Gareth Henry hit the international headlines in his native Jamaica four years ago when he was beaten by policemen in front of a mob of 200 people who cornered him in a Kingston pharmacy.
A year later, in 2008, the head of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals and Gays (J-Flag), fled to Canada following a series of death threats. He was granted asylum.
The 35-year-old gay rights activist and social worker is now one of two co-petitioners bringing the legal challenge against his former homeland at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“I was with J-Flag for four years,” Henry explained on a trip to London this month. “During that time 13 of my friends were killed.” He identified several of the bodies. “I took on the leadership of the organisation after the former leader, Brian Williamson, was stabbed to death in a homophobic attack in 2004.”
On three occasions, Henry said, he suffered violence at the hands of police officers. The most notorious incident was on Valentine’s Day, 2007, when a group of gay men were chased into the Monarch pharmacy in Kingston by a large mob. Henry was with them.
According to his statement to the commission, the police were called but were abusive when they arrived. One officer asked if he was a “batty man” and then all four policemen began beating him with their guns.
He subsequently complained to the Jamaican ministry of justice. “I met politicians and officials. I expressed concern about my safety and the fact that I was being targeted by the police. They didn’t respond. The harassment from the police increased,” he said.
“When I woke up on the morning there would be a police officer outside my window, saying they were going to kill me. I used to help house gay men who were homeless – primarily because family members had turned their backs on them. Some of these people were dying from HIV/Aids.
“If you are homeless and have no family support and are dying from HIV you have a sense of hopelessness. Even these people became a target for attacks.
“We documented the threats on my life. After the incident in February 2007, that made international headlines, we thought that would make some changes. But I had to go and live in hiding.
“I was stopped in traffic and a police officer said ‘I have found you and we are going to kill you’. That statement still lives with me today. When I saw my friends being killed, I always asked ‘Am I going to be next?’
“When he said that to me, I suddenly realised I was the next target. So I had to make a decision between running away and trying to find a safe place in a foreign land or staying and being killed.
“I was able to get out just in time but there are many other young men who are faced with the same threats and are not able to leave home and find a safe haven.
“Now I want to hold the Jamaican government accountable. A large proportion of the gay community in Jamaica is homeless and living in poverty and being ravished by HIV. Living with no hope and facing humiliation.
“Those people go through each day trying to survive, being anxious about homophobia and wondering whether they will be the next victim. There’s no safe place in this country. We have exhausted all the possible options in terms of negotiations and meetings with the police.
“Why would a sane person chose to be a homosexual? Why would you chose death over life? It’s clearly a human rights violation and it’s time for radical action. We are calling on the international community to help save the gay community in Kingston.”
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