Originally published in The Gleaner as “When Culture Becomes an Obstacle” (March 7, 1999)
Listening to HOT 102′s afternoon radio programme, Nationwide, a couple of weeks ago, I encountered a discussion on whether or not Jamaica should try to attract the gay and lesbian tourist market. Hosts Cliff Hughes and Fae Ellington debated the issue with Brian Williamson of J-FLAG (Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays), James Samuels of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association and Dr. Leachim Semaj [A psychologist who believes homosexuality is a mental disorder. See link]. Whereas I think Jamaican hoteliers are quite entitled to decide what segments of the tourist market they wish to attract, I was disturbed by much of the discussion, which seemed to dismiss our homophobia as cultural and therefore the natural order of things.
If we take culture to mean those mores and modes of conduct that distinguish groups of people, then a great many of Jamaica’s social ills could be described as cultural. We have a culture of indiscipline, injustice and violence. We are culturally not disposed to standing in lines. Our culture likes extremely loud music with lyrics which promote violence and denigrate women. We’re rarely punctual, we drive like maniacs, we litter the streets and gullies, we prefer talk to action, we’re allergic to rules of any kind, we’re experts at getting around systems—these are all aspects of our culture. We also have a racist, sexist and class-divided society because of our history and culture.
Our culture leads us to prefer form to substance, to both revere and resent authority figures, and to seek out charismatic leaders as our saviours. We have a culture of untrammeled individualism coupled with a contradictory commitment to dependence. Our culture leads us to vandalize when we object to anything—even to destroy the buses of the only reasonable public transportation system to come our way in 15 years. Our culture also means any civil protests come to an abrupt end if it starts to rain. Despite our willingness to run amok, paradoxically, our culture also renders us apathetic and disconnected from our own society.
We have an anti-nature culture believing that “bush” is bad and wild land is idle land. We have an anti-child culture, so we’re not terribly concerned about the lasting damage done to our children by archaic parenting practices. Our culture is still macho and patriarchal, however much women may be making strides. There are still cultural taboos relating to women being near growing crops. Our culture deplores hard work and we love public holidays. Our cultural icons are DJs, athletes and area dons.
None of these cultural attitudes and attributes are off-limits to criticism. None, except homophobia. Gay rights activist Brian Williamson, who I consider to be the bravest man in Jamaica, tried to say on the Nationwide radio programme that Jamaicans should oppose all forms of discrimination considering our history. No one understood what he was saying.
Even those who concede that homosexuals ought not to attract assault will argue that they should keep their sexual orientation a secret. Gay tourists from more liberal societies should certainly not be allowed to hold hands in Jamaican streets. They say such behavior would violate our cultural norms. It is ironic that we, a people who suffered so much from the violation of our human rights, should be willing to discount the human rights of any minority for any reason. I remember the first time I saw gay men walking hand-in-hand—in another country, of course. I was shocked, and yes, offended. But instantly it came to me: I was walking down the same street, hand-in-hand with my partner. Why did I feel I was entitled to that freedom and they were not? I decided my feelings of discomfort were my problem, not theirs.
I hear the story of Sodom and Gomorrah being offered as “proof” that such evil practices will be punished by God. Well, let’s look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Two angels arrive at Sodom and Lot offers them hospitality. A horde of men surround the house and ask Lot to send the angels out to be raped. Lot asks them to not do such a terrible thing. According to Genesis 19, verse 8, Lot says, “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with any man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.” Why aren’t we outraged at Lot’s willingness to allow his virgin daughters to be raped? Why don’t we accept this aspect of the story as a moral blueprint today?
We continue to pick and choose what suits us from the Bible. Our culture remains an obstacle to our success as a people. We need to support tolerance across the diversity of humanity, instead of excusing our worst qualities as divinely or culturally ordained.