Friday, 7 February 2014

Sochi, Asylum Seekers and Getting Serious about anti-LGBT Violence

Over twenty years ago, I lived and worked in Jamaica. As the Sochi Olympics begin and at a time the legal status of LBGT* people around the world is being highlighted I want to talk about one aspect of my time in Jamaica.

While I worked there I remember being told a story. It was the story of a young gay teacher’s terrifying experience in the village I worked in. At the village high school, there had been a procession of us paid ‘volunteer’ teachers from the UK and a few years before my arrival there’d been a ‘scandal’.

It had been discovered that a young British man was gay. And, in the story I was told, a large posse from the surrounding villages – yes the word 'posse' was used – was formed to find him and ‘tar and feather’ him.  He escaped this terrifying ordeal through being smuggled out of the village to Kingston and thence to be deposited on a plane back to England.

The imagery – in my febrile imagination – seemed a mix of what I’d read about Ku Klux Klan practices against African-Americans and something from a Gothic novel. I was a callow and gullible youth. Perhaps it was told to frighten me about how edgy Jamaica was at that time. The truth is that shocked and scandalized as I was, I could not quite believe the story. Or did not want to believe it. I still suspect that elements of the tale were amplified for my ‘titillation’ and – if it was true – it does not take much wit to realize that there may have been elements of the original story that had been redacted out.

Nonetheless this story bears truth. Jamaica in the early ‘90s was – and, indeed, remains – an unsafe place to be gay, especially a gay man. Violence against gay men has – notoriously – been inscribed in aspects of Ragga and Reggae music. Readers of The Pink News and other media will recall that very recently Christian Concern’s Andrea Minichiello Williams spoke at a conference In Jamaica was organised in order to lobby against the repeal of the country’s law banning gay sex.

I do not write this to ‘bash’ Jamaica. Jamaica like all the post-colonial countries bears the sins of white ‘father’ figures and culture. The religious and legal instincts of 18th and 19th century imperial ideologies have become so culturally embedded - despite brilliant post-colonial work - that in some places, notably in Africa, that hatred of LGBT* people can – at a phenomenological level – be presented as 'natural'. In such a context it is hardly surprising that some folk will wish to legislate against LGBT* people in order to protect 'the good' of society. Yet, as I see it, the bearers of privilege like Britain bear an ongoing and barely resolved responsibility for the creation of legislated hatred.

I trust that very many of us are taking differing kinds of action to both protest ongoing and emergent hatred against LGBT* people in large swathes of the world. I hope we are trying to hold a rainbow banner up against Sochi to embarrass the likes of Putin. I am yet to be convinced that there is nothing ‘we’ can do to keep the struggle alive for people facing the daily threat of murder, torture and imprisonment in the majority world.


However, organisations like Stonewall have reported how difficult it has been for lesbian and gay people to be taken seriously by the UK asylum seeker system. Having lived under conditions of fear and death it can be especially difficult for LGBT* people arriving in the UK seeking asylum to articulate their stories. The ongoing situation faced by Jacqueline Nantumbwe, an LBGT asylum seeker, who faces deportation back to a state (Uganda) which criminalizes her is only one among many. It is time that the UK – which bears such a heavy responsibility for creating contexts of hatred around the world – to take seriously its responsibility towards the victims of its missionary and imperial adventuring.

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