Striving for Pride in Jamaica

30 November, 2016

Bethanie Pascutto (2L)


Maurice Tomlinson and the International Human Rights Program clinic students. As a guest lecturer at a clinic seminar last month, Maurice spoke about his work as an LGBTI rights advocate in the Caribbean.

Maurice Tomlinson and the International Human Rights Program clinic students. As a guest lecturer at a clinic seminar last month, Maurice spoke about his work as an LGBTI rights advocate in the Caribbean. 


In Jamaica, members of the LGBTI community are regularly targets of hate, violence, and discrimination that are supported and reinforced by the country’s religious majority and legal framework. Religion in general—and Christianity in particular—is a central part of Jamaican society. Nearly two-thirds of the population identifies as Christian, and the majority of Christians are affiliated with evangelical churches. Most religious leaders in the country view homosexuality as a sin and publicly support criminalization of homosexual acts between men. Homosexuality was first criminalized in Jamaica by the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act, when the country was under British colonial rule. Although the Act only proscribes sexual acts between men, many Jamaicans believe that it outlaws LGBTI persons,  and this general misperception has turned LGBTI persons into targets for vigilante justice. This is reflected in popular culture, particularly the dancehall music industry, which continuously celebrates songs that encourage the murder of LGBTI people. 

This backdrop makes Maurice Tomlinson’s persistent optimism and fierce activism in Jamaica and the Caribbean immensely inspiring. Maurice is a Jamaican lawyer, LGBTI rights activist, and educator, who has fought for the rights of LGBTI Jamaicans for over a decade: first as a lecturer at the University of Technology in Jamaica, and then as a legal advisor at AIDS-Free World. In his current role as Senior Policy Analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Maurice continues to challenge homophobic laws and practices in the Caribbean, both as counsel and claimant. He also returns regularly to Jamaica, where he works with Jamaican civil society to provide food and basic services to homeless LGBTI youth, and organized the country’s first pride event in Montego Bay. 

Maurice has epitomized patience and resolve in his fight against homophobic laws in the Caribbean. While he has yet to officially win a case, he has achieved some significant victories in court. First, the Supreme Court of Jamaica clarified that LGBTI Jamaicans, like all other Jamaican citizens, have all the rights guaranteed by the Jamaican Charter. Second, the Caribbean Court of Justice has held that immigration laws in Belize and Trinidad and Tobago that included a prohibition on entry of homosexuals were discriminatory and unenforceable. 

Maurice’s biggest fight has been against Jamaica’s Offences Against the Person Act, or ‘anti-sodomy law’. In 2011, Maurice filed a petition with the Inter-American Committee on Human Rights on behalf of two gay Jamaicans. Both men had experienced continuous and significant human rights violations because of their sexual orientation - violations that were authorized by Jamaica’s legal framework and institutional homophobia. Maurice argued that Article 76 of Jamaica’s Offences Against the Person Act violated multiple provisions in the Jamaican Constitution, the American Convention of Human Rights, and other regional and international human rights instruments. 

In 2013, Maurice then challenged the constitutionality of the law again, this time on behalf of a Jamaican man who had been evicted from his home due to his sexual orientation. The case was filed with the Jamaican Supreme Court and argued that the law violated the claimant’s right to privacy under Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. Unfortunately, the claimant withdrew the case in 2014 over concerns about his safety and that of his family.

Far from deterring Maurice, these setbacks have only reinvigorated him to continue challenging the ‘anti-sodomy law’, this time as the claimant. In 2015, Maurice asked the Jamaican Supreme Court for a declaration that Articles 76, 77, and 79 of the Offences Against the Person Act violate several provisions of Jamaica’s Charter, including the rights to liberty and freedom of the person, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom of expression, the right to equality before the law, and the right to protection from inhumane or degrading punishment or other treatment. The case is still at the preliminary stage. Thus far, the Jamaican Supreme Court has allowed nine religious groups to intervene in defence of the law, but has ruled that the public defender cannot intervene on behalf of Maurice for reasons of neutrality. The public defender is appealing the latter ruling. A trial date has yet to be set. 

In addition to fighting in Court, Maurice has engaged in frontline work with Jamaicans, in an effort to change preconceived notions about LGBTI persons. Although Maurice continues to face Jamaica’s institutionalized homophobia head on, he has been fortunate to witness some remarkable transformations. Maurice and his husband Tom run training and sensitization sessions for Caribbean civil society groups and the police. The first day of the training session focuses on human rights broadly and participants are not made aware that Tom and Maurice are a couple. On the second day, after participants have had a day to spend with them, they reveal that they are a couple. According to Maurice, participants are surprised by how ordinary Maurice and his husband are, and begin to rethink their preconceived notions. 

