Ruling in favour of LGBT rights in Jamaica, signalling shift for the Caribbean

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled in February 2021 in favour of a case that challenged the criminalisation of homosexual people in Jamaica, in the first-ever decision of its kind.

The case was filed in 2011 by Gareth Henry, former co-chair of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), a human rights and social justice organisation which advocates for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Jamaica. The Trust has supported J-FLAG since 2014. The Human Dignity Trust (HDT), also a Trust grantee, provided technical legal and communications support to the claimants.

In its decision, the Commission found that Jamaica violated multiple rights of the claimants enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights, including the rights to humane treatment, equal protection before the law, privacy and freedom of movement and residence. The Commission urges Jamaica not only to repeal its buggery and gross indecency laws, but also to enact anti-discrimination legislation, to provide training and education on LGBT human rights and to collect data on the prevalence and nature of discrimination and violence against LGBT people.

The Jamaican claimants in the case, Gareth Henry, a gay man living as a refugee in Canada, and Simone Edwards, a lesbian who was also forced to flee the country, had argued that sections of the 1864 Offences Against the Person Act – a British colonial-era law that outlaws the ‘abominable crime of buggery’ and acts of ‘gross indecency’ with punishments of up to ten years in prison with hard labour – violate their rights and legitimise violence against the entire LGBT community in Jamaica.

“I know what it is to live in fear. I know what it is to live in hiding; to be ostracized; to be beaten and left for dead,” said claimant Gareth Henry in a HDT video about the ruling. He went on to say, “All my life people have told me that who I am and who I love is wrong. For the first time ever, I finally feel that I am right.”

The preliminary decision was made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on 28 September 2019, and was confirmed in a final decision on 31 December 2020, but remained strictly confidential under their orders until February.

This is a historic legal victory for the LGBT community in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, where nine countries continue to criminalise consensual same-sex intimacy. It is a significant step forward that could now accelerate the repeal of these stigmatising and discriminatory laws, further allowing the countries to shed their colonialist past. After legal wins on LGBT issues in Belize (2016) and Trinidad and Tobago (2018), there is a momentum across the Caribbean to challenge these laws in court.

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