Dear Friends and Supporters:
We thank our international allies for their continued interest in the state of LGBT affairs in Jamaica. Your support over the years has strengthened our voice and made it possible for us to make progress where we hardly thought it possible. One of the most significant ventures in which our international allies have collaborated with us was the SMM campaign that started in 2004, and which culminated in a local debate about the appropriateness of violence and hate in Jamaican music played in public places. Despite the occasionally homophobic rant by rogue deejays, we have seen a general decline in the level of homophobia coming from new Jamaican artistes and in new music from Jamaica. We have also seen corporate sponsors withdrawing their support from music that promotes violence or discrimination against any group.
It with this in mind that we find it unfortunate that a campaign has been launched calling for the boycott of two Jamaican products, one marketed by a company that unequivocally distanced itself from the hostility and violence typical of Jamaican music towards members of the LGBT community. In April 2008, Red Stripe took the brave and principled stance to cease sponsorship of music festivals that promoted hate and intolerance, including that against members of the LGBT community. The naming of Red Stripe, therefore, as a target of this boycott is extremely damaging to the cause of LGBT activists in Jamaica.
JFLAG releases another statement against Boycott Jamaica
In the global arena in which we operate today, events in one place can and do have repercussions in another. Concomitantly, information about occurrences in different places across the globe is easily accessible everywhere. We believe that any overseas entity or organisation seeking to agitate for change in a context with which it has only passing familiarity should first do its homework to ensure that it does not do harm to its credibility and ultimately to the cause of the local community whose interest it seeks to defend.
It is unfortunate that the organisers of the current campaign to boycott Jamaica have failed in the key area of fact finding. The misguided targeting of Red Stripe does tremendous damage to a process of change that we began almost 11 years ago. The boycott call has now left us not only with our persistent day to day challenges but with a need to engage Red Stripe and attempt damage control as a result of actions that we did not take. Against this background, we would like to reiterate that while we appreciate the support given by our international allies, and understand their impatience for change, we who live in Jamaica best know and understand the dynamics of our situation. We also know that change is a slow and tedious process and those engage in it must be patient.
Jamaica's deeply ingrained antipathy towards homosexuality and homosexuals is a social phenomenon that will not be undone by boycott campaigns or government dictate. It requires the painstaking effort of confronting the society and talking to social actors who can bring change in the way society sees LGBT people. We have been doing this through a small but growing group of increasingly aware opinion leaders who are concerned about the damage homophobia does to our society. We need those ears to continue being open to us and we need the relative safety that some of us have been given to speak to them.
It is important that our international allies understand the nature of our struggle and engage us in a respectful way about it. Unless they are willing and able to lead the struggle in the trenches as we have done, it is important that they be guided by us. To do otherwise would be to act in a manner that destroys the space for dialogue that we have managed to create over the past decade and to set back our struggle. It is for this reason that we urge those in the international arena who seek to act in our name and on our behalf to do so not only with the utmost care and responsibility but also with due consideration for our efforts and concerns as members of the local activist community.
Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays
Wayne Besen, who is organizing the boycott along with Michael Petrelis and Jim Burroway, responds:
Today, JFLAG came out against this boycott. We respect their reasons and understand that they are unable to stand up and be out. However, we believe that a boycott is what will be most effective in the long term.
Here is the real truth about the dire situation and why JFLAG is forced to oppose boycotts:
Gareth Henry, the co-chair of JFLAG until he was forced to flee the country for Canada last year, says he supports the boycott. He says JFLAG can't be seen to publicly support a boycott.
"They can't be the ones to call for the boycott," he says. "They can't be that voice. But the gays, lesbians and queers on the ground are supportive of a boycott."
Henry says he's tried talking to the government.
"We have tried numerous approaches, numerous dialogues with government officials," he says. "They have been non-responsive to the call. We have to hit people where it's going to hurt, where they'll feel it. In the Jamaican context talk is cheap. After 10 years of JFLAG's existence what else can we do?"
(Some of us have had enough of decades of cheap talk that has led nowhere. Others want to continue this useless treadmill diplomacy)
Wayne Besen's statement is misleading in at least two points.
First, he says that JFLAG "came out against this boycott" "today," implying that JFLAG just decided to oppose the boycott well after it started. That isn't true: they posted a statement opposing the boycott on March 30 on their website and told the Jamaican Gleamer that they opposed it on April 1.
Second, Wayne says that Gareth Henry, a gay Jamaican activist living in Canada, "supports the boycott," which also isn't true. He supported the proposed boycott by Egale Canada in early 2008 against homophobic and violent dance hall music in Jamaica. Whether he supports this boycott or not is unknown; one of current boycott organizers emailed me to let me know that they didn't have his contact information.
