Maurice Tomlinson – Exiled gay rights activist

Jamaica, the Caribbean island known for its reggae music, also has a less positive track record as a country where gay, lesbian and transgender people suffer enormous violence. Lawyer Maurice Tomlinson was the most visible advocate for the rights of homosexuals in Jamaica for years, until he was outed by a local newspaper. Forced to leave Jamaica, he did not give up the fight. ‘From abroad I can be more outspoken.’

Ever since he could read the bible, Maurice Tomlinson knew his feelings for men were perceived as wrong. Growing up in the intensely Christian Jamaican society, his family life revolved around the church. ‘I was brought up with paranoia about homosexuality. But the feelings were always there’, he says. Even when he was fighting for justice for LGBT people, he did so without being open about his own sexual orientation. This changed in early 2012, when a Jamaican newspaper published pictures of Tomlinson’s wedding to a Canadian man. The countless death threats that followed forced him to flee his country of birth.

At least once a week J-FLAG, a Jamaican organisation advocating the rights of LGBT people, is notified of violence or threats towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation. According to J-FLAG, the police is not doing enough to protect its citizens. Small wonder Tomlinson did not feel safe anymore after he’d been outed by the local newspaper. ‘I had nowhere to turn to’, Tomlinson says in the documentary The Abominable Crime, which portrays the lives of several gay people in Jamaica.

The omnipresent music on the island exacerbates anti-gay resentments. Jamaican dancehall and reggae artists have been quite vocal in their dislike of non-heterosexuals, and some lyrics call outright for the killing of gay people. Tomlinson: ‘From Monday to Friday Jamaicans hear anti-gay music, and on Saturday and Sunday they hear anti-gay preaching. It is a perfect storm.’

Interestingly, this is where foreigners can have an impact, the Jamaican says. ‘These bands make most of their money from performing abroad. If festival organisers in the global North refuse to give homophobes a platform, those musicians will realise their behaviour in Jamaica does affect to their opportunities abroad.’

Tomlinson’s involvement with the struggle in his country did not stop when he left. Despite the risks, he returns to Jamaica regularly to continue his fight for LGBT rights. ‘A lot of fear about gays is based on ignorance. The only way to change this is by being visible, so people can get to know us.’ He even feels his exile has made his activism more productive. ‘When I was still at home I was more timid in my comments, because I still had to walk the streets afterwards. From abroad I can be a much more outspoken advocate to gay rights in Jamaica.’

By Femke van Zeijl