On tolerating homosexuals and such… – Editorials, Current Issues & Opinion Articles – JamaicaObserver.com.

You know what I love (in a cheeky kind of way) about this editorial?  Even as its authors concede that a lot will and continue to change regarding the status of gays and lesbians, it still showed ambivalence of its editors about this change, despite their best efforts.  Try as they might, they really can’t handle it; that’s what the “and such” is really about.   In a way, their ambivalent stance mirrors the attitudes of many Jamaicans today who see that their attitudes are slowly changing but they really can’t get a hang of exactly when and how.  This kind of ambivalence wasn’t so noticeable 10 years ago.  So, THAT is something to celebrate!  In another 10 years, I think we will probably be someplace different, regardless of the vitriolic sentiments that many are clinging on to.  Those folks probably won’t change their minds, but others around them are changing, making them more of an anomaly than ever before.   Laws don’t change until cultural attitudes shift.   I can wait.  And so can many of us.

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Commentary by Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis.  Originally printed in The Jamaica Star. Republished with permission.

Caribbean people are very funny. We’re funny as in humorous, amusing, comical and witty. We are also funny in another kind of way. And here I mean funny as in odd, weird or peculiar. There’s also a third kind of ‘funny’.

Gay men, especially in Jamaica are often euphemistically referred to as ‘funny’, and I find our attitude to that kind of ‘funny’ to be sometimes funny, on one hand, while being confusing and contradictory on the other hand.  In Jamaica, a man who acts ‘funny’ onstage is a guaranteed commercial hit every time. But a man who’s genuinely gay off-stage lives with the risk of being literally and physically hit at anytime. And that’s not so funny.

But funny also sells.

In Jamaica, there’s an increase in the number of comedy promoters. There were eight major comedy shows in Trinidad & Tobago over the last two weeks. I performed on three and I saw the ads for the other five. As a Jamaican, one of the interesting features of Trinidadian comedy shows for me is the number of acts that employ cross-dressing men or men playing gay characters.  I find especially funny how the audiences find them funny. A man comes on-stage in neon coloured wig, skimpy bikini and bra, and the crowd goes wild. Chairs turn over, people run up and down and ‘buss blanks’ and di place nuh good again.

Two such acts appeared on the same events I did.  One was a man playing a woman giving tips and sharing recipes for women who want to learn to fix foods to keep a man tied. The other was a drag-queen-comic protesting the promoter’s decision to shorten his act when his motto, philosophy and mantra can be summed up in four words, “want it long!”

People loved it.

The thousands of people at Jean Pierre Complex, and Guaracara Park in Trinidad, as well as an unbelievably massive throng at Dwight Yorke Stadium in Tobago threw big cheers, applause and adoration at those performers. I couldn’t help thinking that if they were in Jamaica, the audiences would probably respond with not cheers, but chairs, tables, stones and other missiles.  But that’s not necessarily true.

You see homophobia’s very funny- and selective. Gay men are tolerated if they have the right connections, or they work in stereotypical spheres like cosmetology or choreography, and they are adored and celebrated if they consent implicitly to be perpetually framed as comic relief.  In fact, based on current official logic, it’s OK to be gay and acceptable for gay people to form groups as long as they don’t try screechie into Mr Golding’s cabinet, insert themselves into the police force or own guns.

But I wonder if we realise that technically there is no law in Jamaica that says it is illegal to be a homosexual. What’s illegal is buggery. And buggery means anal sex (whether it’s with man or woman!) Funny eeh?

Funniest part of the scenario for me is Ernest Smith the MP. He righteously condemns buggery in Parliament, but as a lawyer he has to earn his money yu see. So, based on what I read in the papers, here’s how it look to me. A noble lawyer, who’s a Smith, stands before an honourable judge, who’s a Pusey, and makes a plea in mitigation on behalf of a man who pleads guilty to buggery! Funny eeh? Well at least it’s funny to me.

Imagine if the government made JFLAG illegal. They could then become his clients and earn him some real funny money. Trust me, he might not be anywhere near as hilarious as ‘Bashment Granny’, but I think the South West, St Ann Member of Parliament is very, very funny.

What you think? box-mi-back@hotmail.com.

Diatribalist’s latest post is absolutely worth forwarding all around the jamosphere, as well as printing and distributing to everyone you come across. The best of blogging doesn’t need to be accessible only through the web.

