Intro: The news from Jamaica is not good. It is one of the least gay-friendly countries in the western hemisphere. Laws against homosexuality are actively enforced bringing the wrath of the conservative government and street gangs on offenders. Attacks are not uncommon against gays or people suspected of being gay. In the Jamaica News and Reports pages on this site there are dozens of grim reports about the situation of LGBT citizens in this former British colony.
I have posted here two stories (following the two memorials) the first based on my visit to Jamaica in February 2003. It suggests that the sky is not all black for gay Jamaicans however it is mostly dark gray. Following this story is a second report by another writer who does paint a dim picture of the scene there.
For a visceral look and sound of gay Jamaica, see the recent documentary ‘Songs of Freedom’ produced by Phillip Pike. It’s a courageous film and the only one, so far, about the intimate lives of gay Jamaicans. (See the links column. left, for further information.)
Page updated April 2008
Memorials to two fallen Jamaican activists:
In memory of Brian Williamson
On June 23, 2004 Jamaican activist Brian Williamson was murdered in Kingston which spurred an outcry against bigotry in Jamaica. (HRW Report)
Brian was interviewed in 2003 for this story on Gay Jamaica during which he said he had never been attacked or slandered in Jamaica for being gay. The motive for his murder may never be known, given the incompetence and homophobia of the police. A report of his brutal death can be read below (part 3). I remember Brian with great fondness and delight. He was a kind, generous and open heart who served as a courageous role model and dear friend to many of us who were privileged to have known him.
A second leading Jamaican HIV/AIDS activist, Steve Harvey, was murdered November 30, 2005 in Kingston
“The night of the 30th of November, 2005, Steve Harvey, a leading Jamaican HIV/AIDS activist who had been working for 14 years to defend the health and human rights of people living with and at high-risk of HIV/AIDS, was murdered. He was found dead early in the morning with gunshot wounds in his back and head in a rural area, miles from his home.(NYTimes Report)
“Steve worked with Jamaica AIDS Support since 1997, and represented the interests of marginalized people and people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica and throughout the region. As coordinator of targeted interventions for Jamaica AIDS Support, he had been responsible for ensuring that the most marginalized of Jamaicans—gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals; sex workers; prisoners—were provided access to HIV/AIDS information and services. By mid 2005, he was chosen as LACCASO’s (Latin America and Caribbean Council of AIDS Service Organizations), in-country project coordinator for Jamaica.
“His capacity, dedication and courage signaled the way for the most successful implementation of our Advocacy Project. “Steve Harvey was a person of extraordinary bravery and integrity, who worked tirelessly to ensure that some of Jamaica’s most marginalized people had the tools and information to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS,” said Rebecca Schleifer, researcher with the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch and author of a recent report on anti-gay violence and HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.”
From International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
(1) A Trip into Gay Jamaica
By Richard Ammon
Updated April 2010
A lot of people–straight and gay–come to Jamaica in huge jets and cruise ships from northern climates and swoop in for a winter break along the warm shores near Montego Bay. They find like-minded sun bathers, gamblers, shoppers, drinkers, swingers and divers to hang with for a week or two in palatial resorts along white beaches under swaying palm trees.
However, it’s a very different story for a gay traveler who comes looking for a community of queer friends in Jamaica. They won’t easily find a bar, disco, party, magazine, festival or out-loud organization advocating a ‘gay agenda’; these are virtually all underground, disguised, surreptitious or hidden behind a P.O.box. A visitor will find that homosexual acts are criminalized, that there are gay bashings, police homophobia, and a government who intends no changes to the laws or treatment of gays here. If you read the second story of these two reports about the threats and treatment of gays in Jamaica you may find yourself gasping for air. Such is the dense homophobia and aggression against us in this Caribbean holiday island.
Between these two very different reputations I sought to find the ‘real gay Jamaica’ whatever it might be. And after a week of talking, walking and observing my visit helped sort out the street-truth from the media hype and rumors regarding the lives of LGBT Jamaicans.
An Uncertain Calm
The rough truth is that this is not a comfortable or safe place to disclose an alternative identity. I was told that some lesbigay folks do, in fact, walk around with defensive weapons under their jackets. Yet others don’t walk around in fear and apprehension.
I ate lunch one day with Brian Williamson, a cheerful, upbeat gay man in his fifties who has been involved with various gay causes for many years, including hosting occasional small ‘circuit’ parties at ‘Entourage’, his own business venue. For all his daring and semi- public participation in gay matters, he said he has never been bashed or insulted or investigated.
Painting by Noel Coward, longtime resident of Jamaica. He is buried at his home ‘Firefly’ there.
