Activist Spotlight: GLENROY MURRAY

Fear is the greatest barrier to progress.  Photos: Glenroy Murray

Fear is the greatest barrier to progress. Photos: Glenroy Murray

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Glenroy Murray is an activist and legislative reform advocate from Kingston, Jamaica. He is an Advisor for J-FLAG, Jamaica’s foremost LGBTQI human rights and social justice organisation.

At the end of 2018, 'Rainbow House', the office space and LGBTQI community hub in Kingston where J-FLAG and other human rights organisations were based, was destroyed by fire. Rainbow House was the operational base for the first Pride celebrations in Jamaica, with many of the early Pride events hosted there. J-FLAG is now fundraising to re-establish ‘Rainbow House’.

GiveOut is proud to be supporting J-FLAG, by raising funds for the re-establishment of ‘Rainbow House’.

To mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB), Glenroy will be pitching for funding on behalf of J-FLAG at City For LGBT+, a special live crowdfunding event on Tuesday 21 May at Macquarie. City For LGBT+ will begin with a fireside chat with the former Chief Executive of BP and LGBT+ role model, Lord Browne. To find out more and purchase tickets for the event, visit: https://giveout.org/city-4-lgbt 

GiveOut’s Callum Jackson interviewed Glenroy on his journey to activism and the law. The publication of this interview coincides with IDAHOTB (the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) 2019.

What is your role with J-FLAG?

The focus of our advocacy is less around marriage for all and more around recognition of all types of family.

I was the Associate Director of Programmes and Advocacy at J-FLAG, the leading human rights and social justice organisation advocating for the rights and wellbeing of LGBTQI people in Jamaica. I am currently pursuing a Master’s in law in London, and so I am acting as an Advisor to J-FLAG. But I will take up the Associate Director role again when I go back to Jamaica. I was awarded a Chevening Scholarship (an international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders) because my Master’s is linked to the advocacy work I want to do when I return to Jamaica: investigating how law and LGBTQI rights intersect.

You grew up in Kingston. What are some of the problems LGBTQI people face in Jamaica?

In Jamaica, the queer community faces some major problems. Top of the list is homelessness because, although not everyone is directly affected, it has such an impact on people’s lives. There is already a homelessness crisis in Jamaica – with only a small number of government-run or private shelters – but it is even worse for the LGBTQI community. We try to connect people to the few services we know exist. The issue is not that the people running the shelters are unfriendly or phobic, but that that inhabitants might not be so friendly; so, homelessness is as much a safety issue as it is about economic empowerment.

The second biggest issue facing queer Jamaicans is, of course, discrimination...

Jamaica’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms – an amendment to Jamaica’s 1962 Constitution – was enacted in 2011 and enshrines in law protections and freedoms that all Jamaicans are entitled to. Alongside the usual ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘right to life, liberty and security’, the Charter also contains provisions that, on first glance, seem to provide some protection for LGBTQI people.

However, the scope of this relatively new bill of rights is curtailed by the clear stipulation that the law dealing with “he traditional definition of marriage” is immutable. The ‘savings law clause’, which exists in the constitutions of numerous Caribbean jurisdictions, prevents lawmakers tampering with some pre-independence laws – in essence, the discriminatory laws exported by colonial Britain remain firmly on the statute books.

How could you like to see the law change?

There are provisions in the Charter that guarantee our rights as Jamaicans; for example, ‘equality before the law’, the right to ‘equitable and humane treatment by a public authority’, and protection against discrimination ‘based on the ground of being male or female’.  

These are all well and good, but there are no specific provisions for discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression – that’s what needs to change. And queer Jamaicans are suffering discrimination all the time, in their workplaces, in public spaces, by private businesses.

As part of my work with J-FLAG, I am advocating for specific, comprehensive provisions against that kind of discrimination, similar (ironically) to the UK’s Equality Act.

Fear is the greatest barrier to progress.

Where does marriage equality come into it?

Marriage law, as it applies to opposite-sex or same-sex couples cannot be changed currently, because of the savings law clause, short of by amending the Constitution. But, actually, the focus in Jamaica is less on marriage equality and more on the recognition of queer relationships as valid, because traditional marriage is not a centrally-important institution.

