NEW YORK, N.Y. — The Columbia Law School Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic has secured asylum for a gay Jamaican man who feared persecution if forced to return to his nation. The grant of asylum for Ven Messam — issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — comes at a time when conditions for LGBT people in Jamaica are getting more dangerous by the day.
Since 1997, more than 30 gay Jamaicans have been murdered and the government has not intervened. Rampant rumors that hostile groups are plotting the social cleansing of hundreds of gay people by year’s end have forced countless LGBT people into hiding. The Caribbean nation continues to imprison and kill its gay citizens with relative impunity.
“I am grateful to the United States government for saving my life,” said Messam. “My life in Jamaica was constantly in danger, with angry mobs carrying machetes, stones, knives and guns, threatening to kill me because I am gay. When I tried to contact the police for help, the police instead threatened to arrest me and told me to leave the country if I wanted to stay safe.”
Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg, director of the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, said this case highlights the “particularly severe dangers facing gay Jamaicans” in their hometowns and nation.
“From election campaigns that use songs which promote burning and killing gay people to police support for violent, anti-gay mobs, the Jamaican government is actively menacing and endangering its gay citizens,” Goldberg added.
Several students at the law school assisted in the request for asylum. The students conducted interviews, drafted affidavits, researched country conditions and accompanied Messam to the New York asylum office.
“This experience — where students are responsible for working through the challenges of a case that makes a real world difference in an emerging and important area of law — is what the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic is all about,” said Goldberg. “Thanks to the students’ work, we can now provide supporting materials to asylum advocates for gay Jamaicans anywhere in the world.”
“Mr. Messam’s personal story, and the stories of countless other Jamaicans demonstrate the terrifying situation facing LGBT individuals in Jamaica” said Simrin Parmar, one of the Columbia law students who worked on the case.
“We are thankful that Mr. Messam will be able to live openly as a gay man — safe from government-sponsored persecution,” remarked student Jennifer Stark.
She added, “It is alarming to think about the fate of other LGBT people in Jamaica who are not as fortunate.”
Messam was referred to Columbia’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic by Immigration Equality, a national organization that works on immigration rights for LGBT individuals.
LGBT rights in Jamaica have become an international concern, as individuals there struggle to survive in the dangerously homophobic culture. Jamaican legal codes criminalize sex and “gross indecency” between men. A man convicted of “buggery” can be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment or hard labor.
According to the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), “gross indecency” has been interpreted to include actions as simple as two men holding hands.
J-FLAG was founded in 1998 and is the nation’s only gay rights organization. Founding member Brian Williamson, a leading gay rights activist, was stabbed to death in his home in 2004. Although police later ruled Williamson’s death was the result of a robbery, J-FLAG believes the murder was a hate crime.
Rebecca Schleifer, a researcher with International Human Rights Watch, had a scheduled interview with Williamson the day of his murder.
“It was like a parade,” Schleifer told the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper, referring to a mob celebrating outside Williamson’s home. “They were basically partying.”
Hundreds of LGBT Jamaican citizens have attempted to seek asylum in the U.K., Canada and the U.S.
In 2005, the European Parliament pressured Jamaica to repeal their sodomy laws and do more to stop the violent homophobia rampant in their country. International pleas for change have been ignored by the government.
In America, anti-gay Jamaican performers are boycotted and show cancellations in venues across the nation are becoming more routine.