DJ-RJ and Gregory Stephen’s Radio show on Equal Rights and Justice features clips from the Julius Powell Interview. There are different Quick Clips in MP3 format in each section of this interview, or you can listen to the whole show.
Anti-homosexual rhetoric and violence has reached crisis proportions in Jamaica. Anti-gay lyrics are growing ever more virulent in dancehall music, and some Jamaicans are acting out the murderous rage expressed in these lyrics, as they have acted out the fire burn mentality. This is really an international crisis: hardly anyone in Jamaica’s intensely homophobic culture is even willing to say directly that this is a problem, and few of those in the international audience who support the music seem to realize that these lyrics have real-life consequences. This was a point driven home with dramatic simplicity by Julius Powell, a spokesperson for the civil rights group JFLAG, Jamaicans for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays. “This music sells in the United States, but it kills in Jamaica,” he emphasized.
I interviewed Julius on December 3, 2001, from his temporary home in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he is pursuing a Masters in Sustainable Development at the School for International Training. Numerous audio segments of the interview were included on a radio special on the theme “Expanding the Culture of Equal Rights and Justice.” I aired this show with DJ RJ on KAZI-Austin February 12 and with Scottie McDonald on KTRU-Houston February 13.
Julius Powell is a native of Manchester, near Kingston. He has a B.S. in Management Studies from the University of the West Indies. His multi-faceted background includes a stint as a Bank Internal Auditor for the National Export Import Bank of Jamaica, and experience in developing non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). As chairperson of the Finance and Enterprise Committee of JFLAG, he has given special emphasis to nurturing alliances: across class lines in Jamaica, with other gay rights and civil rights organizations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and more broadly, with a variety of human rights groups in the United States and Europe. In the following transcript, Julius provides a ground-level view of how homophobia is experienced in Jamaica. He also draws explicit links between Jamaican machismo, repressive attitudes towards the place of women, and virulent hatred of homosexuals.
Gregory Stephens: Some of the anti-gay lyrics coming out of Jamaica are disturbing. There one by Beenie Man called “Damn” where he says, “I’m dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays.” Then “Chi Chi Man,” the biggest tune on the island over the last year: “Rat tat tat every Chi Chi Man dem hafi get flat/ Mi an my niggas ago mek chi chi man fi dead an dats a fact.” How do you react to that?
Julius Powell: The songs incite violence and hatred towards gay people and peoples whose sexuality differs from the norm. We have had at least two deaths this year, so far. One was a student of an all male High School in Kingston. We have had a number of persons who have been arbitrarily beaten because of the society’s perception that they are gay. In January this year, we also had another incident on the Northern Caribbean University campus in Mandeville where four students were brutally beaten at around 4AM. The door to their dorm was kicked off, electricity and telephone communications were cut to the dorm and other students beat them with planks. These planks had nails and they were mercilessly beaten.
This whole idea of Jamaica being a plural society is a farce. We do not believe it is as plural as mainstream society makes it out to be. Because “Chi Chi Man” is just one of a number of songs that are played continuously on the air and television in Jamaica. There is Elephant Man, Spragga Benz to name a few. Spragga Benz two weeks ago issued a statement condemning gays and [emphasized] that his anti-gay message will continue to go out. For us it raises concerns because not everyone in the society is in a privileged position. The root cause of this is Jamaica’s “cultural intolerance” towards gays and homosexuals. This manifest itself in the music.
GS: I have a report that there was an incident in 1997 where 17 inmates who were presumed homosexual were killed. And in some cases beheaded, and had their limbs cut off. Is that true?
JP: Yes, the prison riots of August 1997 lasted a few days. What started the riot was the comment by the Commissioner of Prisons at the time (Col. Prescod) who merely suggested that condoms be distributed in the prisons. The concern was that there was an increase in the reported Sexually Transmitted Infections in the prisons itself. It is also believed that 13% of the prison population is believed to be infected by HIV and AIDS. And so in addition to the increase in the incidence of STI’s in the prisons, the Commissioner merely suggested that condoms be distributed to both warders and inmates. This caused a riot. It sparked a demonstration on the part of the warders where they withdrew their services.
GS: Because they did not want to distribute condoms?
