As It Happens

After fleeing to Canada, activist helps secure victory for LGBTQ rights in Jamaica

Thanks to Gareth Henry and his co-defendant, an international human rights tribunal is calling on Jamaica to repeal its colonial-era anti-gay laws.

An international human rights tribunal is calling on the country to repeal its laws against gay sex 

Gareth Henry says he was beaten by police officers in Jamaica because of his sexual orientation and LGBTQ activism. He's since been granted asylum in Canada. (Submitted by Gareth Henry)

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Gareth Henry fled Jamaica for Canada more than a decade ago, but he's still fighting for the rights of LGBTQ people in his home country.

And now, thanks to Henry and his co-defendant, an international human rights tribunal is calling on Jamaica to repeal its colonial-era anti-gay laws.

"It's a ray of hope for myself and for many LGBTQ folks in Jamaica, and possibly across the Caribbean, because finally there is an international body that is challenging the Jamaican government and seeking to hold them accountable for all the human rights violations against LGBT folks," Henry, who lives in Toronto, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It just makes me happy and [gives me] a sense of redemption."

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has ruled that criminalizing gay and lesbian people violates international law. It asked Jamaica to repeal its 1864 British colonial ban on the "abominable crime of buggery" and "gross indecency— both of which criminalize consensual sexual conduct between men.

The Jamaican government has not yet commented on the ruling, and is not obliged to comply with the recommendations. 

Still, it's a "huge legal victory" in the battle for LGBTQ rights, says Tea Braun, director of the Human Dignity Trust, which represented both defendants in the case. 

"It is an important pressure point and hopefully it will accelerate the repeal of these laws," she said. 

The decision was handed down in September 2019, but wasn't made public until Wednesday. 

Targeted by police 

Henry is one of two defendants in the decade-long case. Both argued that the laws contributed to an atmosphere of hate that legitimized violence against them in Jamaica. 

In Henry's case, that violence began to ramp up in 2004. He had just taken over leadership of the LGBTQ organization JFlag after its previous leader was murdered. 

"Taking on that responsibility changed the course of my life forever," he said. "I immediately became a target of violence and at the hands of the state, of the police," he said.

For the next several years, he says, he was repeatedly targeted and harassed by police officers. During that time, 13 of his colleagues in the LGBTQ community were murdered.

"It's one thing to grieve once for a loved one, but to do that … 13 times — people who you know, people who you share thoughts with, who you shared a moment with, you know, just taken away because they're deemed to be different, because they're gay, because they're bisexual or they're trans or they're less than," he said.

"It's very difficult. And I've watched my friends being beaten, chased through the streets."

He was beaten himself on more than one occasion, he said. But the worst time was on Feb. 14, 1997, when he says police officers viciously assaulted him in a pharmacy as a mob of about 200 people outside shouted for blood.

The officers used their guns to strike him in the head and abdomen, he said, before leaving him crumpled on the floor. 

"When they were assaulting me … I explicitly remember they said to me, 'We know who you are,'" he said. 

The harassment and threats continued to escalate after that, so he left

Henry was granted asylum in Canada in 2008 and now lives with Toronto. His mother, sister and cousin — who became targets in his wake — have all since joined him.

"Their lives, you know, again, uprooted and changed because of my activism, because I chose to do the right thing," Henry said. 

His co-defendant, Simone Edwards, says she was shot multiple times outside her home in 2008 by a homophobic gang of men, and her gay brother was also targeted. She's since been granted asylum in a European country. 

She and Henry initiated the case at the IACHR in 2011. 

"It gives me hope that one day these outdated laws will be done away with and I'll be able to return to my homeland without fear of attack," Edwards told the Guardian.

The experiences that I have had are more than enough for me to to call Canada my new home.- Gareth Henry, LGBTQ activist 

But Henry says he has no intention of ever returning. 

"It's not going to happen," he said. "The experiences that I have had are more than enough for me to to call Canada my new home."

He continues his advocacy in Canada and says he knows very well that homophobia and transphobia are problems in this country, too.

"We are not immune from that. But at minimum, our rights are being protected. We don't have these sodomy laws on the books. And so we do not have to walk the streets and consistently be anxious or wondering who the person is behind me," he said.

"I can go to bed at night and not worry that someone's going to break my door down and come in and beat me. I'm not worried going on the street that a mob will suddenly start chasing me through the streets of Toronto, calling me gay and wanting to kill me."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Gareth Henry produced by Katie Geleff. 

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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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