This was a historic week in Jamaica. On Thursday, Portia Simpson-Miller was sworn in as prime minister following the victory of her People’s National Party (PNP) in the December 2011 parliamentary election. If the campaign is any indication of the policies that are to come, the new prime minister may be a much-needed advocate for bringing greater equality to Jamaica’s advancing LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community.
During the campaign, PNP pushed back against homophobic sentiments and accusations doubting Simpson-Miller’s intellect. Many of these charges were levied by the outgoing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and its young-professional arm, Generation 2000 (G2K), which in the end lost the election by a two-to-one margin.
Some LGBT advocates feared that PNP’s pro-gay stance and openness to revisit the “anti-buggery law”—which criminalizes acts of homosexuality or bisexuality—would reduce its prospects for victory. In Jamaica, pro-gay support, although never uttered in a political campaign, has been seen as tantamount to political suicide, especially given Jamaica’s traditional exclusion of homosexuals. However, the PNP's victory could quite possibly silence this marginalization. In Jamaica’s criminal code, for example, Article 76—the Offences against the Person Act—equates homosexual sex with bestiality: “Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal, shall be liable to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for a term not exceeding ten years.”
Given this level of discrimination, it was courageous for Simpson-Miller to denounce anti-gay policies perpetrated by JLP. Simpson-Miller had said in a debate approximately 10 days before election day that she would select government ministers on the basis of competence without regard to their sexual orientation. In that same debate, she stated that her government would not discriminate against minority groups.
Now that PNP is now in control of government, the LGBT community anxiously waits to see if Simpson-Miller and her party made empty promises or whether the PNP government will usher in serious reforms. Hopefully, the new government can count on potential changes in voter sentiment to back up any reforms.
While bigotry still exists among certain populations in Jamaica—typically men, lower-income people and those without a university-level education—the landslide PNP victory indicates a maturation of the Jamaican electorate. The hope now is that voters will base their decision on critical national issues rather than on trivial matters such as sexual orientation. The PNP has pressing economic issues to confront—unemployment for 2010 stood at 12.4 percent—as well as a laundry list of social concerns such as human rights violations like extrajudicial killings, children in police lockups, prison conditions, and violence toward gays.
Jamaicans have high expectations for their new government, but not every issue can be corrected immediately. So we wait now and hope that our new prime minister will truly bring in a new era of government and tolerance to Jamaican society.
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