I might also add a third to that list, since the proposition that JFLAG has "no choice" is a foreigner's speculation at best, and it doesn't even come close to proving that they actually want an American boycott of their own country. There are many reasons that they would oppose such a boycott, even if we accept the premise that they can't make a decision for themselves and need paternalistic Americans to make it for them, and most of them are listed in the email above (like the facts that this is likely to backlash against them as Jamaicans in general lose jobs, housing, food, and money and blame LGBTQ people, further marginalizing that group of people and that it targets a corporation JFLAG has invested in reaching out to).
In fact, it's just that paternalism that will end up working against Jamaican LGBTQ's. As I posted before, Jamaican LGBTQ people are, in fact, Jamaican (what a shock). Likewise, American LGBTQ people are, in fact, American. And, while there is a strong opposition to such arrogance, we can't deny that this country and its people have a history of wanting to stomp into other countries, "send a message," and "liberate" their people, all ostensibly to generously help helpless people.
This usually involves discursively robbing the oppressed people within the other country of all agency, insulting the country's culture in general, making the oppressors out to be a threat to Americans (which the organizers have done in other statements by saying that it's "our own" oppression going on in Jamaica), and then deriding diplomacy as "appeasement" (hint: you can't reason with barbarians) and demanding firm action. This process has been repeated so many times in the American history that there isn't anything at all new about this boycott other than its chosen villain (Jamaicans) and chosen victim (Jamaican LGBTQ people).
Yet somehow we're hearing the claim that they're acting outside of the standard-issue, oft-repeated paradigm for US engagement with other countries (especially those seen as proper colonial subjects). Well, Jamaicans themselves aren't buying it (the only identifying information I can give out is that this person's IP address confirms that the comment was written in Jamaica):
As a Jamaican gay activist living in Jamaica, I find the approach of these boycott organisers offensively paternalistic. Certainly it is well known that Jamaica is a violent and hostile place for gay people. But gay people here have been resisting that violence for some time. And as difficult as it is to see or as unsatisfactory as it seems to outsiders, everyday that there is one fewer homophobic attack or that we are able to speak in a forum about our challenges is a day of progress for us; everyday a group of gay men can go to a concert or play and be safe is a day or progress for us; everyday an obviously effeminate and feminised actor can go on stage unharmed and be the lead in the most popular plays in the country is progress for us. Our aim is to expand those small spaces. Some of us here prefer to frame our struggle as being about social transformation, not particularist rights.
People need to understand that we are not starting from the same place the boycotters are. This is why their context-devoid analysis is so puzzling. In one breath they castigate Red Stripe for not being strong enough in their support yet they claim that homophobia prevents gays from speaking out in the country. If homophobia has an impact on who speaks, it is more likely to be on those entities that are not specifically into the promotion of gay rights. Gay rights advocates have been speaking out, albeit, anonymously (and increasingly confidentially) but we are the gay rights activists, not Red Stripe. Red Stripe has more reason to be fearful about the repercussions of supporting gay rights than gay activists do.
Look guys, the last time we had foreigners calling for a boycott, there was a spike in homophobic violence in the island. When that happened, there were no foreigners around to help us deal with the fallout. Will the principals involved in this call be here this time around when those of us who are activists and who are becoming increasingly visible are the targets of a backlash? Will they help the gay community here when its voices are silenced?
Let me end by stating that there is a clear difference between martyrdom and victimhood. If we become martyrs in our own cause, very well. But we do not wish to be turned into victims of the excessive goodwill of others.
Another commenter put it more succinctly:
Thanks for your insight and principled stand Alex. As someone who is a gay Jamaican a lot of this is just grossly condescending. If anyone wants to stay away from Jamaica that is their personal business. This is something else, however. This is declaring to speak in the name of GLBT Jamaicans because they are "too weak" in your eyes so you are so "generous" you're dedicated to saving them from themselves. To declare you are speaking for GLBT Jamaicans because they have not reported to you satisfactorily is not just arrogant, it is imperialist, racist and playing dolly house with people's lives.
I personally believe that most Americans don't understand exactly how we're viewed abroad, especially in developing economies. Further, mainstream queer Americans' insistence that we are "the last group it's OK to discriminate against" or "the most marginalized people in America" blinds many gay Americans to the privilege and power their citizenship grants them in the global theater. But the world isn't just gay and straight; it's dividing along all sorts of lines of nationality, race, gender, skin color, religion, and class.
The people who will ultimately pay for this action, if there is a backlash, will be Jamaican LGBTQ's, not American LGBTQ's. That means that they're the ones who get to decide how much risk is worth taking. And, since they know far, far more about Jamaican culture and politics than the people organizing this boycott, they should be the ones to decide what actions will be effective and which won't be.
It is, ultimately, a question of humility, of not convincing oneself that he is powerful and accepting that there are just some things that he either doesn't know enough about to speak intelligently on, that he isn't invested enough in to actually put himself on the line for, or that he can't change with all the tough talk and strong messages in the world.