of Javed Jaghai.
Right. AIDS-Free World brought a case on behalf on Javed Jaghai to challenge Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law because he lived in a house with some other gay men and was told by the landlord they were going to break the law because they are gay. She suggested that if they were willing to go to Bible Study with her she’d be willing to reconsider but of course they said no. It’s not as if this young man was seen doing anything. The fact that being gay makes it possible for people like Javed’s landlord to violate the privacy of his home is unacceptable. We are claiming that now, as the law is written, it violates his rights to privacy under the Jamaican constitution.
Q: How did you two come about working together?
A: Javed came to us and told us about the situation. He had actually gone to another lawyer and the lawyer said they didn’t think there was anything they could do. He worked for J-FLAG one of the LGBT groups in Jamaica. He was explaining his situation to us and we realized that there was the potential to challenge the Jamaican anti-sodomy law because the revised Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms has enhanced the protection for privacy that didn’t exist under the previous constitution.
We believe that this new constitutional provision provides greater protection for the situation that happened to Javed…we have a lawyer on staff Anika Gray who has done extensive work in this area and we believe we have a strong case that the revised constitution makes the invasion of the private lives of consenting adults no longer possible. We’re not saying the law will be struck down all together, we’re just saying that it can no longer apply to situations of private consenting adults. The Jamaican politicians themselves have repeatedly said that they don’t have any intention of prying into the private bedroom of Jamaicans, so we think that the law needs to be read down to allow that.
Q: What’s your hope for Jamaica as it relates to LGBT equality?
A: I really believe that Jamaica will become the human rights beacon that it once was. We were the first country to impose sanctions against South Africa. Our country’s motto speaks to that kind of inclusiveness; “out of many one people.” We will get back that mindset once we shake this imported religious fundamentalism. It’s not the Jamaican way to shun people because they are different…and to victimize vulnerable people.
Q: As for the larger international community (gay and straight); how can they help when it comes to LGBT discrimination in Jamaica as well as around the world?
A: Two things: We need financial support to establish Dwanye’s House to ensure that there is a place for these kids who are being kicked out. They are being forced to live in sewers and are selling sex. It’s clear that the Jamaican government isn’t interested in their well-being. They have not tried to help those kids in anyway so that’s why we’re doing things ourselves. Send money. People can go to www.openarmsmcc.org or www.dwayneshouse.org to help the cause.
Further, people can keep themselves updated as to what’s going on. If you google Jamaican homophobia there so much stuff. Once you’ve been educated about what’s going on, sending simple emails to the minister of tourism in Jamaica (http://tourismja.com/contactus/) just to let him know what’s going on. I don’t just want people to boycott; I don’t think that’s helpful. You need to tell the Jamaican government why you’re not going. The Jamaican government needs to know that the world is watching and that they expect something to be done. Be vocal about your opposition and remind Jamaica about its heritage of tolerance and inclusiveness.
Q: Where can we follow your work?
A: I work with AIDS-Free World and most of the homophobia work I deal with is covered on AIDS-Free World under “our issues”.
(David Kato Award)
Q: Lastly, what do you love about Jamaica (cans)?
A: I love the fact that Jamaicans are warm people. People think we are cantankerous and that sort of thing. I’ve been traveling to the Caribbean quite a lot and we are instinctively the warmest and gregarious group. We’re naturally open-minded but that can be a good and a bad thing. We’re so open that we sometimes take in negative influences and adopt them as we have done with homophobia. It’s our nature to be warm, kind and welcoming. This is why I fight so hard for change. I know there’s hope. There were times in the past where there were popular and prominent gay Jamaicans. No one worried about their lives; it didn’t bother the society to the point you see now where people are being run down with machetes. Think of all the humorous gender non-conforming stars we’ve had on screen and stage; they were allowed to just be…Our warmth and welcoming nature which have been perverted by this fundamentalist nonsense are what I want to see recaptured in Jamaica.
Thank you, Maurice. We are supporting you and hoping for change for Jamaica’s LGBT family and our family of the African Diaspora and around the world!
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