KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — A gay rights activist got his first court hearing Tuesday on his effort to bring a constitutional challenge to Jamaica’s nearly 150-year-old colonial-era law that bans sex between men.
The rare court challenge to the 1864 anti-sodomy law is being pushed by Javed Jaghai, a young outreach worker for the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays, the Caribbean country’s sole gay rights group.
On Tuesday, the matter had its initial mention in the chambers of Jamaica’s Supreme Court. Justice Carol Edwards gave the attorney general, who is named as the defendant, until mid-September to file a response and the next hearing was scheduled for early October. Jaghai is seeking authorization to take his case to the Constitutional Court.
Edwards authorized a number of religious associations and a child advocacy group to join the case as interested parties. Homosexuality is perceived as a sin by Jamaica’s influential religious lobby and nearly a dozen other Caribbean nations where anti-sodomy laws are on the books.
The rarely used law bans anal sex and sets a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment and hard labor. Anything interpreted as “gross indecency” between men can be punished by two years in prison.
On Sunday, several church pastors led crowded revival meetings in Jamaica’s two biggest cities to oppose overturning the law. Church of Christ pastor Leslie Buckland called homosexuality “unlawful and unnatural” in the eyes of God and said “no government has the authority to rebel against God.”
Jaghai argues Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law fuels homophobia and violates a charter of human rights adopted in 2011 that guarantees islanders the right to privacy. He argues this must include the right of consenting adults to make fundamental decisions about their intimate relationships.
He claims he was evicted from an apartment by his landlady on the basis of his sexual orientation and says the anti-sodomy law encourages discrimination against gays.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jaghai said he decided to pursue the challenge because “for us to challenge the anti-gay cultural order, it would be necessary for us to become visible and more vocal.” Most Jamaican homosexuals have been unwilling to be public figures because of fear.
Jaghai, who turns 24 this week and is a graduate of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said his family has been threatened due to his public advocacy and he avoids going to his rural hometown for fear a visit would stir up homophobic aggression against his loved ones.
Despite the easygoing image propagated by tourist boards, Jamaica is the most hostile island toward homosexuals in the socially conservative Caribbean, gay activists say. They say gays, particularly those in poor communities, suffer frequent discrimination and abuse but have little recourse because of widespread anti-gay stigma and the sodomy law.
Many in the highly Christian country of roughly 2.7 million inhabitants consider homosexuality to be wrong, but insist violence against gays is blown out of proportion by homosexual activists. Some say Jamaica tolerates homosexuality as long as it is not in the open.
But as an outreach worker, Jaghai says he daily encounters poor gays whose lives are often extremely difficult.
“When their sexuality becomes known, the community sometimes turns on them. They must confront the reality each day that who they are could, without notice, spark a riot and they could be on the receiving end of ‘jungle justice,'” he said in his court filing.
Last year, the Jamaica gay rights group received 36 reports from adult gay males saying they were the victims of mob violence due to their sexual orientation. It says two homosexual men were murdered.