The Other Pride That Got Canceled

Pride is Typically a Time for Celebration Until It Isn’t and Becomes an International Disgrace

Photo: dk_photos|iStock

“If you attack LGBT people, it must feel like you’re stepping on a porcupine.” This barb is that of Maurice Tomlinson, gay activist, and the head of Montego Bay Pride in Montego Bay, Jamaica. No doubt, he’s left a mark on the city council after the mayor and his ombudsman tried again to impede Tomlinson’s efforts to throw the city’s 5th annual LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations in 2019. 

Tomlinson is not only a gay activist, but an attorney and an educator who now works part-time as a senior policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. He lives with his husband in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, having left Jamaica in 2012 after being publicly outed in a national newspaper and giving up his career as a corporate attorney. His flight from Jamaica is documented in the film, Abominable Crime, produced by Common Good Productions and The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

As is evident in the film, Tomlinson is steely and courageous, maybe even irrationally so. His determination and fearlessness are not unlike other LGBTQ+ pioneers in the early days of the American gay rights movement; those vagabonds who went full-bore and stood up to injustice, daring to pay the ultimate price. Of being worried about his life, he said, “Most times I’m so consumed by what needs to be done that I don’t think about fear or the danger. I suppose that makes me naive.” Though he may be simpleminded about possible threats to his life, he shows true sophistication in his strategies to bring about LGBTQ+ liberation in the Caribbean island nation. Let’s say it helps to be an attorney. But it also helps to want more of your country, which he says has seen better times, “I just want to see Jamaica return to what it was, a country of “one love” and respect for everybody regardless of who they are or who they love,” referring to the influx of American missionaries in the 80s (and even more recently) that helped to fan the flames of homophobia through religious dogma. 

In addition to suing the mayor and the St. James Municipal Corporation, Tomlinson is suing the Jamaican government to eradicate its ban on same-sex marriage, its criminalization of same-sex intimacy, and local TV stations for the right to air advertisements to help humanize the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. Aggressive tactics that JFLAG (the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays) (the more conciliatory local gay rights organization) is perhaps loath to employ. It’s fair to say that he’s been a thorn to many who accuse him of being bad for business, “The feedback I get from these persons is that I am being unfair to Jamaica when I highlight in international fora how bad the LGBTQ people are treated. And as one Jamaican ambassador told me, ‘Think about how it will impact our tourist dollar. Think about how [you’re] going to hurt Jamaica if people find out how badly LGBTQ people are treated.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not my job, sorry. I am not an apologist for the Jamaican government. I’m there to hold you accountable.’”  

For many people, the island of Jamaica is a paradise. Its white sand beaches and turquoise waters are renown. It’s chill spirit, often associated with Rastafarian-culture, and its most famous son, Bob Marley, leave many with the impression that the island is relaxed, even subdued. This is true. But what is also true, and perhaps not as widely appreciated, is that Jamaica is a very homophobic country—recognized among the worst violators by the Human Rights Campaign. Jamaica is also believed to hold the record for having the most churches per square mile than any other country in the world, making its stance on non-heteronormativity both surprising and, yet, expected. 

For the average Jamaican, the hardship of growing up in a mostly religious, poor but proud, developing nation can be a challenge. But for those who identify as LGBTQ+, it’s more than a challenge, it’s a potential minefield. In addition to religious scorn, Jamaica has Britain’s holdover anti-sodomy laws from 1864, as does much of the Caribbean, even though its European colonizer has since moved on in protecting its own LGBTQ+ citizens. Jamaica’s archaic laws don’t only prohibit same-sex unions but even police same-sex intimacy—from penetrative sex to public displays of affection. In fact, it also prohibits anal sex of any kind, including between opposite-sex couples. To be in violation of any of the aforementioned may result in as little as two and as many as 10 years in prison, if convicted in the court system. Through vigilante justice, that punishment could be a death sentence. 

Thus far it seems, no straight couples have been prosecuted for anal sex, but the LGBTQ+ community is traditionally left unspared to face home-grown and even police-sanctioned terror. Last year, JFLAG tracked 21 cases of physical and sexual assaults against the LGBTQ+ community, including cases where the victim had to flee their home or were later discriminated against by police. But these are the only such incidents that they know of. 

It comes as a surprise then that even in these circumstances there are local activists like Tomlinson waging a war for LGBTQ+ liberation and holding Pride celebrations to affirm their right to exist. JFLAG hosts private Pride celebrations in Kingston (the eastern half of the island) in August. Tomlinson holds the western Pride event every October in Montego Bay that is more visible. Because of its visibility, it’s perhaps more agitating. But as Tomlinson can attest, hiding in the light of day is hard work, let alone the need to have to hide one’s sexuality in the country. With his public profile, he takes security measures with his movements back home, architected by his Canadian police officer turned Anglican priest husband. 

Although Tomlinson lives in Canada, he makes frequent trips back to Jamaica to visit his ailing mother and organizes the annual Montego Bay Pride, from which he receives no income. Organized by a team of 12 and attended by some 1,500 LGBTQ+ people and allies every year, MoBay Pride is a week-long event that typically includes a film festival, panel discussions, social events, as well as social outreach and social justice projects—all free to the public. Because of concerns over safety and scrutiny, these events, although not always covert, are sometimes deliberately unannounced, require tight security, and may occur in private venues that are empathic to the queer community. Participation in their annual procession, for example, requires registration over an online portal, being doubly vetted, including in person, and being chauffeured to the Walk for Rights whose location is known only by trusted registrants and police, who largely comply due to the presence of foreign dignitaries. These highly controlled strategies have been key in thwarting off attacks by those who could harm the participants or who would want to disband the events all together. 

