In a laid-back island nation whose greatest contributions to the world are considered to be Bob Marley’s loving music catalogue promoting peace and love and Usain Bolt’s superhuman speed, it’s surprising to learn that hate crimes are rampant and quickly gaining ground. In 2006, Time labeled Jamaica the most homophobic place in the world. A 2011 national survey on attitudes and perceptions in Jamaica conducted by the University of the West Indies found that 82 percent of Jamaicans feel homosexuality is wrong. Another 85 percent don’t think it should be legalized.
Yes, homosexuality in Jamaica is actually illegal due to an antiquated law on the books. In 1864, the British colonizers imposed the “Offenses Against the Person” act or the “Buggery Law”—which defines “the abominable crime” of anal sex (including sex between consenting adults) as illegal and punishable by up to seven years in prison.
The law went widely unenforced until the late 1980s and early ’90s, when the introduction of anti-gay rhetoric from televangelists Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart developed a hatred of biblical proportions throughout the devoutly Christian island. Homosexuality was labeled an “abominable” disease spread by pedophiles, purportedly linked to the spread of HIV and AIDS.
In light of these alarming statistics, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in support of director and producer Micah Fink created The Abominable Crime, an award-winning documentary depicting homophobia in Jamaica through following two stories: the attempted murder of a young lesbian mother named Simone and her efforts to flee the island; and the campaign of Maurice Tomlinson, an outed gay LGBT activist determined to remain in Jamaica and fight the Buggery Law despite numerous threats against his life.
EBONY: How did you first become aware of the situation in Jamaica, and what prompted you to make this documentary?
Micah Fink: I was commissioned by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Journalism to create a miniseries to investigate the fact that Jamaica has one of the world’s largest percentages of HIV-positive gay men. It is the highest in the western hemisphere. Thirty-three percent of gay men in Jamaica are HIV positive and we wanted to discover why. Their reasoning is directly related to the laws. The culture of homophobia drives the gay men underground, and the law paralyzes the public health system.
While interviewing former Parliamentarian Ernest Smith, he said, “There was no violence against gays. That’s a lie. It is gays against gays.” So I interviewed people in the gay community and found that was not the case. Person after person had the most horrific tales. People were being killed with machetes and burned alive in their houses.
Simone was one of the people I met. She was like, “Look, I just got shot twice. They tried to kill me because I’m lesbian and kill my brother Carl, who is also gay. I’m afraid for me, and my daughter.” That’s how the film came about. It was a common denial that there was anything going on.
EBONY: The opening of the film is a grotesquely beautiful retelling of Simone’s attack using only white lines on a stark black background and her voice. Why that choice to introduce the piece?
MF: That’s the work of a very talented woman, Molly Schwarts. We had a problem with the film in that this part of the film was so dramatic yet so hard to see. But I didn’t want to reenact it. I didn’t want anyone to think that we were making things up. Late in the edit, I also realized that Simone told the story with audio. So I thought, let’s animate it. It helps to universalize the film. It’s a lovely piece of storytelling. I also wanted to expand my pallet as a filmmaker to make documentaries more engaging, to look at people as people and impact lives.
EBONY: How has The Abominable Crime impacted what’s happening in Jamaica?
MF: I’m hoping the upcoming broadcast of the film will begin to impact the conversation and hopefully inspire people to engage in what is a very difficult conversation, especially in Jamaica. The government recently did a survey revealing that one in three gay men in Jamaica is HIV positive. That’s deeply connected to this homophobia, which drives people underground. According to the Health Department of Jamaica, the way the law is positioned, they aren’t able to publish public health information, because that would be seen as a criminal offence of aiding and abetting and condoning an illegal lifestyle.
EBONY: How has the film affected viewers and how will you distribute the film to a wider audience?
MF: The film will be available on Netflix and iTunes. It will be online for a couple of months and on Hulu and iTunes. Hopefully this will make it largely available and we would love to have it screened in Jamaica. We have shown it to high school students and the overwhelming response is, people go from viewing the protagonists as gay and lesbian to a mother and an activist.
EBONY: In the documentary, we see Simone seeking asylum for her sexuality. Is this a rare occurrence?
MF: Jamaicans in the U.S. represent the largest number of applicants for asylum based on sexuality. It is a growing phenomenon. When I met Simone, she was clearly on the edge of being killed or leaving the country. I expected her to get a visa to the U.S. and that to be the end of it. But she was rejected by the U.S. So she had to find a different solution. Eventually she immigrated to Amsterdam. But this took five years, and I promised her not to release the film until she and her daughter were safely out of the country.
EBONY: What makes this an interesting story as a filmmaker?
MF: It’s a deeply human story. The violence that was done to Simone was not just the shooting. It’s not the immediate acts of violence against Simone. In fact, you can even say that the initial violence was only a part of the situation. It is the continued effect of homophobia that is the violence. It is the forced dislocation, the forced separation from her daughter, the uprooting of her entire existence. We tend to see the dramatic short term of the act of violence itself, but fail to see the ripples created in people’s lives for years and years.
EBONY: Homophobia in the African diaspora is spreading quickly to countries like Uganda and Nigeria. What are your observations?
MF: It’s a fascinating topic. You see anti-gay legislation sweeping around the world. This is being seen as a tragic cultural backlash to what is perceived as western culture imperialism. India, Russia, Uganda, Nigeria. It’s the most literal kind of scapegoating. You identify a small group within your culture and label them agents of evil and alien influences, and to preserve our culture and our values we have to drive them out. We saw lots of this in the 20th century.
EBONY: In making the film, did you encounter race or gender to be an issue for you as a filmmaker?
MF: I hope that the film will be judged on the quality of the people represented in it and showing a life in all its dimensions and not a stereotypical representation.
In all the discussion after the film, the context shifted from the idea of their sexuality to the character of their relationships. Simone went from being The Lesbian to being a mother who reflects the experiences of many West Indian women who leave families behind in hopes of creating a better life for them. Maurice and Tom become about a commitment to be together and not at all about gender. I think it’s about how you approach people, and all the other factors become secondary.
The Abominable Crime closes out season seven of the AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange TV series. The film premieres on Monday, at 8 pm ET/10 pm PT and will be available at blackpublicmedia.org for a month.
Suede has spent a decade between the America, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.