Dear Obama: Here’s Why Jamaica’s LGBT Community Needs Your Help

A gay Jamaican living in the U.S. explains what’s at stake for one of the world's most dangerous countries for LGBT people.

In 2014, more than 25,000 people rallied against Jamaica’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. (Photo: Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters)

Apr 8, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Lesli-Ann Lewis has written for various outlets, including Ebony.

When people ask where I’m from, I hesitate. I’m from Jamaica, born there and raised in the way of immigrants in the West—in a cocoon of familiarity, communities that emulate “home.” Now, I live in the United States and often feel like an unwanted “other”—a legal immigrant who literally faces deportation in the next four months. The words “home” and “origin” have lost meaning to me. I am a 28-year-old pansexual Jamaican immigrant. So “home” cannot be the country that would turn a blind eye if I were murdered in broad daylight for loving whom I love, and it cannot be the country that may send me back there anyway. All of this is top of mind, mainly because President Obama is on the way to Jamaica. The main reason for his visit is, of course, business. But there are some key issues President Obama should deal with—mainly, Jamaica’s treatment of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

I left Jamaica with my parents when I was seven years old, arriving in New York City meticulously dressed for warm weather in the middle of a snowstorm.

Last year, I was forced out of the closet, my secret clutched tightly in my mother’s balled, railing fists as she screamed, “It’s better you died than be this way.” This is a part of “coming out” in America—especially for West Indians.

This is what it means to be Jamaican and queer: exiled and banished, scattered in former colonial countries that created the homophobic laws that threaten our lives back “home”—wherever that is. It means being an unwelcomed “other” in American and Jamaican spaces. I want to make a life in the U.S. because this is the only home I’ve ever really known. Every four years, as the presidential election season hits, I’m reminded—by politicians’ rhetoric—that I am not truly welcome in America. My immigration status is constantly in flux—yes, I’m a legal resident and get to work here. But every couple of years, the U.S. government determines how long I can stay—and it can decide, with little notice, that I should leave. The government hasn’t decided what to do with immigrants who came to this country as children. It’s complicated.

So I’ve felt marooned—cut off from West Indian communities, mainly because of my queerness. I try to remember the taste of Jamaica. Some nights, I shovel curry and tamarind balls into my mouth. I pour stories of my Jamaican-ness into my lovers here: I tell them about cane fields and natural water slides and jumping from a waterfall.

But the truth is, I cannot go back.

Whenever another gory story of public torture or murder of an LGBT person surfaces from Jamaica, I’m reminded why I can’t go back. A feminine man has been publicly stoned to death. A transgender teen was murdered by a mob. Throngs of people regularly shout, “Kill the batty boy,” a reference to gay or bisexual men. It’s hard to forget that between 2009 and 2012, a Jamaican LGBT group, J-FLAG, documented nearly 230 antigay attacks in a country that criminalizes sex between men. Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report that documented the extraordinary discrimination LGBT Jamaicans face, even from government institutions. More than half of those surveyed said they had been victims of some form of discrimination because of their gender or sexual identity. Rarely did they report these crimes to authorities—partly because of how gayness is viewed in Jamaican society. Yet, there is progress: Just a few years ago, Kingston, the capital, hosted Jamaica’s first gay pride parade.

This is where President Obama can help. LGBT people in Jamaica, and around the world, are hoping the first U.S. president to aggressively champion LGBT issues will use his platform to explicitly support Jamaican gay activists. While Jamaican officials are hoping his visit will yield economic opportunities, there are human rights issues that must be addressed. The first is the state of Jamaica’s LGBT citizens. The second issue is the status of the scores of LGBT West Indian immigrants—like me—who are hoping for what often seems impossible: asylum. This will protect us from deportation to countries that actively punish us simply for existing. He could, of course, make trade agreements with Caribbean leaders dependent on how they address human rights issues—particularly for LGBT people.

There’s so much at stake—for LGBT immigrants facing deportation and for LGBT Jamaicans living in a country whose prime minister was forced to back down on her promise to review buggery laws. We are hoping that President Obama hears our voices. My hope is that his visit will lead to action—and a more inclusive environment for all Jamaicans.