The family model in Jamaica – despite what the right-wing religious groups say – has never been centred on a mother, a father and their children. Families are made up of numerous structures, with the child-rearing roles often falling to non-related members of the family – a friend or neighbour. My own mother was brought up by parental figures whom she was not related to. And so, the focus of our advocacy is less around marriage for all and more around recognition of all types of family.

We often read about the violence LGBTQI Jamaicans suffer.

Yes, according to a report compiled by J-FLAG in 2015, the J-FLAG Crisis Intervention and Support Services Unit (CISSU) received 261 reports between 2011 and 2017 of queer people’s rights being violated. The rights violated included the right to property, housing, work, health, privacy, education, equality before the law and many more besides. Of the 261 reports, an astounding 115 recounted target physical attacks on LGBTQI people.

The majority of these reports of violence were filed by male members of the community, but that slightly skews the results, as that may only indicate that men have better access to reporting services than others.

We do know, however, that trans women are disproportionately affected by violence, mainly because they are visible members of the community and the levels of homelessness amongst trans people is higher than any other group, relatively. If you are ‘real’ (Jamaican slang meaning ‘effeminate’), you are a potential target.

Queerness in Jamaica is not only surviving, it’s thriving!  Photo: Glenroy Murray

Queerness in Jamaica is not only surviving, it’s thriving! Photo: Glenroy Murray

What about access to services?

There is a problem in Jamaica in general to do with a lack of awareness of what is available in terms of social services, and this is especially the case for LGBTQI people. But the problem extends beyond a lack of awareness. There is apprehension and scepticism associated with accessing those services, as queer people are unsure how they’ll be treated and whether they’ll be given the care they need, so they tend to stay away from public services.  

There is a legal framework that ensures that everyone has the right to access publicly-provided services and regional service providers even tend to have their own charters to prevent discrimination, but these protections aren’t enforced, because there’s no accountability.

There is a “common feeling” in Jamaica – as is the case in many parts of the world – that attitudes towards LGBTQI communities are more tolerant in the metropole than in rural areas. This is certainly reported to be the case by LGBTQI young people who move to cities like Kingston or Montego Bay to escape familial intolerance, or who are forcibly displaced. But the situation is muddied by the results of a report, yet to be published and which Glenroy worked on, which shows that attitudes in some rural areas – specifically the parish of Westmoreland – are becoming relatively progressive, even more progressive than in the cities. In 2015, around 20% of rural respondents exhibited tolerant views; this year, that figure has risen to 31%. By normal standards, this seems to be simply anomalous, but Glenroy has another explanation.

I see the power of visibility and I would love for members of our community to make the necessary strides.

We think that there are higher levels of homophobia and transphobia arising in cities and queer people in these spaces are a target because of their ever-increasing visibility. It’s the kind of backlash we need to work to prevent so that visibility, paired with education, leads to acceptance, not violence. Whereas, in areas outside the metropolis, people are getting on with their lives and don’t see visibly queer people. It’s not part of their daily experience and so, whilst there is less intolerance or hatred in rural areas, this is also not quite acceptance as we understand it.

J-FLAG has been at the forefront of this work, creating safe spaces, increasing visibility and combatting intolerance. How does it go about effecting change?

Our mission is to ensure that Jamaica is a place where LGBTQI people can feel at home and participate in public life. We do that in a number of ways. First, legal and policy reform, which is my area of expertise; engaging politicians and leaders to get them to understand discrimination and inequality, and to work to prevent it.

Secondly, we engage the public in conversations they can relate to in order to help redefine images and preconceptions of queerness and to eliminate stereotypes.

Thirdly, we work on building and engaging the community. The movement is small and fragmented, and the main queer spaces focus on partying, not on activism or safe spaces to relax and celebrate who we are. Every year on IDAHOT (the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia), for example, we put on an art and culture exhibition called ‘Prism’. It’s an opportunity to showcase talent in the community, and it is always great to see such a cross-section from different backgrounds, from art school students to vogueing virtuosos to allies. 