JP: Because they did not want to be associated with that, the warders themselves felt that it gave the impression that they were involved in anal sex. And they did not want [the public] to have that perception because by distributing condoms to warders implied that they were also engaged in sexual activities. In the prison system we all know that sex and power go hand in, as homosexuality in the prisons is not the same as homosexuality outside the institution. In the prisons it’s a matter of power. They refer to gays as “Boys” and heterosexuals are classified as “Men.” So in patois we say, “Dem ah boy as opposed to dem a man.” So the “men” literally went on a rampage by beating and brutally killing some of these guys, they were savagely beaten inside the prisons.
A Commission of Enquiry was done, nothing much came out. As with most enquiries it’s just another way to push matters under the rug. The Enquiry did not even acknowledge the fact that these men were killed because of their presumed sexual orientation.
The Minister of National Security and Justice at the time, Hon. K.D. Knight, felt that condoms could not be distributed in the prisons, and continues to hold that view. There is a new Minister now, Hon. Peter Philips; I am not sure what his current position is. He only assumed office a few months ago.
GS: How did JFLAG come into being?
JP: What really sparked JFLAG was the need to consolidate our legal and advocacy effort. The gay community was always involved in underground-organized activity for years. In the 1970’s there was the Gay Freedom Movement and that continued during the 1980’s. JFLAG is just more visible than its predecessors. There is a long history of organized activity in the LGBT Community of Jamaica especially within the last 20 years. We have just decided to move along the path of institutional building. We want to become recognized through the formation of a legally constituted authority. We do not believe that it is possible to launch a legal and advocacy campaign if we do not have an institution that people can see. So we have embarked on a program of structural reform of the organization, which includes setting up a new management team, holding weekly meetings, etc. This is just to ensure that the discourse involves as much a critique as possible, and from as wide a cross-section of the community as possible.
GS: Julius, what part of Jamaica did you grow up in?
JP: Well, I am originally from Manchester, which is just outside Kingston, about 90 minutes. But since 1986 I have been living in Kingston. My coming out experience actually occurred in Kingston.
GS: At what age?
JP: I think I was finally out at around 18 (laughs). Around the time I did upper six [pre university], 1984-86.
GS: What was the reaction of your parents and your friends?
JP: Isolation. There continues to be isolation. Jamaica is still a very conservative society. It gives this perception of being a “Christian country” to determine its way of life, and norms are pretty much shaped by what they consider to be Christian values. So, I continue to be isolated, my parents know, my father is still struggling with it, but most of my siblings really don’t speak to me. That’s not uncommon in the gay community. It’s difficult, you know, because you grow up in large families in the Caribbean, so to be isolated from your family is hard. But, institutions like JFLAG, provide a safe space and a community and eventually becomes our real families in the long run.
GS: I wanted to ask you about the notion of safe space. Do you feel “safe” in Jamaica? Have you seen violence against gays personally?
JP: For me yes, it depends on where you are. There are politically two Jamaicas, uptown and downtown, referring to the inner city. If you are gay and uptown (meaning you have money) you are immune to the discrimination and abuse to an extent. There is what we consider to be a “Victorian Silence” in that people know that you are gay, they might speak to you, but the topic is not entertained, they don’t speak about it at all! There is no reference made to your “other side.” In reality you are pretty much ignored and you are only viewed or seen in more of a professional manner. And depending on how high in the social stratum you are, then you are pretty much immune to abuse because of your sexual orientation. What normally happens is that those persons become complacent with the situation…
GS: The ones that live uptown?
JP: Yes. They are satisfied with their reality. They do not want to advocate for legal and advocacy reforms because it means that you are going to break down the society and everybody will be on the same plane, and that’s where the issue of class comes into play. Because class is still a concern in Jamaican society, [people who feel that] you and I ought not to be on the same plane or on the same playing field. So the experience of a gay man in uptown Jamaica is not the same experience, or his reality is not the same as someone coming from downtown.
GS: So how did you gain an awareness of what the differences were like from a downtown perspective? I presume you were exposed to that later?