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This whole “Rampin Shop” madness has been so utterly painful to witness, I can’t even find any joy in writing about it.  But here I am anyway. By the way, I haven’t sat down and listened to the song, and don’t plan to do so intentionally. It may be blasting all around, but I don’t take in any of it. I do have an amazing ability to block out noise; that’s why I don’t know the name of most songs, and can barely distinguish the voices of most DJ’s that I don’t particularly care for. The tune might sound familiar to me, but I don’t spend much time saving it in my memory bank. That’s just how I roll, ok?

So, on the one side of the ring, you have a respectable man who has done some respectable things, including running a completely inept governmental agency that is supposed to, among other things, confer respectability on the quality of the broadcast media.  On that score, he has failed miserably, but don’t tell him that right now; he has a lot on his mind. Among the other respectable things he has done is to be married for a long time to none other than the current director of the Center for Gender and Development at UWI.  Now this respectable man is posed with a serious problem because one brown-skinned woman who imagines herself as the unelected minister of education blows into and explodes in his peripheral vision demanding that he act on something that he apparently didn’t think he needed to act on at all.  Now, when you can’t tell the difference between feminist and conservative fundamentalism-derived perspectives in Jamaica, you know you have problems.  And den people start lik out ‘gainst the song. So you know this respectable man is being pushed to act. And act he does. And lots of people are glad he did, but for different reasons.

On the other side of the ring, we have a couple of dancehall artists who, though them not the brightest of the bunch, have managed to inscribe their names and voices into pretty much every household and head in Jamaica (except the ones that are up asses – no sound system or ipod installed up there yet…), whether you wanted to hear them or not. They have done all that every other dancehall artist before them have done, which is to up the ante. If di previous one did slack, yuh affi come even slacker; den di nex one affi tek di slackness to the tenth power. Who nuh w’aa dig out, w’aa stab out, and skin out an’ red out an’ what not. Nobody nuh w’aa lick out doh. Funny how that is. No problem, ah jus so it go inna dis ya place. The truth is, we know so little and feel so uncomfortable about sex and experience so little intimacy so infrequently that the only place we think we can find and express these longings is at the dancehall. Fine. Better there than nowhere at all I guess. And wha dem two a sing sweet everybody precisely because what they are saying is clearly not meant to be spoken in public quite in those ways outside of the actual participants in the daggerin’ and rampin’ business. And the songs are very, very popular you know. The test of its popularity? Even di likkle pickney dem know it by ‘eart. Well, di artists dem nuh too too happy bout di whole prekkeh.

In the middle are:

1. At least two generations of people who don’t know anything other than dancehall as musical entertainment; everything else is “ol’ time sinting”, and who really think that the dancehall artists – and the various supporting players of the industry – really represent the best talent and strategies for self-expression, and who so closely identify with the music form and its many dimensions and off-shoots, that to raise ANY questions about the quality of music, performance and the content of such is akin to declaring war against one’s family member.   So enamoured are they of the music that they come to see it as as the essence of their Jamaican-ness to be expressed whenever and however, that they gladly overlook – in fact, have difficulty identifying – the very aspects of the music that consciously denigrate them in order to teach them various lessons.  In fact, they think the parts of dancehall – increasingly small parts – that do celebrate creativity and self-respect are tired an’ n’aa seh nutt’n.  Hammering, chiseling, boring and jacking-up will probably be the next new thing in sexhall.

2. Media persons who really have no clue how to navigate a complicated mediascape in any ethical and informed way. They claim to make not judgments, but if something – say, an obnoxious song that they are asked to play over and over again – helps their popularity and their pockets, well, so be it. If govament nuh seh dem nuh fi do sup’m, den dat nuh mean seh dem kyan gwa’an an dweet? Anno nutt’n. So they just do what they feel like, and ask no questions, as long as they get paid.

The jurors watching and weighing in are a mixed bunch.  Mostly moralizing noisy puppets who are really fed up that the society is not the way it “should” be and really believe there ought to be a law against anything that they don’t like or that they think contributes to “moral decline” and lack of respect for Authority.  They neither see nor understand that there is a difference in the role of law and religion, respectively in a democratic society.   To them, religion is law, and the constitution should be carefully sifted for any instances where it contradicts this tenet.  If they had their druthers, we would all be saying grace at every meal and going to church from the day we are born till the day we die.   Indeed, this blog would probably be outlawed if some of them had their way.