We also run a support service, connecting community members to crisis services, and we work with public entities like the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Youth, to make sure services are accessible, safe and welcoming.

How did you get into activism?

I fell in love in Upper Sixth, but my family did not react well. The agreement was that my mother would continue to support me but on the condition that I try to change who I was. After that ordeal, I realised that if I could get through everything she had said to me, I could get through anything. When I started university, there was a programme supporting members of the LGBTQI community; the programme was about self-love and self-respect. I loved it! It allowed me to generate a certain level of self-love, which I really needed. After that, I was living my best life and those around me could feel the difference. Previously, my confidence was a mask, now my confidence was my authentic self. I started to make a name for myself as a mainstay in the faculty, someone who defended LGBTQI and gender rights unapologetically.

Tracy Robinson – law professor at Glenroy’s alma mater, the prestigious University of the West Indies, Mona, and former commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – was teaching a course on the right to equality. She was involved with the decriminalisation case in Belize and the anti-crossdressing case in Guyana.

I showed interest in the Guyana case and she gave me the opportunity to work alongside her, which I took without hesitation because I had found my stride. This led to other faculty members offering work, including a submission to parliament around the sexual offences act. Through that case, I got to know Jaevion Nelson, J-FLAG’s Executive Director, who invited me to write a report for the Nation Human Rights Institution. After a British High Commission internship, I started an internship with J-FLAG. I was so passionate about the work I was doing that I would go to IDAHOTB (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) meetings during my university exams!

Glenroy started in the legal and policy reform team at J-FLAG, and still works with Tracy Robinson as an Adjunct Tutor. Since moving up the ranks in J-FLAG, he has been responsible for all of its programmatic areas, making sure that the programmes are effective and in line with the organisation’s policy goals. But he also has a number of “pet projects” in the pipeline for when he returns home.

The first centres on the so-called ‘gay panic defence’, in which defendants claim to have acted in a state of temporary insanity caused by unwanted sexual advances in order to justify acts of violence committed against same-sex partners. Glenroy believes the defence can be challenged and plans to investigate what can be done.

The second is around ‘queering family law’. Using on non-sexual definition of family, which already exists in Jamaica in the form of a ‘visiting relationship’ (a form of union or cohabitation that qualifies participants for legal recognition), Glenroy hopes to see the law change to reflect the reality of Jamaican family life, not an image peddled by conservative evangelical groups.

What are the major barriers activists face when trying to make change happen?

Fear. Fear is the greatest barrier to progress. Politicians tend to be more tolerant than the general public but are afraid to take a leap of faith because of potential backlash and the risk of not being re-elected. Non-queer Jamaicans are afraid that they will be ostracised if they air even slightly more accepting views, and so they ‘perform’ homophobia. Members of the community are – understandably – afraid, but members not standing up and fighting for their rights is a barrier to progress. I see the power of visibility and I would love for members of our community – as long as they feel safe to do so – to make the necessary strides.

Thank you for sharing your story and your insight, Glenroy. Is there anything else you want everybody to know?

Jamaica is a nuanced space where there are lots of challenges, but there are many ways in which queerness is part of Jamaican culture. It’s essential to talk to Jamaicans living in Jamaica, not only to those living in the diaspora, whose view of ‘Jamaican values’ comes from a snapshot of the past. Queerness in Jamaica is not only surviving, it’s thriving!


CITY FOR LGBT+

We’re excited to be partnering with The Funding Network and Consortium, for City for LGBT+ (#City4LGBT), where Glenroy will be pitching on behalf of J-FLAG for your support.

This special event is set to be London’s first live crowdfunding event supporting LGBT+ specific non-profits.

After a fireside chat with the former Chief Executive of BP and LGBT+ role model, Lord Browne, you will then have the opportunity to support four innovative non-profits driving positive change for LGBT+ individuals and communities.

You’ll also have the opportunity to network, with drinks and canapes kindly provided by Macquarie Group.

Get your ticket for this special event below. Tickets are £25, which will go to the non-profits on the night. The minimum on-the-night donation will be £100.

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