Interviews

A conversation with Larry Chang, Chinese-Jamaican gay political activist

Written by Xavier Murphy

Larry Chang he is a, Chinese-Jamaican gay man, political activist and founding member of the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays, J-FLAG. Recently the international scrutiny of anti-homosexual lyrics in Jamaican music has focused on dancehall artist. Over the past 2 years dancehall artists have been banned from venues, dropped from concerts, warned of being arrested for inciting the murder of gays/lesbian and had awards nominations withdrawn due to pressure from Gay rights group like OutRage! and many others. This month we pose 10 questions to Larry on this issue.

XM: Thanks for taking the time. Recently many of the popular Jamaican artists have been threatened incite violence. Do you think this will change the lyrics?

LC: Established artists will not readily change their lyrics as their pride will not allow them to be seen as “bowing.” The perception also is that the protest is a foreign white people/big man thing trying to fight down conscious Jamdung black man, when in reality it’s a human rights struggle as thousands of Jamaican citizens who happen to be LGBT have to bear the brunt of the violence and oppression encouraged by those lyrics. The artists are only products of their society and until that society changes it’s attitudes towards homosexuality, then those artists who spout homophobic violence will continue to be encouraged and supported. As we evolve as a society, upcoming artists will become more conscious, not of an ersatz masculinity at the expense of women and gays, but of a humanity and compassion that will not tolerate oppression in any form. Then the forward they get from their audiences will be based on genuine love, universal peace and justice.

XM: Many Jamaicans believe that the situation is blown out of proportion and sensationalism of the media of Jamaica’s homophobia is blown out of portion. Some say dancehall DJ’s have called for ‘fire’ against the church and the government. What are your thoughts on this?

LC: Any event on which attention is focused becomes changed. This reflects a physics principle that the act of observing anything changes it. Perception creates reality. Media attention tends to enlarge broad aspects of issues while losing the details. Generalization becomes the norm. The reality, on which it is based, however, remains that Jamaicans perceived to be gay cannot walk freely in their own country without being harassed, beaten or stabbed. As reported recently in the Star, they cannot even have sex in the privacy of their homes without being invaded by the police and arrested. When the international media and human rights organizations pick this up, we can bawl sensationalism blown out of proportion, but meanwhile two Manchester men’s lives have been ruined by agents of the state. Scores of other LGBT Jamaican’s lives have been destroyed or cut short by senseless violence based on bigotry and ignorance, adding to our already shameful homicide statistics.

Calling ‘fire’ against the church and government has not led to any members of those bodies being targeted, apart from a number of Roman Catholic priests who have been murdered as they as a class are perceived to be homosexual. Of course, not many people know of this as church and state have conspired to hush this up to their respective advantages.

XM: Everything seems to be happening at a time when dancehall music seems to have made some serious in roads. Is this the chickens coming to roost or a planned strategy?

LC: Basically, di aia mongki klaim di muo ihn aas hexpuoz. The very success of dancehall has attracted attention and it has not stood up to scrutiny very well. Jamaican music has a well-deserved international following. In addition to infectious rhythms our message music was well-received. But the chickens are now coming home to roost. We “lampsed” the world into thinking we were all about support for the downtrodden and protesting oppression while at home we were “down pressing” women and abusing gays. As I wrote in a poem:

Their songs of freedom don’t ring true
Their harmonies false, their rhythms hollow
Lyrics empty, melodies sour
Unless One Love One Heart is felt
To include the sodomite down the street
The battyman round the corner.

This poem was written in response to Tommy Cowan and Carlene Davis’ son who used to stone my house on a regular.

We have been pressing for the decriminalization of homosexual acts and for constitutional protection from discrimination for years. The government will not budge. Our rights as citizens are being trampled on but our voices crying out for justice are ignored. But money talks, so if there is any strategy it is to make our protest felt in the pocket. Only when the economic benefits of tourism and music exports seem to be threatened are Jamaican LGBT citizens being paid any mind.

XM: What changes would satisfy your groups to lift many of the calls for boycott.

LC: Many of the actions have been called off following an agreement between our groups and music producers. However, some performers have claimed not to be in favor of the agreement and have refused to honor it. As long as they continue to produce and perform offensive lyrics, individual artistes will be targeted for boycott. Man must make a bread yes, but not at the expense of someone’s life.

XM: Recently many businesses have told artists to they will not sponsors concerts. Do you think they will seriously enforce this?

LC: It’s hard to say what businesses will do as they follow the money primarily, but so far Red Stripe has made good on its pledge not to support gay-bashing by withholding funds from Western Consciousness and Sumfest.

XM: I know you love Jamaican culture. What type of reggae do you listen to? Do you listen to dance hall reggae?

LC: Mostly old-school, like Toots’ new album True Love, and I’m looking to get Third World’s latest. I don’t really check for dancehall because of the lyrics but sometimes the ridim get tu mi, especially when it’s based on traditional ancestral rhythms like etu. If we stick to our roots without contaminating it with degrading lyrics we can’t go wrong as the rhythms are archetypal and have universal and eternal appeal.

XM: Has your organization been working with the managers and labels on a compromise?

LC: I’m not now a formal member of any organization but just part of a network that has emerged in response to the homophobic violence of Jamaican lyrics. Organizations in the network in the UK and USA have been in discussion with producers leading to the agreement now in force.

XM: Recently anyone who disagrees with the homosexual lifestyle is labeled homophobic. I know many Jamaicans who do not support the gay lifestyle and also does not support the lyrics that incite violence. However all Jamaicans are labeled homophobic. Do you think it is a fair characterization?

LC: Unfortunately, generalizations are drawn whereby the good suffer along with the bad, like how Jamaicans are stereotyped as violent, gun-toting, drug-dealing, ganja-heads. The news focus on the Colin Ferguson, the Shoe Bomber, Malvo and the London tube suicide-bomber do not help matters but only go to reinforce the stereotype. Likewise, Shabba, Buju, Beenieman, Sizzla, Capleton and TOK all reinforce the barbaric, homophobic elements of some of our people, and that becomes the accepted image of Jamaicans. Meanwhile, many LGBT Jamaicans are quietly working and living alongside their fellow citizens to make life and build the country. As long as they deny who they are, ascribe to the heterosexist norm requiring them sometimes even to turn around and bash other gays, they can survive relatively undisturbed.

XM: In many of the publications by the gay rights group the translations of lyrics are very accurate. Did members of J- FLAGG provide assistance with translations?

LC: Jamaican activists have been instrumental in translating the lyrics from the Shabba/GLAAD confrontation right down to the present. One of my own translations was appended to the Human Rights Watch report of last October. Some of these can be found at http://seekingasylum.bravehost.com.

XM: I know you are and avid lover of Jamaican patois and have started a site a website with a patios. Do believe patois should be an official language?

LC: It is the language of the people, spoken by almost everyone everyday. Official recognition would only acknowledge that already established fact. The spin-off would be that we could then teach EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and ESL (English as a Second Language) and learn to speak/write English effectively. The website is an attempt to bring attention to the language and take it seriously. What little there was published on the internet about patois was the extremes, amateur homepages or scholarly papers. Langwij Jumieka http://www.jumieka.com tries to cover the middle ground. Of course, a prophet is not without honour save in his own country; the site has received recognition from linguists internationally but not a poop from Mona.

XM: Larry thanks for the interview and we wish you all the best.

About the author

Xavier Murphy