In 2008, Simone Edwards was shot inside her home, caught off guard by two gunmen while looking for her car keys. She survived multiple bullets to the abdomen, but lost a kidney and part of her liver, as well as the illusion of personal safety. Her attackers were members of a homophobic gang who targeted her unprovoked, along with her brother, who is also gay.
She reported the incident to the police, but her assailants were never charged. She was forced to move several times in one year, fearing another attack, before requesting asylum in the Netherlands.
In a decision taken in September but made public this week, the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights, a tribunal within the Organization of American States ruled in favor of Edwards and a gay man, Gareth Henry, against the state of Jamaica. The court determined that Jamaica, through the preservation of anti-sodomy laws, infringes upon the basic human rights of privacy, humane treatment, and movement of LGBTQ individuals on the island.
“I remember falling to the ground, closing my eyes, and pretending I was dead [during the attack]. One of them said something to the effect of ‘yes we get di lesbian but the battyman dem get aweh’ [yes we killed the lesbian but the gay men got away],” Edwards wrote in her victim statement.
The ruling will not directly alter Jamaican law, but will put international pressure on the country’s lawmakers to change course. It could also serve as a precedent in other cases of wide-scale LGBTQ discrimination in the Caribbean, where Jamaica is one of nine countries that continue to uphold anti-sodomy laws.
"This ruling is a ray of hope for LGBTQ folks in Jamaica. The challenges and issues that LGBTQ people face in Jamaica are no longer going unnoticed. The effect of this will be to challenge the Jamaican government to become more responsive to LGBTQ people and repeal the sodomy laws," Gareth Henry, one of the plaintiffs, told VICE World News. Henry now works as a senior case officer for Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps gay and transgender people escape persecution and violence.
Jamaica has repeatedly failed to overturn the “buggery law”, passed in 1864 during the colonial era, that criminalizes male homosexual behavior. Human rights groups argue the law, though rarely enforced, sets the tone for the treatment of LGBTQ people in Jamaica and encourages police to disregard violent assaults against gay and transgender people, and even participate in these acts themselves.
“By continuing to criminalize male same-sex sexual conduct, Jamaica gives seeming legitimacy to the stigmatization of, and discrimination against, LGBT individuals,” a group of LGBTQ rights groups wrote in a recent report.
“LGBT individuals have been attacked, and sometimes killed, by mobs. Lesbians have been raped in what is perversely viewed as ‘corrective rape,’ in the belief that intercourse with a man will ‘cure’ the lesbian of her sexual orientation. The State has failed in its obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent these attacks and to vigorously investigate and prosecute the attackers.”
Over the past several years, faith-based organizations have intensified their crusade against the growing tide of LGBTQ activism. Jamaica CAUSE, a collection of churches, has organized several anti-gay rallies in Kingston with over 25,000 attendants featuring speakers decrying the “gay agenda.”
Jamaica’s government has not yet responded to the court’s recommendations, but activists believe this ruling could ignite a larger movement to ensure safety for LGBTQ people and soften social attitudes towards gay and transgender people. “It’s a real boost to see that the Commission is taking our complaint seriously,” said Edwards.
“It gives me hope that one day these outdated laws will be done away with, and I’ll be able to return to my homeland without fear of attack.”