Human Rights and Sexuality in Jamaica

Madison with local Jamaicans



Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies

Project Summary

When I first started looking at the different PURM projects, I knew that I wanted something that dealt with gender, sexuality, and/or race. I never thought that I would have been able to explore all three aspects of identity, among others, in one project. Working on ‘Human Rights and Sexuality in Jamaica’ with Professor Deborah Thomas was an incredibly rewarding experience because it taught me that I could combine my passions for research, community engagement, and intersectional activism.

My project was split into two parts: first, we spent five weeks reading and reflecting upon the social, cultural, and political history of Jamaica, and second, we spent three weeks on the ground in Jamaica working on various projects. The five weeks of learning about Jamaica’s history was essentially a mini-course intended to give background to the relationship between citizenship and sexuality in Jamaica. This background knowledge allowed us to analyze the divisions found in Jamaican society between public/private, uptown/downtown, and church/pop culture. These divisions are apparent for all Jamaicans, but our project focused on discovering how these divisions affect queer Jamaicans’ lives and advocacy efforts.

During the three weeks in Jamaica, we worked with three Jamaican organizations: Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), the Faculty of Law University of West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP), and the Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG). JFJ and U-RAP advocated for queer Jamaicans in a legal capacity, and our time with both of these organizations was mainly spent looking at vagrancy laws. These low-level offenses are often vague in language, meaning that the arresting officers have more of an authorization to determine what behaviors are criminal.  JFJ and U-RAP both had cases where law enforcement officers abused this legal ambiguity and used it to aid in the discrimination of specific groups (i.e., in this case, queer Jamaicans).

With J-FLAG, we participated in more local forms of community activism for the LGBT community. We had the fantastic opportunity to take part in Jamaica’s Pride week; some of the events included a day of service, trip to the Turtle River Falls, breakfast party, and a conference titled ‘Immortalizing Queerness.’ While working with J-FLAG, we got to meet members of Jamaica’s queer community who came from different identities and spaces within Jamaica’s society at large. It was also a great chance to hear about the issues the queer community were dealing with from the queer Jamaicans themselves. Working with J-FLAG was helpful in that we saw the everyday actions being taken to provide education, advocacy, and social services to Jamaica’s queer community. 

Overall, this project was the perfect blend of activism and research. We met organizations working on different aspects of Jamaica’s LGBT advocacy efforts and saw first-hand how non-profits operated. It was also great for me as a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies major who plans to attend law school to see the various ways in which I can center issues related to LGBT+ identities, race, and violence to my future academic, research, and legal experiences.