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Dispute Over How to Do International Solidarity With Jamaican LGBTs

GLN permalink posted May 3, 2009

In a column printed in the April 15th Windy City Times (WCT), Wayne Besen, a gay activist with whom we have worked closely in the past, advocated a world-wide boycott against the oppression of Jamaican lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.

He argued that since Jamaica is a cauldron of murderous homophobia, and traditional activism against this bigotry and violence has failed, we could have an impact by crippling the Jamaican tourist industry and thus set an example for other countries that might then think twice about state-sanctioned homophobia.

Prior to Wayne's letter, GLN learned that North American leaders of the boycott, including Wayne and Michael Petrelis (another activist with whom we have worked), had failed not only to reach agreement with any Jamaican LGBT activists, they hadn't even discussed the matter with them. Several of us then wrote the following response to Wayne Besen's WCT column and sent it to contacts in Jamaica and to the WCT.

An Open Letter To Jamaican LGBT Activists

Dear friends,

The boycott Jamaica campaign launched by a handful of North American activists has elicited a great deal of controversy, with list serve postings often aimed at "point scoring" rather than clarifying the issues. This letter is an attempt not to embarrass the activists on the various sides of this dispute, but rather to calmly illustrate why we feel that unfortunately this particular boycott is an example of how not to do international solidarity.

A core principle of any international solidarity campaign should be that the main organizations in the country most affected should direct the campaign. They are the ones who have to live (or possibly die) with the consequences and thus they should be the ones controlling it. In the case of the prospective Jamiacan boycott this core principle was violated: No substantive discussions were conducted with Jamaican activists before it was launched.

The sad thing is that we have a famous example from history that might well have been imitated: the world-wide campaign to boycott South Africa. Because it was approved and directed by the main freedom organizations in that country, it was respectful of local activists and thus didn't have the kind of internal divisions about the campaign that we're seeing in the present boycott.

The result was that the campaign took on a truly international character, not just confined to a handful of activists, but embraced by people of good will of all races. Because it had such widespread support, including the almost unanimous support of freedom activists within South Africa, the campaign was able to isolate the apartheid regime, despite the best efforts against it of the American and several European governments. Because it was directed by South African activists on the ground who knew the lay of the land better than anyone else, its targets were well-chosen (unlike the present campaign's targeting of Red Stripe Beer).

Therefore, on one point we must respectfully disagree with our friends in Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays (JFLAG), who in one of their statements seemed to imply that boycotts never do any good. What one can say is that successful boycotts, like that against apartheid South African in the 1980s and Anita Bryant's Florida orange juice in the late 1970s, are rare and not easy to organize under the best of circumstances; when major missteps occur in the organizing, they have zero chance of success.

However, the central point that our JFLAG friends insist upon is right on the mark – as helpful as outside activists can sometimes be in applying supplemental pressure to hateful regimes, the main battle must be organized and fought for by the activists inside the particular countries in question. Jamaican LGBT people must lead the campaign for LGBT freedom in their own country, as Russian LGBT people do in their country, African LGBT people in their countries, etc.

We are aware that the opinions of any LGBT community in any country around the world are not monolithic. Each of us is very aware of the many political divisions in each of the cities we live in. However, for there to be successful campaigns, whether locally alone, or in conjunction with outside activists, a substantial segment of the community in question must agree to them and be at the heart of their organizing. For there to be no substantive participation in this campaign by leading Jamaican LGBT organizations points to it being very poorly conceived.

Finally, most countries around the world have long and dismal histories of being dominated by one or another outside power, and most peoples in those countries harbor legitimate resentments against those histories of domination. It is thus a responsibility of LGBT activists living in those handful of countries that historically have been responsible for such domination – the United States, Russia and Western Europe – that we not replicate a "gay" version of that arrogant domination by failing to respectfully work with, or respect the wishes of, the activists indigenous to countries that historically have been dominated.

Active Jamaican participation in organizing the present boycott was at best an after-thought for the North American boycott initiators. The unfortunate result is that we now have a messy internal dispute on our hands that serves no one's interests, least of all Jamaican LGBT activists who already have more than enough urgent issues to deal with. This is tragic and need not have been.

We hope that future campaigns are undertaken with a good deal more thoughtfulness and preparation.

