Jamaica has a bad reputation for anti-gay prejudice. This small island in the Caribbean has become notorious not only for its anti-gay laws, political rhetoric and murders, but also for its broad societal acceptance of severe sexual prejudice and openly hostile music.
Most people remember dancehall star Buju Banton, who hit the scene when he was 15 with the hugely popular Boom Bye Bye. The lyrics go: “It’s like boom bye bye / Inna batty boy head / Rude boy nah promote no nasty man / Dem haffi dead.” Hard to decipher for someone not familiar with Jamaican patois, but Buju is essentially describing shooting a gay man in the head – he doesn’t want to “promote no nasty man”.
In the decades after, hosts of other dancehall artists took up the banner, such as the group T.O.K. who proclaimed that “chi-chi [gay] man fi dead and that’s a fact”.
Jamaica is not alone; sexual prejudice is all over the news at the moment – from the Sultan of Brunei’s introduction of Sharia law, to the anti-gay bill in Uganda. And it’s worth remembering that in the UK gay people only acquired equal marriage rights earlier this year. But Jamaica has the double problem of being described as “the most homophobic place on earth”, but also being one of those places where little or no research is done to explain these anti-gay sentiments.
This is why, in collaboration with Dr Noel Cowell from the University of the West Indies, I decided to conduct the largest piece of research of its kind to date, using data collected by Professor Ian Boxhill.
By interviewing about 2,000 people across 40 communities in Jamaica, we looked at the predictors of anti-gay bias and measured them.
Our results confirm the suspicion that Jamaicans, in general, hold very strong prejudices against gays and lesbians. This was true whether we referred to attitudes, perceptions of gay rights, or prejudiced behaviour. But why? This question isn’t easily answered. However, thanks to this research, we can now point to some important variables.
As in other countries, wealth, education and (younger) age were associated with less anti-gay prejudice. Religiosity, which is often the reason offered by anti-gay lobbyists, also predicted more anti-gay bias. However, it was neither the strongest nor the most reliable predictor. When all the factors were taken into account simultaneously, the two that were most reliable were a preference for dancehall music, and gender.
There has been much debate about dancehall in Jamaica. Internationally, many people view artists like Banton, Vybz Kartel and Beenie Man as inciting sexuality-based violence, while others defend these “calls to action” as being much more metaphorical – a litmus test of what is and isn’t acceptable in Jamaican society.
This research provides the first empirical evidence that these songs may be harmful, leading to more negative attitudes and anti-social behaviour. We need more research looking at the consequences of anti-gay dancehall, and policy on what we should do about it.
We also found that male gender was an important predictor, trumping education, age and even religion. This raises important questions about what it means to be a man in Jamaica. What it is about those perceptions of masculinity that finds the existence of gays so unbearable? Is it that Jamaican masculinity has become overly focused on toughness and anti-femininity, at the expense of socially beneficial constructs such as responsibility? Interventions aimed at reshaping gender norms in Jamaica may be useful in reducing negativity towards those seen as “deviant”.
Research like this is essential to understanding why that is, and how to change it. We Jamaicans are, for the most part, open and accepting people. Although in Jamaica sexual boundaries are rigidly and violently monitored, we integrate readily and easily with different ethnicities, political views and national boundaries. More than our European and American counterparts, we tend to see a boundary as permeable, which encourages a general atmosphere of inclusivity.
The good news is that work is finally being done in Jamaica, by Jamaicans, to tackle this aggressive policing of heterosexuality. And this is integral for change to happen; more than we need western intervention, we need Jamaicans who are ready to take the initiative.
This is a long road, and many would say that we are moving too slowly; but at least it is now an inescapable fact that we are moving. Perhaps we will soon be saying boom bye bye to anti-gay prejudice in Jamaica. I hope so.