Academics are used to feeling safe. Around the world, they are held in high esteem, paid professional wages, and often granted tenure in their jobs. They are elites, in short, even though they make less money and wield less power than others of that designation.
Perhaps this is why, when academics’ lives are threatened, we react with such surprise. Think of David Gelertner, the Yale professor targeted by the Unabomber, or more recently the UNC professor who received death threats for exposing her university’s athletes’ low reading levels. Or think of Maurice Tomlinson, a gay Jamaican law professor who fled his country after news of his marriage prompted death threats. Now living and teaching in Toronto, Tomlinson is in New York this week to deliver the opening address at the Quorum: Global LGBT Voices event presented by The Daily Beast.
“I felt incredibly vulnerable and alone,” Tomlinson said of his reasons for leaving his home country. “But I was also worried about my mother, who is ill. I was torn. Both my mother and I felt that I had to leave, but we are very close and saw each other every day. I was more concerned about how the sudden separation would impact her health.”
But Tomlinson had no choice—the threats he was receiving were credible, especially after one of his own students published his class schedule online. Jamaica is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be gay. According to a report released in October by Human Rights Watch, there were 231 attacks against LGBT people from 2009 to 2012—in a country with a population of 2.7 million, roughly equal to Houston.
Even more troubling, says Tomlinson, are the pervasive cultural and religious attitudes against LGBT people. The website Murder Inna Dancehall catalogs 207 dancehall songs with violently anti-gay lyrics. We’re not just talking about a couple of F-words here. The song title “Batty Man Fi Dead,” for example, means “All Faggots Should Be Killed.” And the Jamaica Observer routinely runs hideous cartoons about gay people and incites violence against them.
Religion is the second toxic ingredient, says Tomlinson. “Most Jamaicans are religious and belong to fundamentalist Christian denominations,” he said. “These extremist groups and their Global North allies engage in aggressive vilification of same-gender relationships. They claim that homosexuals are an abomination which has poisoned the minds of Jamaicans, with the most devastating result being that parents have thrown their LGBT kids out as young as 10 years old.”
The effect is political, as well. “The religious groups have recently launched a voter registration campaign and threaten to vote out any politician who supports decriminalizing same-gender intimacy,” Tomlinson said.
The Jamaican Coalition for a Healthy Society and Jamaica CAUSE (Churches Action Uniting Society for Emancipation) are two such organizations. They are funded largely by American conservatives—as well as by the local poultry brand The Best Dressed Chicken (think of the anti-gay Chick-fil-A on steroids). Yet they put themselves forward as defenders of traditional Jamaican values—which apparently are colonial ones—and by now have drawn many local preachers to the anti-gay cause. It doesn’t hurt that the pay is good.
Now it’s one thing to write about the forms of Jamaican homophobia from a comfortable office in New York, as I’m doing right now. It’s quite another to be outed publicly and threatened with violence. That’s when Tomlinson says he really understood that he, too, was vulnerable.
“Before 2011 I always saw my activism for LGBTI rights in mostly academic terms,” he said. “I occasionally received death threats for my activism, but after my marriage was made public, the threats increased in intensity and ferocity. It appears that I had crossed a line...I was petrified. I suddenly realized that, in the eyes of most Jamaicans, I was as [much of] a ‘freak’ as all the other gays who had suffered violence.”
This sense of vulnerability is, of course, even more acute in micro-states like Jamaica. It’s hard to be anonymous on a relatively small island nation, and police in Jamaica do little to protect LGBT people from violence. On the contrary, since homosexuality is still technically illegal, thanks to an 1864 British colonial law against “buggery,” some police blackmail LGBT people and extort money from them.
But exile to Canada—Tomlinson’s husband is Canadian—has hardly slowed his activism. He is a lawyer for AIDS-Free World, which pushes for more active and gay-inclusive policies to combat HIV. He still supports J-FLAG, the Jamaican LGBT organization.
And he has a loud voice. I first became aware of his activism on an international mailing list of LGBT activists and quickly found that he is a rare combination: a commenter who is both frequent and intelligent. He is also a journalist’s dream, since he seems to have his finger on the pulse of all things global and LGBT. He’s won several awards for his work. And now he is in New York, kicking off The Daily Beast’s Quorum event.
“I hope the Quorum resources will highlight the similarities in the challenges facing LGBTI people globally, as well as identify common strategies to challenge this homophobia,” he said. “Finally, I hope we can share concrete actions with those who attend, and want to help in the global LGBTI liberation struggle.”