Unfortunately, Maurice and Tom have experienced some shocking incidents. In one session, a police officer entered the room singing a popular Jamaican song that contains lyrics supporting the murder of gay men. In another, a man got up in the middle of the training and yelled, “You are demons!” Unsurprisingly, both Maurice and Tom find these experiences difficult to manage, but they have realized that the deeply-embedded culture of homophobia in the country cannot change overnight. 



Interview with Maurice Tomlinson

Here is a little more of what Maurice had to say about this inspiring experiences.

Maurice Tomlinson and the International Human Rights Program clinic students. As a guest lecturer at a clinic seminar last month, Maurice spoke about his work as an LGBTI rights advocate in the Caribbean.

Maurice Tomlinson (right) at this year’s Montego Bay Pride event.

BP: How did you first get involved in the LGBTI rights movement in Jamaica?

MT: As a corporate lawyer, I initially was working behind the scenes by providing support to the major LGBT and HIV groups in Jamaica. One day the groups asked me to hold a session for LGBT individuals who had been impacted by police violence and didn’t know their rights. No other lawyer wanted to do this training session because it was considered professional suicide. The participants came to me with their stories and I realized I was living in a bubble—as a privileged lawyer I was able to insulate myself from this reality. I thought that if people knew what was going on then things would get better, so I wrote letters to the editor. I soon realized that people were aware and they were upset that I was challenging the status quo. The backlash was severe but I didn’t back down. I kept writing letters and it escalated to the point where I left my corporate law job and I became a full-time activist, first with AIDS-Free World and now with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.


BP: How did your involvement in international and domestic litigation on LGBTI rights change your day-to-day life in Jamaica?

MT: Although I represented a claimant in challenges to the Jamaican buggery law in front of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights [IACHR] in 2011 and Jamaican Supreme Court in 2013, my life didn’t change until a photo of me and my husband was published in a Jamaican newspaper. It was like I had crossed some sort of line. The fact that I got married meant, to the evangelical fundamentalists, that it was Armageddon—that it was the end of the world as we know it and humanity would become extinct. The hysteria is ridiculous.


BP: Yet, you have chosen to return to Jamaica on several occasions. Why?

MT: I believe I have an obligation to use my privilege where I can. The reality is for many persons in Jamaica, being visible is just not possible. I can engage publicly as I can go back and forth between Jamaica and Canada. I am very moved by the fact that the LGBTI youth living in the sewers, but by the accident of birth, could have been me. I feel I have a moral obligation to go back and try to make things better because I am a Jamaican.


BP: You just talked about homeless LGBTI youth living in the sewers. What are you doing to tackle that issue?

MT: We are doing two things. We are working with a local group called Colour Pink that provides sanitary packages and food to these youngsters. Meanwhile, we are working with the major LGBTI group, JFLAG, and the Mayor of Kingston to identify a piece of land where we can build a shelter. The EU had suggested that they would provide us with the funds needed to build this shelter. But then the Syrian crisis hit, and all that money went elsewhere. We are still trying to determine how to go forward. In the meantime, there is work going on to try help parents understand what it means to have a LGBTI kid and reintegrate these youngsters with their families.


BP: You have been the lead organizer for Montego Bay pride since its launch last year. What was the atmosphere at the first year’s events and how did that change this year?

MT: The first year’s event saw a lot of timidity and trepidation. The people who came were more curious than anything else. I think it helped that we kept the location secret. As the event progressed, people started to relax and enjoy themselves together, and boundaries were broken down. 

This year we had a 50% increase in the number of participants and much more international participation. We would have more, but we had space restraints. There was a lot of tension as there has been a recent flare-up of violence in Montego Bay, but the event was incident-free.

Interest is definitely growing. I think next year we will expand the event to include a film festival and exhibitions that will allow the public to participate in getting to understand the LGBTI reality.


BP: What would you say to Canadians in general, and U of T law students in particular, about what they can do to fight for LGBTI rights in Jamaica?

MT: Canadians need to appreciate and acknowledge that a lot of what we are facing in the Global South, like laws and religious groups, came from the Global North.

Respect our local leaders. They are bastards but they are our bastards. When Minister Baird confronted the Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda at a public event in Montreal about Uganda’s human rights record, it really set the cause back. Before that, she hadn’t really cared about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but because she was so insulted she went back to Uganda and pushed through the Bill.

Respect that there are many people on the ground doing work. We don’t need to be saved; we need support. And when you choose to engage, do so by sharing the positives of inclusion. Share that decriminalization of homosexuality and respect for rights has led to greater productivity, a more inclusive society, and less HIV. And sometimes you have to engage practically. There are a lot of research and campaigns that you can help with. You can also engage with cash because the cases are expensive. The dollar in Jamaica is very weak—$10 goes a long way and you spend more than that on coffee for the week.