JP: Yeah. I am actually from a working class community. I am not wealthy, but because of education in our system you are on an “ascribed base.” You are pretty much moving from one state to the other. But even though there is the possibility of upward or social mobility through education, it does not mean that you are accepted in the long run. So even though I am coming from the working class I don’t expect to be totally accepted by people uptown. Some of my friends do not speak to me because they think that I am too “out” by participating in organized activity such as JFLAG. They think that that is too liberal a position to take. So you are not invited to parties, you are not invited to their homes, if they see you on the street, they will talk to you but that’s pretty much it.
GS: And have you been able to form some alliances with people in a “downtown” context?
JP: Oh yes actually we do. Despite the scenario we have formed relationships. JFLAG in the last two years has seen a change in that relationship. We recognized that we definitely have to be in touch with as wide a cross-section of the population as possible. We have been bridging that gap between uptown and downtown. So we do reach out to people uptown to give support, more than likely they will give support behind the scene. That’s fine, because not everybody is at that stage where they are prepared to be upfront. Some people are quite ready and prepared to contribute behind the scene and that’s fine. We are happy if that’s what they want to do. You don’t have to be holding placards, you can be writing letters, or attending meetings. To answer your question, my discrimination has come in the form where it has not been violent to the degree that we speak about. I have had on occasion my house stoned, where I lived, in an area called Pembroke Hall some years ago. I have had to move three times because of my sexual orientation and for fear of being killed.
GS: People would tell you? Would they threaten you directly or indirectly?
JP: Oh yes, they would tell you. Pembroke Hall is a residential area that is renowned for being very abusive towards gays. At that time, I was studying part time and had to leave school at 9:00 p.m. I could not take the public transport, I could not take the bus. Because the boys would sit on the street, and wait for us to come in, in the nights.
GS: That’s you and your partner? The two of you, they would wait?
JP: Yeah. While I did not suffer the verbal abuse on the street, he would. One of the reasons I figured is that he did not speak to them; they felt pretty much ignored. I would hear some comments, but it would not be as obvious as when my partner walked down the street with me. But at nights, they would stone the house repeatedly, every night. And hurl abuse. That is frightening. Most roofs in Jamaica are corrugated zinc sheets. So you can imagine hearing stones pelting on your roof at 10:00 or 12:00 o’clock at nights. For us it meant that we had to stay by a friend until [near midnight] and then take a taxi home. We had to take a taxi to work and we had to take a taxi home in the nights. And that’s costly. Not every gay person in Jamaica is able to do that. Some people cannot afford to do that. They have to ride the bus, and have to walk home. And those guys will have to protect themselves and so they have to walk with knifes because they live in violent communities. They will tell you that they have to protect themselves. The straight guys on the street will tell you, well look, we don’t care if you are attacked, because the songs preach that type of violence.
GS: Do you take those calls for violence in the music seriously?
JP: Yes we do, because people have been killed. We have had 47 murders since 1982 which we have directly attributed to their sexual orientation. We had a murder around three weeks ago, but as is customary, the cases are not investigated. The police come but once they “speculate” that the person is gay, there is no further investigation.
GS: So Julius, I would have to presume that at this stage an important part of JFLAG’s work is to mobilize international attention?
JP: Oh definitely. In the last year we have been doing speaking engagements, we have been collaborating with the International Lesbian Gay Human Rights Commission, we have been working with the International Lesbian Gay Association (ILGA) out of London, we have been working also with Amnesty International, Sao Paulo Pride, we have been doing some work with them to help mobilize support regionally as well as internationally. We were targeting Latin America because we also wanted a perspective from the South, being a developing country. We also needed to model our programs from the South, so that would also counteract the view that, when people speak about cultural relativity, and say that, you know, “This is not a part of our culture!” Then we can say well look, we have models.
GS: We have to redefine what is our culture.
JP: We have to redefine what is our culture. There are models outside of the United States which we are willing and prepared to work with and have been working with.
GS: Are you seeing any progress at all in terms of that having an impact as to whom you are able to dialogue with in Jamaica?
JP: Well yes. The fulcrum of JFLAG’s existence is the Legal and Advocacy Reform Committee, and that committee is responsible for advocating for Constitutional Reform. Jamaica is actually looking at revising its Constitution. We have applied for an amendment to the Constitution to allow for sexual orientation to be included as a basis for non-discrimination. And we appeared before the Joint Select Committee of the House of Representatives in June of this year where we presented our Oral Submissions to the House, and for us that was a major achievement, because…
GS: Just to be able to speak before the House?