Andy Thayer
Roger Fraser
Bob Schwartz
Craig Teichen
William Lockett
Rich Wilson

Gay Liberation Network (Chicago)

Earlier, GLN's Bob Schwartz contacted international LGBT activists Nikolai Alexeyev and Peter Tatchell to inform them of GLN's position on this matter and enlist their support. Bob wrote the following:

As you may have noticed, I posted two brief comments on the Gays Without Borders listserv critical of the boycott of Jamaica launched by the three North American activists, Michael Petrelis, Wayne Besen and Jim Burroway of the Box Turtle Bulletin blog. These men appear determined to push the boycott come hell or high water, and we in GLN believe voices need to be raised in opposition to this misguided and potentially harmful effort.

Early on I advised Petrelis and Besen to contact J-FLAG, only to receive a curt brush-off by Besen who asserted that "we don't need the Jamaicans' permission, since they can't publicly back a boycott." [Petrelis didn't respond to my suggestion, and as we now know had only a brief exchange which carried no J-FLAG endorsement.] Now, in light of J-FLAG (and Gareth Henry) opposition, they have blamed Jamaican opposition on Scott Long. Amazing.

We hold that following a respectful discussion, local self-determination must have the last word. Neither condition is met by Petrelis, et al. What do you guys think of what's going on? Will you join in a critique of what we identify as an arrogant American intervention, ostensibly to "help" benighted Jamaicans who are unable to even author their own press releases?


We also sent the following letter to J-FLAG, one of the organizations on the ground in Jamaica which explicitly disapproved of the Boycott:

Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays
P.O. Box 1152
Kingston 8, Jamaica
April 14, 2009

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

We recently became aware of your opposition to the boycott of Jamaican products announced by North American activists on March 28, 2009. As you may now know, travel to your nation was also targeted.

Gay Liberation Network met two of your leaders who toured Chicago and other US cities several years ago. We were impressed with their courage and listened as they detailed the difficult lives experienced by many LGBTs in Jamaica.

Prior to the boycott's launch, GLN asked two of the principle organizers if your organization had been contacted. Our query was ignored by one of them, while the other said that "we don't need Jamaicans' permission, since they couldn't publicly back a boycott." Such calculated ignoring of local activists is breathtaking, and stands in marked contrast to the successful boycott of Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s when the African National Congress endorsed international efforts to isolate and bring down racial separation in South Africa.

We note your approval of the campaign against Murder Music and remind you that we stand proudly with J-FLAG in that campaign as we protested the appearance of Reggae Dancehall singers in Chicago and nationally who advocate violence against LGBTQ people.

We do not agree with the assertion made in your letter that boycotts and government dictates cannot change social attitudes. Indeed, our experience has been that changing behavior toward gays could be furthered by boycotts and laws protecting gays, and could lead to changed attitudes over time. Recent court decisions and legislative action concerning same-sex marriage are cases in point. In most cases, people adjust to the new reality and move on with their lives.

However, this disagreement is secondary to the fundamental issue: the failure to consult with and obtain the endorsement of J-FLAG. Failure to even be aware of Red Stripe beer's support to J-FLAG demands is symptomatic of boycott organizer's lack of knowledge of local conditions. Given your group's opposition to a boycott, the project ought to have been left undone. The leadership of local activists in guiding actions both domestic and international must be respected.

We remain open to your suggestions as to how we can effectively show our solidarity with Jamaican Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays.

In Solidarity,


On April 28th, Michael Petrelis finally responded to Bob's letter. He wrote, "i certainly see your larger points" but did not address them. He defended including Red Stripe beer in the boycott despite Jamaican activists maintaining that the beer company was cooperating with them. He asked us to name the Jamaicans we had talked to and suggested that Scott Long of HRC had ghost-written the letters of the Jamaicans opposing the boycott. He ended by saying "i'd have some respect for your position if you were calling for at least one damn thing to be done, other than stop my and other boycott support efforts."

At this point, attempting to meet his points, Andy wrote Michael the following:

Hi Michael,

Let me attempt to address some of the points you made in your recent message to Bob:

1) The issue of respecting the self-determination of any discriminated-against group, whether it be LGBT people in general, or Jamaican LGBT people in particular, must be the starting point for the solutions to the problems of discrimination and violence affecting them. To not take this as our starting point replicates (however innocently) the dynamic of devaluing the target group's opinions and humanity.

2) The issue of whether or not Red Stripe Beer in particular is an appropriate target for a boycott is a decidedly lesser issue, but since you insist on a position on this, I'll give you mine, by way of analogy.

If a politician who heretofore had banned all gatherings of LGBT people suddenly made an announcement that henceforth, no groups would be banned (and did not mention the words "gay" or "lesbian" in his announcement) and actually implemented that policy, would we consider that an advancement over the previous policy? I hope you would answer "yes."

