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Gareth Henry fled homophobic violence in his native Jamaica and helps others do the same

Being a queer person in almost any society is fraught with complications and often means experiencing some level of violence, but the ground reality is far worse in some countries than in others. 76 countries around the world still criminalise homosexuality (though some that do are actually still safer than some of those that don’t, due to the contrast between homophobia and irregularly enforced laws), and Jamaica remains among them as well as a hotspot for homophobic and transphobic violence. Gareth Henry is indeed one queer person who fled this violence and ultimately ended up as a refugee in Canada, after being involved in activism work as the co-chair of J-FLAG and facing extreme violence and death threats not only from his countrymen but the police themselves.

Back when he still lived in Jamaica, Gareth Henry helped many other queer Jamaicans report the hate crimes they’d faced to the police. This violence is normalised though, and over a dozen of his friends and acquaintances were killed in instances of homophobic violence. Henry himself was not immune to such violence, and it became even more acutely obvious to him in 2007 when a group of policemen beat him in front of a mob of onlookers who offered no sympathy. This was not the first time that he’d been attacked, but it caused him to go into hiding as his life was in danger. Not too long after that, a traffic cop approached Gareth Henry at a signal and indicated that he was being watched and would soon be killed. Henry filed for refugee status and fled to Canada, which he himself understands does not address the problem of homophobic violence but was a necessary step for the sake of survival.

In the time since then Gareth Henry has helped a number of other queer Jamaicans find refuge abroad, and this led to increased threats against his family back home. His mother, sister, and nieces all had to seek asylum in Canada – which certainly isn’t the happiest reunion but should highlight the situation. Henry’s work on the Rainbow Railroad is emotionally taxing, and he knows of a number of stories of extreme violence ranging from gang rape to brutal cases of attempted murder. Sometimes it’s not even queer people themselves who reach out, but parents who understand that their child could well be killed. Eve then, the situation remains bleak and of course suicides are also a reality when the funds for someone fleeing Jamaica remain elusive.

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