JP: Just to be able to speak before the House, was a major hurdle.
GS: Was that given quite a bit of coverage in the Press?
JP: Television Jamaica (TVJ) carried a program just two days before we were to appear before the House. It was a talk show and call-in program, and that was a lot of coverage for us. We had radio interviews, just after our appearance before the House. But not as much as we anticipated.
GS: Has there been any subsequent debate? How seriously is that being taken?
JP: Well the House made some comments, and we are now researching our responses. That will be sent back to the House of Representatives as a White Paper for comments. But in terms of the debate in the wider society, I think it has elevated the discussion from under the table. It is now on the table and is now being considered seriously. I don’t think they anticipated the essence of our [written] submissions. Our submissions actually speak to Jamaica’s intolerance and the constitutionality of that intolerance.
GS: What is your feeling as to the source of that sometimes virulence or intolerance?
JP: It is felt that it is cultural, that we are a Christian country and that our homophobia finds justification in the Bible. But I think that if we aspire to be a non-theocratic society then we should not be using the Bible to make moral laws.
GS: I come from a fundamentalist background, in West Texas and Okalahoma, that is homophobic. But you don’t find artists calling for the murder of gays. What is your sense of where that comes from?
JP: As to where it originates, it’s a bit hard to pin down. Their central argument [that of mainstream, anti-homosexual society] is that it is a foreign import. Because we have been colonized, homosexuality wasn’t in our society at all until colonization.
GS: Until you were colonized?
JP: Until we were colonialized! So that argument for us cannot hold. Because sexual orientation has nothing to do with the fact that we went through a process of colonialization. That does not affect one’s sexuality. What people would like us to determine is whether or not this is an innate or learnt behavioral practice. To be upfront, JFLAG does not have the resources to go into that debate, which has been going on for years. What we want to say now is that, “Look, this is a human rights issue, that we have to protect the inherent human dignity of people here. People are being murdered, people are being victimized, people are being fired from their jobs, people are being killed, and look human rights violations are here!”
GS: In the part of the culture that we deal with, musically there is a strong equal rights and justice tradition. Has anyone from JFLAG been able to have dialogue with some representatives of Rasta or reggae musicians and talk to them about an inclusive conception about equal rights and justice?
JP: Well we have been arguing with other civil action groups. We don’t just defend the position of gays only. We have made position statements on child sexual abuse. Because another argument that will come is that only homosexual men molest children. We have stated clearly our position on child sexual abuse, you know, because for us we do share strong objections to pedophilia in any form. We are also opposed to discrimination in any form, in any shape or form, not only discrimination towards gays and lesbians. So we have looked at our position in the wider society but not just from or totally from a gay perspective because there are other issues, which affect Jamaica society.
GS: Yes, well I know how important music is in Jamaica. It would seem that if a change in consciousness were to occur, then musical expression would have to play a part in that process. Are you hearing that anywhere at this point?
JP: No! Because if you go on the airwaves, there is still a deluge of reggae songs which will tell you that [there is no change.] And you mentioned Rastas; No, reggae is reggae. Reggae is not confined to a particular group. Reggae is not endemic to the Rastafarian community. So you have to make that clear, because your listeners would not know. Anybody can sing or be a DJ, you can be a DJ from uptown, you can be a DJ from downtown, and they perpetrate the same song, the same technique.
GS: It seems like there is a huge demand for that kind of music among the audience. To what degree do performers actually share that perspective, or are they playing it for audience demand?
JP: I think it is primarily audience driven. Behind the scenes one or two will tell you that’s what the audience wants to hear. The only person that has said anything positive was Beenie Man, despite his current song.
GS: Well he is a schizophrenic.
JP: [Laughs] Well Beenie Man actually said he has to work with gay people, that’s the reality, but if you look on a list of songs, take the top 10 or top 20 and trust me, it has not changed much. I am looking at a list compiled by Jamdown Records, and three out of the top 10 songs are anti-gay songs. To name a few: Spraga Benz, Goofy, and Elephant Man. This intolerance comes about because this is presumed to be a “Christian country” and nothing more!