There are a handful of sensible albeit selfish and silent ones, who nod and poo-poo the ridiculous rantings of the morality police, but who quietly indulge in their own self-righteous “cosmopolitan” broodings in their careful coiffed corners of the country, and who think that the “simpletons” really should just shut up and get back to work, if indeed they had a job.  Meanwhile, these quiet ones actually have some good ideas on occasion; they just think that if anybody wants to know what they think, they should be asked, petitioned, summoned or better yet, paid to offer an opinion.   They certainly don’t plan to volunteer to say anything too often; too busy looking about their business and turning up their noses at the fracas.

Then there are the few jurors who talk just to talk, and who don’t always quite know what to say, or whether there is anything worth saying at this point, but do think they should say something.  They always talking about “rule of law” and make suggestions all the time about things that the government should do.  You get the sense that they think this is a democracy where the powers-that-be actually read the newspaper and listen to the radio and are really interested in the wellbeing of most Jamaicans.  And so these well-meaning folks talk so much that it seems that there are more of them than there really are.   For their willingness to lend their two cents, however naive, nonsensical or longwinded they can be, at least they are participating with the best of intentions.

And then there are the freeloading jurors, who go right along with the crowd, who think the silent ones should speak up more, but who are not willing to say anything that they would be held accountable for.  So, they say nothing.  They don’t know what they really think because they don’t really try to think.  They do wonder a lot though.  “Ah so it go” and “wha’ fi do?” are their favourite sayings.  More likely is that they just take up space, nod a few times, go on their merry way, and deal with whatever comes at them, with not a clue that maybe if they spoke up and took a stand just once, however unpopular they imagine it to be, that maybe things would get better not worse.  But they can’t take that 50/50 chance, so they just stay silent and focus on putting one foot in front of the other, not trying to sigh too heavy just in case they draw attention to themselves.

So, based on this setup, no wonder we get this kind of thoughtless knee-jerk reaction from the Hopeton Dunn.  I am wondering what he and his wife talk about at night, since I can’t imagine that BOTH of them so completely missed the boat on the question of how to act in relation to the content of music being played on the airwaves.  I guess every time he felt that the lyrics could not get any worse, and then it does, so he just threw up his hands in the air, collected his paycheque and called it a day?  At this point, deciding what to play or not to play must be a nightmare.  But serves him right; had he not bought into the crap that “ghetto people” have a different and thus more reprehensible and scandalous set of values than “normal people” and thus should be valued differently, he would not have been swayed to think that some of the utterly uncreative, imbecilic and woman-hating stuff that passes for dancehall kulcha is really “representative” of what its listeners really want to hear.  He would have been able to offer an intelligent pro-active response to the question of the quality of the music without reducing himself to governmental puppet. He would have been able to use his role to challenge the DJ’s to dig deep into their creative selves and to produce more diverse expressions in dancehall that also come correct everytime. Right now though, he did what should have been done a long time ago, but for the wrong reasons, and under the wrong conditions.

What should Dunn have done?
For starters, the moment he took on this job he should have developed a policy that stated that sexually explicit material should only be aired in the wee hours of the night, and that this should cover television as well as radio. Instead, he let the “ah so dem stay…” lackadaisical attitude take over and now is acting in a hodge-podge and unprofessional fashion too late.

At the beginning of this debacle, he should have stated that he has been remiss in doing this part of his job and why.  He should have stated that while these particular songs have been in question, that they build on a rather auspicious history of slackness in popular culture, and that not all of it is bad, some of it is quite good, but some of it is frankly, disgusting.   But he really does have to explain how these songs can be so popular for such a long time and yet it is just now that he is paying attention. But I bet he doesn’t want us to ask that question.

How will he and the commission decide which category the music falls into?  And what is he going to do about all the other music that came before that might reasonably contend for the “slacka dan slack” medal?  And what about the music that is already recorded and played loudly in public, although not over public airwaves? And what about the public performances that are as much a part of the hype and popularity as anything else?  I noticed that the Gleaner has been quite generous in providing as many images as possible, to help the viewers understand what the debate is about. (Please, I don’t think you should mistake the plethora of images for lessons in how to dagger).  I picked a few that I found to be, um, compelling demonstrations:

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I am wondering if spectators as well as participants are going to be censured in some way?  After all, can’t we dagger to just about any song these days?

