Risking everything to advance LGBT rights in Jamaica

Published: June 10, 2014

SAN DIEGO, California – Angeline Jackson wishes she could bottle up Hillcrest and The San Diego LGBT Community Center, then uncork them in Jamaica.

Her homeland is noted for its laid-back spirit … and its rampant homophobia. The U.S. State Department noted in a 2012 report regarding Jamaica that “homophobia was widespread in the country.”

As a young lesbian activist and college student, Jackson is bravely putting a public face on the emerging LGBT community in Jamaica. She is the founder of Quality of Citizenship Jamaica (QCJ), and is its first executive director.

Jackson said she is leading QCJ in two directions. One, QCJ will not be a membership organization for safety reasons. Two, the leadership is creating a social group that will be a membership organization with an emphasis on protecting the safety of participants. QCJ will stay away from politics and focus on bettering the lives of LGBGT Jamaicans.

On a personal level, Jackson wants to eventually get into politics herself. “That’s way down the line,” she said.

Over the past few years, Jackson has been mentored by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, president of St. Paul’s Foundation in San Diego. The foundation provided a grant to QCJ to help pay for legal expenses to set up the group as one of only three LGBT non-governmental organizations (NGO) in Jamaica.

Heading an LGBT organization in Jamaica is a tricky thing. It’s not safe to meet in public. Most of QCJ’s business is conducted online, where members can hide their true identity from prying eyes. Office mail is conducted via unmarked letters and packages, to prevent the contents from possibly outing the sender and recipient.

QCJ’s headquarters is run out of Jackson’s small apartment and she dreams of the day when the group will be able to lease office space in a safe location.

Jackson’s association with Ogle and St. Paul’s Foundation has opened her eyes to many possibilities and shown her the importance of building coalitions with other groups and organizers. She realizes that what works in the U.S. might not necessarily work in Jamaica, because of the vast differences in the rate of acceptance of LGBT rights.

“Developing relationships are very important,” Jackson said during a meeting with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News at Gossip Grill in Hillcrest. “Developing institutional support is very important, too.”

Jackson marveled at what she learned by visiting The Center last week. Her voice becomes excited as she speaks.

“The Center … you’re looking at my dream for Jamaica! Oh, wow!” she said.

With a population of 2.7 million, the nation of Jamaica has less people than the County of San Diego (3.2 million). San Diego County has two LGBT centers (one in San Diego and another in Oceanside) … and Jamaica has none. LGBT people can live open and authentic lives in San Diego, and indeed some local lesbians and gays have achieved high positions in society, such as California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria. But in Jamaica, LGBT people live closeted lives and those who are publicly identified often face blackmail, arrest, prison or anti-gay violence.

So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how free Jackson feels in San Diego, or in West Hollywood over the weekend at LA Pride when she attended her first-ever Gay Pride parade. But then she has to get on a plane and go home to dire circumstances where LGBT people are treated harshly and unfairly.

As a lesbian, Jackson is not legally considered a criminal in Jamaica. It is not a crime in Jamaica for women to have same-sex relationships, but she testifies about how police found her and her then-girlfriend smooching in a parked car and threatened to arrest them under buggery laws passed in the 1800s when the Caribbean island was ruled by the British Empire. Jackson said she later learned that her then-girlfriend paid a bribe to keep them from going to jail or possibly being blackmailed.

Gay men convicted of same-sex relationships can be sentenced up to 10 years of hard labor in prison. Jackson said two years is a more common penalty for a conviction, but being behind bars is very dangerous for gay prisoners.

Lesbians and gay men routinely are threatened with blackmail from people seeking easy cash and willing to expose those who hide in the closet. Many LGBT Jamaicans fear losing their jobs and their families if they are outed, she said.

Even though Jackson has a higher profile because her activism has grown on the international level, she still knows that any misstep could spell trouble.

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