GS: We know that there has always been this relationship between what’s popular in Jamaica and what sells “a foreign,” as you say.
JP: Well all of this is affected by the culture. The “cultural stereotype” as we know it is reinforced by a primary law, S.76 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The Act states that: “Whosoever shall be convicted of this 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.” If I traffic drugs, I get three years. If I have anal sex, I get ten years of hard labor.
GS: Well that’s insane!
JP: Yeah, so what is this? The police do not need a warrant to kick off my door, to come into my room. All he needs is a telephone call from my neighbor.
GS: Do you think that a change in perceptions can happen in Jamaica without international pressure?
JP: Well Jamaica is a very homeostatic society. It’s like the body–whenever it’s cut it has to heal itself. They do not believe in change! It’s a society that does not change, that’s why we have a two party system, you either vote for one or the other. There is no room for third parties in this country…
GS: We have the same problem in the US.
JP: Yes. There is no room at all for any discourse outside the mainstream. There is no concept of the “other”; there is no understanding of difference. Diversity does not enter the psyche of the average person.
GS: I remember going to Jamaica in 1987 and seeing a woman who was a Miss Jamaica Fashion Queen. When she started dating a Rasta her parents were horrified! Mainstream attitudes towards Rastas seem to have changed to some degree because of the international presence of Reggae music. Well I mean, Bob Marley did not get any airplay until he opened for Stevie Wonder in Jamaica and became an international superstar. I find that at this time, many North American reggae fans are unwilling to criticize homophobia because they want to feel that they are “authentic” and they feel the “authentic” expression of Jamaican culture is anti-Chi Chi. So therefore, if they come out against this they are therefore showing that they are not authentic. So there is a gap there. But musicians from Jamaica would not be able to make a living without the international audience.
JP: I think they would not.
GS: But the international audience is still, for the most part, not speaking up about this.
JP: Right. They need to be aware as to what these songs mean. Because when you say “yuh nuh par inna Chi Chi Man car.” It means that you do not walk with gay men, you do not talk to gay men! Or when you say, “Fire fi bun dem, dem fi dead!” Meaning they are to be killed! Fire for them [the DJ’s] means corruption, and the songs speaks about getting rid of corruption in society in any form. Homosexuality is seen as a being corrupt, and deviant behavior. So in his or her mind, there is “moral” justification to go out and kill someone who is gay, because he is getting rid of something, which is wrong.
GS: At any rate, I think that the message of many of those songs is clear. We are certainly trying to spread awareness. Part of the barrier we face is a feeling among many people in the audience is that they are just “consumers” of the music. We are trying to educate them but to some degree they are also a part of the culture and they do have a responsibility to stand up to their values.
JP: That’s so true, but to answer your question Gregory, the verse that says;” Get flat me and my niggas ago mek a pack Chi Chi Man fi dead and dats a fact.” And; “Nuff a dem a freak dem a carry dem dutty act.” Freaks do not have a place in Jamaican society.
GS: You seem to be suggesting that a part of this “craze” against the Chi Chi Man is exhibiting a hip-hop influence?
JP: You have to recognize that there are huge Jamaican communities both here in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. We do have a lot of returning residents, we do have a lot of people who are “mixed up” on the Eastern seaboard, in drug trafficking and who have been deported. These “deportees” come back home, they are not really a part of the society… they too have been influenced, they too have experienced some amount of culture shock. They will transport new ideas. It’s not unusual to see the music being influenced by other values outside of Jamaica.
GS: Homophobia is certainly not something that is isolated to Jamaica.
JP: No, it’s not isolated to Jamaica. In the twin island republic of Trinidad & Tobago, they recently enacted an Equal Opportunity Bill, I think last year or maybe in 1999. The Trinidadian Bill actually makes it illegal to enter Trinidad if you are a homosexual.
GS: This was just passed in Trinidad?
JP: This was passed within the last two years, under what they considered to an Equal Opportunity Act.
GS: It was called that? Wow!
JP: Yeah. All the English-speaking territories [in the Caribbean] have a “Buggery Law.” Our law was enacted in 1861. All the English-speaking countries have this piece of legislation, with the exception of the Bahamas and Grenada, which have repealed this law. The current British colonies were forced to repeal their legislation this year by London, because they had no choice (even though they resisted). The other thirteen States pretty much have the same law. Jamaica enforces the law! And that’s the reality.