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What about assistants in daggerin’?

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Would injuries sustained during daggerin’ be considered more serious than injuries doing other dances?

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And then there’s the issue of Carnival.   Are there going to be daggerin’ and rampin’ police about the place?

Well, none of these issues will be resolved by the PM constituting a commission of moralizing know-it-alls who have already staked out their turf on dancehall.  But I also don’t think the pro-dancehall folks have a nuanced enough analysis to offer reasonable approaches that don’t basically say “lef di DJ dem alone an’ top fight ‘gainst them!” Because everyone knows this is really a repackaged referendum on dancehall culture, right? Right?   But, it doesn’t have to be that way. The only thing I really expect is more circus, kass-kass and a stalemate. Until the next flare-up.

What I really want is more variety and creativity in how and where dancehall presents itself; that’s all I want really. Is that too much to ask? Until the next scandal. I’m done with this one for now.

P.S. Marcia Forbes [finally] stepped forward to offer a really useful and insightful analysis based on extensive research that she did. Given her role in shaping mass media practices in Jamaica, I sincerely hope that she tried to share this information with the commission before now.

P.P.S. And of course, Madame Cooper steps in, to translate for us as usual. While I wish she would do a bit more than translate dancehall lyrics, at least she sticks it to prissy Tyson, who’s probably not been in her own rampin’ shop in a long time. I couldn’t resist that remark, really I couldn’t. Outta orda, yes, but you were thinking it too…

I sent a version of this letter to the editor on January 16, 2008.

To the editor:

I find the media-driven discussion about the newly appointed Governor-General to be quite disturbing. The absence of basic contextual information, the oblique prejudices as well as speculative claims being expressed about Mr. Allen’s religious beliefs reflect the shortcomings of the reportage on the issue.

It is curious to me why the Gleaner has chosen to represent the new Governor-General in a particular way ie. of highlighting his religious affiliation and thus using it as a qualifier. In light of the prejudices and misinformation that persist about SDA, producing a headline about a “pastor turned GG” and “Adventist cleric” is bound to both inflame public prejudices as well as distract us from the important questions like: why do we still have a Governor-General, and what role do we want the Governor-General to fulfill, given that there is little effort being made for Jamaica to become a republic?

If there has not been any discussion about the religious orientations of the former Governor-General, why is so much being made of the current appointee? Surely it is Mr. Allen’s decision about how he will balance the needs or demands of his spiritual faith in light of this particular position that he has chosen to accept? Surely, given his stature in the SDA denomination, that he would know about the requirements of the job, and that he would have consulted with other members of the SDA leadership before making this decision?

Likewise, the public queries of members of the SDA also reflect their own sense of betrayal, as well as a staunch defense of those practices which they seem to think are being called into question by Mr. Allen’s appointment. Here again, the confusion about and intolerance of diversity of religious practices among SDA becomes evident, and which the media reportage could clarify, but has not done so far. If indeed it is a matter of interpretation whether Mr. Allen is indeed violating some core religious tenet that precludes members of the SDA from participating in political duties, then it would be helpful if the answer did not come from hearsay and speculation, but from the research conducted by the reporters.

But more to the point, it seems as if the objections about Mr. Allen being religious and thus prone to using his political status to proselytize and impose his religious beliefs onto the society, are really about his being Seventh-Day Adventist and not, say, a member of the Church of God. The hypocrisy of many of those who complain becomes evident: there has been no such outcry about melding individual religious beliefs with politics up until now, no matter how retrograde those beliefs have been, and no matter how often we see such a lethal combination of religious beliefs and political power working against the interests of Jamaican people. Indeed, it is rare that media reportage treats religious affiliation as anything but an ordinary, albeit required, part of one’s biography, especially for persons involved in politics.