There are discernable reasons for his safe history: (1) he lives in the safer district of Kingston known as New Kingston in his own house located in a residential middle-class neighborhood; (2) he has not taken on the government with public protests and advocacy marches. He knows how to push and how far–and where to stop; (3) he operates behind the scene, volunteering time for HIV and gay causes without making a splash. Even the daring ‘public’ parties he throws are discreet and somewhat selective.
The afternoon we lunched together at a stylish and somewhat secluded restaurant not far from his home in New Kingston he and I thought this restaurant would be a good venue for an occasional gay night. Without hesitation he asked the owners to sit down and discuss the possibility. As it happened they were actually interested and thought it a good idea. They already knew several gay customers and the idea of an evening apart appealed to them.
They also related an incident not long ago among their staff when a man was hired whom the others suspected might be gay. They began making negative comments about him until the owner intervened and threatened them with termination. “I told them there will be no such thing here. We are all here to do a job and you have no business treating another person like that,” the owner told us. We knew we were in safe territory. “You see,” claimed Brain later, “that was very easy. And this is how many people are here. They have no problem with the gay issue.”
Nevertheless, Brian went on to explain that much brutality toward gays happens in the poor ghettos where virtually all men carry some kind of weapon, especially knives or machetes. “There is a lot of poverty, tension and despair there and I think they need some target for their anger, so the homo is the outsider who gets attacked.” Despite the occasional supportive restaurateur, Brain did admit that that violence can and does take place all over, in all areas and anyone is at risk.
A Courageous Group
A few days later this same cheerful man was happy and confident to participate in a semi-public forum about homosexuality, discussing his own experiences as a gay Jamaican man in front of fifty strangers.
This unusual and discreetly advertised forum (to an invited audience of social-service professionals) was sponsored by Jamaica’s only LGBT organization J-FLAG—Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays. It is a remarkable and unique organization, standing against the cold wind of sanctioned discrimination in Jamaica. Such meetings and discussions at JAS/J-FLAG offer only temporary respite (and to a very small number of people) from the discrimination and abuse suffered by sexual minorities at the hands of government officials (including police), church leaders and community members For these and other courageous efforts the leaders and staff of J-FLAG, in my opinion, are bold pioneers in a hostile land.
Before saying more about J-FLAG, it’s important to know that JFLAG owes its existence to its ‘parent’ organization, Jamaica AIDS Support (JAS) in Kingston. JAS started “unofficially in November 1991 as a result of a group of men coming to the aid of a friend dying with AIDS related complication.” (from their web site: http://www.jamaicaaidssupport.com/ )
JAS is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with offices in Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. They work primarily in the areas of Education, Care and Support along with advocating for those unable to do it for themselves.
JAS’s education programs target high risk groups along with the general public and have programs tailored to each group. These groups include Commercial Sex workers, Prisoners, Sexual minorities and Inner-city youth. Volunteers and staff can be seen on the streets each month doing their “Walk and Talk” sessions, which are interactions with lunch-goers and pedestrians in shopping areas.
JAS offers care and support to those infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS offering counseling, facilitated support groups, a “Friends” volunteer program and peer support. JAS also has organized income-generating work/therapy programs for HIV positive people at each JAS location. Clients produce a range of quality candles, soaps and cards, all by hand. Alongside this is a Home Based Care program, going into the homes of people living with AIDS, offering information, counseling and support along with medication when available. There is also an HIV testing program where confidential pre and post test counseling are given. This program is run in conjunction with the Jamaican Government’s Sentinel Surveillance department.
This relationship between JAS and J-FLAG is quite remarkable in that during my visit to four major northern Caribbean countries—Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti and Dominican Republic—all had HIV support/education organizations but only in Jamaica has the HIV parent group spawned an offspring lesbigay human rights association. And it’s all the more surprising and impressive because Jamaica is the only one of the four that criminalizes homosexual acts. So the leaders of JAS and J-FLAG cannot be praised enough for their bold and courageous work in a hostile environment.
It should be noted that not everyone in the Jamaican government is biased against LGBT citizens. The Chief Medical Officer Peter Figueroa has claimed that Jamaica’s acute homophobia is stalling the Ministry of Health’s safe sex and HIV/AIDS education campaign and he has called for the ‘buggery’ laws to be repealed. Further, I was told,
elected officials make a great row about homosexuality in public especially at election time, but privately many of them are not vehemently homophobic. Of course, using this issue as a public whipping tool serves only their cheap and hypocritical purposes and leaves lesbigay citizens constantly at risk of violence at the hands of any anti-gay group who take their cue from the leaders’ negative public positions.