While the four prior Pride celebrations have been successful, they did not come without great resistance. Charles Sinclair, the then mayor, tried to thwart the 2018 event. Sinclair, is now a councilman in the local municipality. By Tomlinson’s account, Sinclair publicly questioned the legitimacy of the Pride events on social media, wanted to challenge the police’s authority to provide security, and tried to convince the owner of the private hotel MoBay Pride had booked to cancel the event. 

What happened in 2019 can be described as perhaps more ludicrous and reprehensible. It demonstrated the depths that some Jamaican government officials would go to deflect and stifle the emergence of LGBTQ+ pride in Jamaica all while the Jamaica government, at its highest levels, wants to attract LGBTQ+ tourism. In the lead up to the 2019 festivities, Tomlinson had invited delegations from the North American, Canadian and European Union embassies to attend. Slated to occur the third week of October, the theme of that year was “Let Love Live.” They booked the Montego Cultural Center – a public venue they had used for other events in prior years – for the public forum. They had distributed flyers two months in advance, announcing the forum with the topic of panel discussion: “Is Jamaica ready for same-sex marriage?” It appears that question or the mere thought of it was too incendiary that the new mayor, Homer Davis, having been tipped off by Sinclair, blocked the event from the location a month before its start date.

Having invested considerably in expense and planning, Tomlinson and the leadership of MoBay Pride had no recourse but to file a lawsuit against the mayor’s office with the Jamaican Supreme Court. While neither Davis nor Sinclair would speak to Freshfruit after multiple attempts to reach them, prior reporting indicates their position. Sinclair told the Jamaica Gleaner (the most widely read national newspaper) that the cultural center was controlled by the Municipal Corporation (to which both he and Davis report) and that hosting that event there was “inconsistent with the mandate that we have.” But while Jamaica’s constitution prohibits same-sex marriage, it doesn’t forbid intellectual discussions about it. And although the Municipal Corporation oversees the center, it can’t arbitrarily inhibit parties from using it who have gone through the proper channels to do so. This finding was supported by the decision of the Court, who preliminarily determined that MoBay Pride had legal ground to challenge the mayor. The judge ruled MoBay Pride could proceed with the event, pending a full hearing. For the moment, Tomlinson and MoBay Pride had won, based on their constitutional right to free speech and assembly. 

Photo: MoBay Pride, Maurice Tomlinson (right of photo)

It would seem that in this case love was let to live and the story was now closed. But that was not the case. Instead, the love-lost mayor filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals to challenge the Supreme Court’s decision because he suggested if the event were allowed to proceed ahead of the full hearing, it would be a moot point. Represented by Jamaica’s premier human rights organization, Jamaicans for Justice, Tomlinson’s lawyer received praise from the judge who reprimanded the mayor and requested that both he and the councilman recuse themselves from any future decision involving the MoBay Pride’s rental of the center. According to Tomlinson, the judge said, “Here in Jamaica we have to respect the rights of everyone.” But, ultimately, the mayor won on technicality, stating MoBay Pride had not sought permission from the city council (that he and Sinclair are apart) to hold its event. Although MoBay Pride had made a firm agreement with the center more than a month in advance, the mayor maintained that MoBay Pride needed to have also applied to the council no more than three weeks before the event in order for the city to do mandatory fire and health inspections. This would have not been possible since the mayor had shut down the events a whole week before the deadline to file with the council. (The venue has since increased its cost by three-fold.) Unable to come up with the funds, all the events with exception of the walk were disbanded, and much of Pride that year was canceled. This entire episode got the attention of the Human Rights Campaign, who sent a letter to the mayor decrying his action and emphasized its support of MoBay Pride.

Although Tomlinson could have pushed the issue further by appealing the Appellate Court’s decision to the last legal stop via the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, (as the Appellate judge did not consider this technical loophole) he said, “Sometimes you have to lose to win. We have won because we’ve gotten Jamaicans to condemn the mayor, and the court told the mayor you must respect the rights of everybody. That kind of discussion has made it clear that anybody who does this again will not get away with it easily.” 

Tomlinson doesn’t foresee this issue becoming a problem again for this year’s Pride, but he’s all too keen that his fight isn’t over. He fully expects the local government to play further interference by maligning the event to the public regardless of the venue they choose, which may narrow their options if those venues fear retribution from the public. 

And the stakes for Tomlinson couldn’t be higher. He’s single-handedly trying to back the Jamaican government into a corner with his other pending lawsuits, using only his quills as protection. He knows, even expects, that he may not live to see the benefit of his noble efforts, even if it takes many more decades of valiant activism, “I don’t say I’m fatalistic, but the reality is that this is something worth dying for, because if I can’t live freely in my home country then I don’t want to just exist. I don’t want young people to just exist. I don’t want people to just exist. This is something worth dying for. Liberty is something worth dying for.”

Photo: MoBay Pride,Walk for Rights

Photo credit: MoBay Pride: Walk for Rights

Should you wish to support Tomlinson in his efforts, MoBay Pride has a GoFundMe to help defray some of those legal costs as well as fundraise for their 2020 event. 

For transparency, I’m both gay and Jamaican, and an independent writer who came across a compelling story that was worth sharing.

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