GS: What type of forums have you been able to go into?
JP: We organize events where we invite people who speak out against homosexuality to our offices in order to have dialogue with them. We have spoken to Leahcim Semaj who is a major opponent of what we are doing. We invited the Ombudsman. Another aspect of our program involves Educational Reform. JFLAG operates a hotline, we do speaking engagements, and we host forums where we invite people in to educate them on who we are and what we are about. We also educate our community about cultural stereotypes, of actual threats of and potential violence towards gay people.
GS: Were you able to go into any mainstream institution, such as into schools or into churches?
JP: We have been to schools, but our most important public engagement occurred this year, when we were invited by the National AIDS Committee of Jamaica (NAC) to sit on their Education Committee. Here we were able to help develop a “Best Practices Model for Peer Education” sponsored by the National AIDS Committee and the Red Cross of Jamaica. This was also a UNESCO sponsored event that occurred in March 2001. So we have been able to highlight some of the main points of our public education program, which we have targeted to members of the Gay community. We do operate a hotline, we do take requests via the internet and arrange counseling sessions which also give a broader understanding of the definitions of terminologies such as homophobia, HIV/AIDS, prevention and care; how to deal with families; relationships; work situations on how to handle negative issues and hostilities.
GS: When I talked to you before you said that one of the Jamaican organizations that has been having dialogue with you was Jamaicans For Justice? What is the nature of that group?
JP: Jamaicans For Justice [JFJ] is a Civil Action Organization that became prominent in their protests in the case of the murder of Michael Gayle in one of our prisons. Given the insistence of JFJ, the case was brought before the courts and his survivors won the suit against the Government. The group was also very vocal in their protests against the removal of several street people from the City of Montego Bay, who were carted off and dumped near an acid lake in St. Elizabeth. There was a Commission of Enquiry as a result of JFJ’s vocal opposition of this act. We felt that it was good to form collaborative partnerships with other civil action groups such as Jamaicans For Justice. At the same time it is difficult for us as they [JFJ] tell us that they do not have a “position” as to what we are about to give support as an organization to our activities and to our request for constitutional reform. What they have done, however, is to send individual persons to our forums, but we think that they need to take that additional step by making a position statement in support of what we are doing in JFLAG. Because this is a human rights issue, and that is the awareness we want to raise in the public mind. We also have been working with Amnesty International because we have to take the message abroad. It is difficult to forge relationships in Jamaica.
GS: With the international pressure it can help these relationships?
JP: Yes it would help, because economic pressure has to be placed on Jamaica. Those are the concerns that the European Union are considering. Jamaica is not going to change overnight, so it means then that you have to put pressure on the state, on civil society in every shape or form.
GS: Well let’s talk about what the international audience can do for our listeners who are concerned and should they be e-mailing certain groups or what can they do about this?
JP: They can give support to the organization in many ways. There [was] a rave in Jamaica [January 2002] sponsored by Queer As Folk, Showtime, E! (Queer As Folk is banned by a number of cable providers in Jamaica), but here we see an example of the “Victorian Silence.” So QAF is sponsoring a huge tourist event in Montego Bay yet their program cannot be seen by the gay community.
GS: If people want to know how to get involved, what do they do?
JP: They can advocate on our behalf, probably boycott our embassies; speak out in our tourist areas. Personally I’d say let’s boycott the product, because the message has to be sent, that we need your support to remove this law in Jamaica. The government is not going to listen to us; the society is not listening to us; musicians think that they have an inalienable right to speak out against homosexuality and preach violence towards gays, because it is their “God given right to do that.”
GS: We need to be talking to the musicians about this, especially those who are reggae fans.
JP: Yes, producers here in the US need to know that despite the fact that this thing sells this thing kills also in Jamaica it sells in the United States but it kills in Jamaica and that’s what’s happen down there!
GS: Aside from anti-gay lyrics and violence we are also going to talk about gender in a broader sense. Every time we put together this show we have trouble finding women artists. The men in the culture who we look to for guidance aren’t much help when it comes to why women are mostly absent in the music. Even Luciano says things about the absence of women that we in North America here take to be condescending or sexist. In your mind is there a connection between the attitudes about gender in general in Jamaica and the violence that we are seeing?
