Lil Nas X has never shied away from trolling his haters. But his most recent troll, a masterfully executed birthday photoshoot inspired by Playboy’s signature magazine cover, is a lot more than his typical clapback – and is thrusting the widespread homophobia that exists in the Caribbean, namely throughout Jamaica, into the spotlight.
In photos he shared to his Instagram, he’s posed in heels, knee highs and fishnet stockings with “BATTYBOY” in capital letters. The word is commonly used in Jamaica to reference gay men, most often as an insult or slur.
The comments paint entirely different picture depending on the profile you access the photos from. On his own page, there is support and solidarity. But comment sections on Black and urban blogs that reshared the photos tell a totally different story – with homophobic rhetoric on full display.
“Can we please see real men! Are there any left in this world? What happened to good old fashion rugged men! I don’t get why this is being hyped ?!?” one user expressed.
“I know we ain’t allowed to say nothing but Christ didn’t die for all this nonsense,” said another.
For decades, homosexuality has been denounced throughout the Caribbean. And while some countries have made gradual steps toward being more inclusive, Jamaica has had a long history of violence and discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community. As that second user points out, a lot of the anti-gay violence the country sees is rooted in the country’s Christian traditions.
Critics and human rights activists have called out the double standards of denouncing homosexuality, while embracing, promoting and practicing casual sex, raunchy music and dances, and having children out of wedlock. And there are a ton of other factors that work to discourage homosexuality, with music being one of the main vehicles for homophobia.
Historically, dancehall, a popular genre throughout Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, has featured a lot of anti-gay lyrics – which often go as far as encouraging violence or death for men in same-sex relationships.
Dancehall artists like Elephant Man, Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks have all condemned homosexuality, and have all, in one way or another, encouraged violence against the LGBTQ+ community through their music or through interviews they’ve done, like this one, where Shabba Ranks said gay people deserved “crucifixion”.
Musically, one of Buju Banton’s most famous songs, a 1992 hit entitled Boom Bye Bye is a song about a pedophile who molested a young boy, but the song has often been thought of as a call to kill gay men.
In 2019, though, he made the decision to remove the song from Tidal, Apple Music and Spotify.
"I recognize that the song has caused much pain to listeners, as well as to my fans, my family and myself. After all the adversity we’ve been through I am determined to put this song in the past and continue moving forward as an artist and as a man," he said at the time. "I affirm once and for all that everyone has the right to live as they so choose. In the words of the great Dennis Brown, ‘Love and hate can never be friends.’ I welcome everyone to my shows in a spirit of peace and love. Please come join me in that same spirit."
The violent homophobia we see in Jamaica, which was written about in this 2008 New York Times article, is often thought of as being the fault of “colonial-era laws” because they were originally implemented by the British colonial administration. But despite these laws being outdated, they still exist in nine Caribbean countries and help to maintain the criminalization of same-sex intimacy.
A few years after that article was published, two gay Jamaicans took legal action over the country’s homophobic laws – and seven years later in 2019, they won, with a rights tribunal ruling that the island should repeal their homophobic “buggery” and “gross indecency” laws. The two men who brought the case forward were forced to flee their home country after violent attacks, one of which included being beaten up by a policeman in front of a massive crowd.
The decision ruled that Jamaica was responsible for the violation of the men’s human rights and equal protection before the law, but took it a step further by urging the Jamaican government to repeal sections of the laws that criminalize same-sex relations, enacting anti-discrimination laws to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community and implement training for police forces and security.
But just how much the needle has moved? It’s a timely question given that today is the International Day of Pink, a day dedicated to campaigning to end bullying and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
On a surface level, yes, the needle has moved. Because of brave celebrities like Lil Nas X and the many others who have campaigned against homophobia and discrimination, it’s become less socially acceptable to be homophobic. Also, there are negative implications on the country’s tourism industry, heavily depended on for economic stability. In 2006, Jamaica was named the most homophobic place on earth by Time magazine, and in 2021, it ranked sixth on a list of places LGBTQ+ travellers should avoid.
So despite these surface level changes, it will take decades, maybe even centuries to undo most of the damage caused by these colonial-era laws.
Currently, Jamaica is celebrating carnival. And my heart aches for the members of the LGBTQ+ community who don’t feel safe enough to revel in the streets with the rest. So often, gay men and women have had to live in secrecy or flee to a place where it is less dangerous to live as their authentic selves, and that’s why Lil Nas X’s photoshoot was so powerful. He is boldly reclaiming the word that so often pushes gay people, namely men, to the margins of society, and professes his gayness proudly – hopefully giving others courage to do the same.