As I hear all the jokes about jerk pork being banned and people being forced to close their shops and stay home on Saturday, I also hear how easily it is for Jamaicans to be mobilized based on fear and ignorance, rather than on actual information. Underlying the obsessive detailing of all the ways in which the new Governor-General will be handicapped by his religious orientation, then, is the profound fear that one version of fundamentalist Christianity is about to eclipse the other version that is increasingly holding us hostage in this society. That may well happen; after all, the SDA denomination is very active and successful in terms of creating viable institutions that can have a meaningful impact on Jamaican society beyond the physical places of worship and direct proselytizing. Its fundamentalist rivals haven’t been as successful in this regard.

In practice, we should have and continue to be concerned about all our political leaders – appointed or not, symbolic figurehead or not – and the ways that they continue to manipulate and misinterpret religious doctrine to support their own narrow stances.

Given that there is little recognition of the dangers of making religious fundamentalism a part of our political structure, those of us who would prefer a more secular polity are seeing more of the same, and are duly afraid. It seems that all the chatter about “the church” becoming more involved in public life has fallen on the PM’s ears. Aside from the specific practices that SDA use to distinguish themselves, the moral conservatism articulated by Bruce Golding is no different from that coming from the new Governor-General.

So, if there is anything to fear about this appointment, it is this: Amidst the political and economic failures that surround us, this government is being remarkably consistent in finding ways to enshrine conservative religious views everywhere it can, including in the most symbolic of positions. I would think all the devout “law and order” folks who are constantly decrying the death of “morals and values” in Jamaica would be happy; they may have just gotten their strongest ally and defender yet.

Sincerely,

Long Bench
longbench@gmail.com

Let it die

December 7, 2008

I read everything when I was a child – from atlases, the dictionary, encyclopedia, manuals on general surgery, the bible cover to cover at least twice, the farmer’s almanac which I loved, and no small number of True Confessions, Mills & Boon, and Harlequin books.   But I also read a lot of evangelical tracts on the rapture which told me what a wicked harlot sinner I was destined to become if I did not “become born again.”

One stalwart in the crusade for my soul was “Caribbean Challenge.” I would get it from church, and put it at the bottom of the center table underneath the telephone directory. And somehow by midweek, it would make its way from the living room onto my bed, where I would find it laying when I came home from school; my grandmother would leave it there – no’h fi yuh dis? she would ask. No answer.  And after reading yet another book a third or so time, I would leaf through the Challenge, and then want to throw it away, but felt so damn guilty about what it said about me that I would do such a thing, that the most I could do was stuff it under my mattress (I discovered many of them there browned and aged when my grandmother died a few years ago and we were cleaning out the house and giving away some of the furniture). I did a lot of things on that bed that probably would have made the magazines burst into flames, but somehow they didn’t. I don’t remember any horrible nightmares either. And as far as I know, I’m not going to hell; I’m there already.

While I want to say that it is good to have more things for people to read – we just don’t read enough – I really think that we also need more variety, substance and balance in terms of what is made publicly available, even in the religious publications. I mean, where is our version of Tikkun, Sojourners, etc.? (to see the difference between what gets called Christianity here and the variety that can and does exist in other places, check out this site).

The irony of course, is that if we were such a Christian country, then how come this magazine, which is practically an institution – 52 years to date – would come to this bitter end? I guess we think we know everything already, and don’t need to read? Whatever the reason, I say good riddance. Now we just need to step into that space left by the Challenge and do something that will leave all of us better off. We sure as hell don’t need another vehicle for right-wing evangelical proselytism to terrorize those of us who have not claimed the “righteous” path yet or at all. This is an excellent moment for well-thinking Christian Jamaicans to create something new and different, and which nourishes people’s spiritual selves rather than turning them into blood-thirsty cannibals.

To the Editor: I am writing in response to James Phelan’s advice column (August 4) addressing parents whose children disclose that they are gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Phelan states that the World Health Organization considers homosexuality to be a mental disorder.

This is not true. Homosexuality is NOT considered a mental illness or disorder by any reputable professional organization involved in the study and practice of mental health anywhere in the world. The World Health Organization revised its policy stance in 1993 to reflect the findings of decades of considerable research and debate on this topic.

In fact, these kinds of factual errors are very common in the Gleaner, and yet there is no evidence that anything is being done to acknowledge and correct the misinformation, or to put in greater quality controls. At the very least, it would be useful if the editors did adequate fact-checking, so that the public is not being wilfully misinformed by persons using old or patently biased information to make their claims.

Sincerely, Long Bench