JP: Jamaican society plays out this macho role in various forms. If you do not play cricket, or football; if you are not sitting on the street, [or acting] “rough,” you are not a man. If you are well dressed, people start to doubt. Women continue to be subjugated in Jamaican society because of the whole process of socialization. From a very early age as a child growing up you understand that boys do not do housework, girls do house work. They clean up; they learn to cook. Now my family was more liberal; we all shared in housework. The average family is not like that. Gender roles are clearly defined and re-enforced from an early age. By the time you get to high school boys do not do home economics, traditional Boys’ Schools do not teach French–the romance languages are considered to be effeminate. In high school, boys’ schools will excel in Spanish and sports, girls’ schools will concentrate on French and home economics. Boys do not do subjects such as office procedures, which is a course that I took when I was in High School. It is not normal to do subjects like typing. Girls would be streamlined into that area.
GS: In public it seems like the expression of “true masculinity” is too often through violence.
JP: This image of “true masculinity” comes out in the music. A part of that machismo involves being violent. Women are denigrated at all levels in the society. You can be in a company whose management team is dominated by women managers, but when you look at the composition of the Board of Directors you might not see a woman on the Board, you might see one. This culture of “machismo” plays itself out right out into the Boardroom. Women are not considered to be qualified to sit on the Board.
GS: Where do you see this being discussed, outside of academia, in some media channels?
JP: That is kind of fascinating now, as we do have units at the University of the West Indies such as the Gender and Development Unit, which is actively involved in that. People such as Patricia Mohammed
or Beverley Manely who are actively engaged, who are on the talk shows, heightening the awareness. Portia Simpson-Miller is a very outspoken cabinet spokesperson; there is Olivia “Babsy” Grange on the Opposition side, who contributes to the debate. But even in the political parties and high government office there are still few women represented. I do not know how long it is going to take to recognize that women are discriminated against, that women are being paid less than men. I know of a case in point where a woman took over from the realm of a male dominated institution and she was given a couple months to survive. A bet was actually placed to see how long she would last, which she didn’t. Within seven months she was fired. So that glass ceiling is always there for women in Jamaica. It’s difficult, because a lot of women are complacent, they have husbands who are on these Boards, and they never speak out. They pretty much are comfortable with the tea party and the verandah talk.
GS: I read an interview with Luciano and Mikey General in which they seemed to place the blame for that on women. And surely women share some of the responsibility. Traditionally when men write songs for women, the songs portray them as sex objects. Now more women are writing their own songs but they for the most part seem to be putting out the message of women as sex objects.
JP: Well that’s true as Lady Saw can attest to that. I mean if you have that going on…. It sells! That just adds fuel to the fire. Well I think, people like Della Manley comes out with some positive vibes but she is classified as “alternative music” and that’s not gonna sell. That’s not marketable as that is a small portion of uptown and that’s not going to sell.
GS: You mentioned Jamaicans going a foreign and coming back with new influences. Do you see evidence that some of the influences that they are bringing back are new attitudes about gender?
JP: No. We have had a long tradition and understanding about gender in Jamaica and the Caribbean. We have our own discourse. That’s why I mentioned people such as Patricia Mohammed and Lucile Mair. Lucile Mair was a former Jamaican Ambassador to the United Nations and helped to shape international policy and the approach to gender and development in the last 25 years. She has been instrumental in organizing at the UN level and regional level as well. We have a strong gender component in the region throughout the Universities. Also at the secondary level we have the Caribbean Examinations Council also has a component in its curricula that deals with gender issues. So, gender and family are integral to the Caribbean because a number of our families are “run” by women.
GS: Well we all know that women run things in the Caribbean.
JP: Yeah. So it is hard to say that we “have been influenced” by feminist thought outside the region because we do have our own discourse.
GS: Julius, if people want to find out more about JFLAG or contact you, where do they go to?
Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-Sexuals & Gays; P.O. Box 1152; Kingston 8, Jamaica, W.I.
Heartfelt thanks to Julius Powell for transcribing this interview.