Would that be everyone we demanded? Obviously not. Would we put that politician in the same category as other politicians who continued to ban LGBT assemblies? I would hope not, even as we pressured him come out with explicitly pro-gay comments and policies.

In the context of Jamaica, where there has been little progress in even getting indigenous "human rights" groups to acknowledge, let alone campaign against LGBT oppression (in that respect reminiscent of the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s vis a vis the ACLU, etc), Red Stripe's public decision to remove sponsorship from any entertainment act that advocates violence against any group is a victory, if not nearly as complete of one as we would all like.

3) You keep on saying that you see the evil hand of Scott Long in all of this opposition to your boycott, but have offered no evidence for it, aside from the insulting reference to J-FLAG's messages being too polished to have been composed by them. I personally loathe Scott Long, his corporate approach, his 6-figure salary while many worthy projects are starved of funds, etc. Unfortunately, I think by ignoring #1 above, and not addressing that as perhaps even being a problem with this boycott campaign, you have given people like Long and his ilk a wedge issue. That is extremely unfortunate, because Scott Long himself is no real respecter of other countries' LGBT self-determination.

4) A look at our website would show that the Gay Liberation Network has a long record of supporting and promoting positive action against oppression of Jamaican LGBTs (and those in other countries). Not only has GLN initiated numerous pickets against Jamaican "murder music" entertainers when they have visited Chicago, but on several occasions we have taken the lead on alerting activists in other cities, and thus initiating country-wide campaigns against their tours. Bob in particular has been the local leader on this. The murder music campaign I think has been an exemplary case of LGBT activists in other countries listening to and learning from our Jamaican LGBT friends, and thus making some difficult but real progress.

Perhaps we should have made mention of the murder music campaign, including appropriate website/contact info, as a way that people could make a contribution, or referenced J-FLAG's website, but our message, as almost everyone on our edit team commented, was already on the long side. Our "real course of action" was to point out the fatal flaw of the boycott campaign -- the lack of participation by Jamaican LGBTs themselves -- but offering a positive alternative would have strengthened our case.

The point was not, and is not, to promote bitterness or finger-pointing on the GWB list or elsewhere, but to soberly try to draw out things we could learn from this incident, both in our differences with this boycott, as well as J-FLAG's categorical opposition to all boycotts (hence the anti-apartheid and Florida orange juice examples).

I am going on felony trial in a week's time and have a number of time-sensitive projects I'm working on, and so this will be my last comment on this issue. I hope this answers most of your questions to your satisfaction.

Andy Thayer

Bob had already penned the following response to Michael:

Hi Michael

The issue that we identify is far larger than the language used by Red Stripe when it stopped sponsoring Murder Music concerts on the island. To repeat:

A core principle of any international solidarity campaign should be that the main organizations in the country most affected should direct the campaign. They are the ones who have to live (or possibly die) with the consequences and thus they should be the ones controlling it. In the case of the prospective Jamaican boycott this core principle was violated: No substantive discussions were conducted with Jamaican activists before it was launched.

A substantive discussion with J-FLAG would have revealed their work with Red Stripe, but more importantly the Jamaicans' opposition to a boycott. As North American solidarity activists, our task then would have been to support the Jamaicans in ways they identify as helpful to their cause.

I don't agree with the stated J-FLAG opposition to all boycotts, but I think they must have the last word on international solidarity efforts taken on their behalf.

Gareth Henry, now in Canadian exile, visited Chicago several years ago when he was touring US cities. He was courageous, articulate and proudly Jamaican. I was not surprised to learn of his rejection of what he saw as US activists failing to take direction from J-FLAG and deciding for themselves what was best for Jamaican gays.


Meanwhile on the same day, Wayne Besen replied to our open letter with an angry rebuttal. He accused JFLAG of being "a small group run by a guy who uses a pseudonym." Given that previous J-FLAG leaders have been murdered and others forced into exile, this is hardly unexpected!

He claimed that our letter was an attempt to "maintain the failed status quo" and that our example of the South African boycott was not relevant because Jamaican gay activists are forced to "live semi-closeted lives" compared to black activists in South Africa. He agreed with Michael Petrelis's criticism that we "offered no course of action. Just rhetoric" and "empty dogma." He ended by asking, "What is your guiding principle? Do you have any real startegy...? Or, is your only contribution to this growing problem attacking those who try to make a difference?"

We have decided not to respond to Wayne's attack since he made no effort to address our fundamental point about self-determination for Jamaican LGBTs, who know their situation far better than North American LGBTs ever could, and who must live (or die) with the consequences of actions taken on their behalf.


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