JFLAG Co-Chair 'calls for love'



Gareth Henry, who was until January 2008, the co-chair for the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-sexuals and Gays (JFLAG), filed a refugee claim in Canada recently.

Henry, who reported to Xtra that his memories of violence and brutality are too painful to dwell on, launched the 'Call For Love' campaign in Canada, on Valentines Day this year.

Calling for the protection of queers in Jamaica, the campaign mirrors like initiatives around the world and was introduced in Toronto, Canada by PRIDE, Egale Canada and the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. A wreath was delivered to the Jamaican Consulate in Toronto as part of the launch activities; in memory of those queers murdered on the island.

"I came to Canada on January 26, basically fleeing for my life," Henry told Xtra. He was initially invited to be this year's international grand marshal for Toronto's Pride celebration in June, but intensified and increasing threats on his own life, forced him to leave Jamaica early.

Henry, 30, who had been at the lead of JFLAG for 10 years had grown accustomed to harassment and even beatings, often at the hands of police, but in November 2007 he became devastated as he received one more threat close to his gated community home.

"I was stopped in traffic when a man got out of his car and came over to me and said, 'Gareth, we know who you are and we're going to kill you and burn JFLAG down. "I was really devastated by that threat," he says.

"I went for the very first time to live with my partner. But I didn't want to get him in trouble so I was basically living in solitary confinement. I was living in fear. I was being totally crippled by fear. If I heard someone on the outside I could not sleep. I said to myself, "Nobody should live this way. I'm not in prison. I need to break free.' I had exhausted all possible options."

As part of the 'Call For Love' campaign launch, a letter was also delivered to the Jamaican Consulate in Toronto. It pleaded with the Jamaican Government to ensure police, "uphold their sworn duty to equally protect and serve all Jamaican citizens." Valentines day was selected for the launch, as it represents the anniversary of Henry nearly being beaten to death by a mob in Kingston, Jamaica.

Henry disclosed to Xtra, the reality in Jamaica that sees Homophobia being a deeply entrenched philosophy of hate that stems from encouragement of such by: the establishment; politicians, religious leaders, media, police and entertainers. Each one of these groups mentioned, fights against repealing Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws that can send a gay man to jail for up to 10 years if convicted of having anal sex.

Horror stories of many vicious attacks carried out on queer people he was once acquainted with, were recounted by Henry to Xtra. And according to Human Rights Watch, on January 29 2008, the most recent acts of violence against queers saw a mob break into a home of four gay men in Jamaica, leaving three in hospital, one with severe wounds from a machete and a fourth man still missing and presumed dead as he is thought to have jumped off a cliff to escape the mob.

None of the perpetrators of any of these crimes have ever been brought to justice and Henry says Canadians can help to achieve change in Jamaica by pressuring their own government. He also works now with the Stop Murder Music Canada, a coalition of groups bent on stopping the distribution and display of homophobic dancehall music and artists in Canada.

"I remember in 2003 one of our friends was at this dance and this song was being played, 'Boom Bye Bye Inna Batty Bwoy Head,' by Buju Banton. When the song was finished playing our friend Kitty was lying on the ground with three shots to his head and that was the end of it. Nothing happened. Nobody knew who shot him."

Henry will use his position as international grand marshal at Pride, to persuade Canadians to join the fight against Jamaican homophobia.

"If I'm denied refugee status I'll call my mother and tell her, 'I'm coming home. I won't live long,'" he says.