February 23, 2021 at 8:43 pm PST | by Michael K. Lavers
OAS commission issues landmark ruling against Jamaica sodomy law
Gareth Henry (Photo courtesy of Gareth Henry)

WASHINGTON — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a landmark decision said Jamaica must repeal its colonial-era sodomy law that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Human Dignity Trust, a London-based human rights organization, in 2011 filed the case with the commission on behalf of Gareth Henry, a gay man, and Simone Carline Edwards, a lesbian woman. J-FLAG, a Jamaican LGBTQ advocacy group, was also named as a plaintiff.

The commission reached its decision on Sept. 28, 2019, but did not release it until Feb. 17.

“The criminalization of private sexual consensual activity between adults violates the principle of equality and nondiscrimination, the right to privacy, and the right to humane treatment,” reads the decision.

Henry during a telephone interview from Toronto told the Los Angeles Blade that Jamaican police officers and others began to target him in 2004 after he “naively raised my hand to go speak to the media” about J-FLAG co-founder Brian Williamson’s murder.

Henry said four police officers on Feb. 14, 2007, beat him at a pharmacy in front of a mob that the commission’s decision notes “was chasing other gay men and chanting that gay people must be killed.” The ruling further notes police officers on the same day “showed up at his home and threatened him.”

Henry in November 2017 fled Jamaica. He received asylum in Canada the following year.

The decision notes the Netherlands granted Edwards asylum after “a homophobic attack” in her home on Aug. 29, 2008, “almost killed her.” Henry told the Blade that a friend who was attacked by a mob in Montego Bay in 2005 was later found dead.

“The next morning, I woke up to the headlines in the local newspaper that said ‘alleged homosexual beaten and killed,'” he said.

Human Rights Trust in its press release notes the ruling is the first time the commission has ruled a law that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct violates the rights of LGBTQ people. It adds the decision creates an important legal precedent that can be used to challenge sodomy laws in other Caribbean countries.  

“This is a major legal victory for Gareth, Simone and the entire LGBT community in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, where nine countries continue to criminalize consensual same-sex intimacy,” said Human Rights Trust Director Téa Braun in the press release. “It is a highly significant step forward that must now accelerate the repeal of these stigmatizing and discriminatory laws.”

The Jamaican government has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment, but Justice Minister Delroy Chuck told a Jamaican newspaper the ruling is “not binding on a sovereign state.”

The D.C.-based Organization of American States created the commission in 1959 as a way to promote human rights throughout the Western Hemisphere. It works closely with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to enforce the American Convention on Human Rights.

Jamaica is among the OAS member states that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.

Henry told the Blade he is “very happy, overwhelmed with joy” over the ruling, but conceded it is also bittersweet.

“It’s also kind of a bit of mixed emotions and reactions to why I had to do this, why these recommendations are needed and as a citizen, not in my own country that I could not be my authentic self,” he said. “I have also been reflecting on the many lives that have been lost and the many lives that have been destroyed and the people who have been displaced over the last nine years since I filed this petition.”

“This is also about them, the sacrifices that they have been made,” added Henry.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Los Angeles Blade. Follow Michael

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