On their well-organized and informative web site (http://www.jflag.org/) J-FLAG unapologetically state their history and reason for being. I have copied some of their actual words here because of the intelligence and integrity of their definition and mission:
History: The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays was founded in December, 1998 as the first human rights organization in the country’s history to serve the needs of Lesbians, Gays and All-Sexuals*. Its first major undertaking was a submission to the Joint Select Committee on the Charter of Rights Bill seeking to amend the non-discrimination clause of the Constitution of Jamaica to include ‘Sexual Orientation’ among its protected groups. Since that time the organization has expanded its Legal Reform and Advocacy efforts, and expanded its activities to include Educational and Social Service Programmes.
(*All-Sexual” is a term used in the Caribbean Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays (C-FLAG) network to indicate that it considers all-sexual behaviour to be part of a sexual continuum in which classifications such as “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” often cannot be rigidly applied. The terms “men who have sex with men” and “women who have sex with women” are attempts to move around these rigid classifications. The term “all-sexual” refers not only to biological and sexual characteristics, but also to social attitudes related to them. “All-Sexuals” therefore refers to same-gender-loving persons whose actions are not in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that is to say, whose actions are not abusive to minors and other persons who are in dependent circumstances or of diminished capacity, or otherwise in violation of the rights or personal dignity of any person.)
Mission: J-FLAG’s mission is to work towards a Jamaican society in which the Human Rights and Equality of Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays are guaranteed. To foster the acceptance and enrichment of the lives of same-gender-loving persons who have been, and continue to be, an integral part of society. J-FLAG holds the vision to move forward in a spirit of oneness, love, dignity and respect towards the establishment of a Jamaica, and world, devoid of prejudice, injustice, discrimination and oppression. And, furthermore, to ensure the human rights of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, as set out in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On the Frontline
On my visit to the offices of J-FLAG in New Kingston (they requested that I not publish the specific location), I was greeted by Program Director Tony Hron, a former Peace Corps worker in Jamaica. After his term with the Corps he felt drawn to help further J-FLAG’s gay rights and educational work. He now heads the small but very busy office and numerous volunteers working on various projects. (Note: as of 2005, Tony is no longer with J-FLAG, but the work continues.)
When I arrived Tony was on the phone with a distressed college student who had been caught fondling another student. Now the student was being threatened with expulsion unless he could persuade the administration he was not a pedophile. Tony did his best to explain that homosexuality was not the same as pedophilia and to speak with a J-FLAG counselor for specific advice and support
This rudimentary level of understanding about human sexuality is not unusual in Jamaica. Homosexuality is certainly not a topic that is taught in schools or discussed in public other than the occasional news article.
A gentle, soft-spoken man, Tony said that J-FLAG activities include counseling to LGBT individuals and their families, advocating for legislative and constitutional changes and presenting educational forums to the public (discreetly) in order to foster understanding of sexual orientation.
A few days after this phone conversation, J-FLAG sponsored a semi-public forum about homosexuality to an invited audience, mostly straight, who worked in various fields of human services—social workers, nurses, recovery program advisors, etc. It was part of their noble yet daunting outreach program to health care workers, businessmen, schools, government agencies and, hopefully some day, to the police. Brian Williamson was one of six panelist who spoke about his personal experiences regarding homo- and bisexuality. Unintentionally adding some enigmatic spice, a drag queen named John, no stranger to J-FLAG, showed up in the audience much to the surprise of some.
Once the questions were invited from the audience the level of ignorance about sexuality was immediately evident. “What made you become gay?” “What do you do in bed?” ” How do you decide who is the woman and who is the man?” “I don’t see how you could be happy.” “I don’t think I could be friends with a gay person.” “It’s against the Bible to be gay.”
Against the earnest and distorted image of gays that emerged, the panelists sought to be seen as individuals and not labels or stereotypes. The spirited discussion became somewhat contentious as the gay panelists slipped into defending themselves and the straight visitors resisted letting go of their long-ingrained, socially-conditioned opinions.
But through it all moderator Tony was able to keep a balanced tone so that after the program there was energized mixing and talking in pairs or groups from both sides. I noticed that several people wanted to talk to John in drag, and he responded kindly and generously to their questions. He also responded to my question as to whether he had left home in drag. He laughed and coughed at the same time, “Oh no, of course not! I could never dress like this where I live.” He had arrived on the premises—and would leave—in the usual jeans and a shirt, carrying his ‘outfit’, wig and all, in a briefcase.
As it happened later, I was given a ride back to my hotel by a young woman and her father. She was the one who claimed she could not be a friend to a gay person. However, it turned out that one of the founders of J-FLAG, who was present at the forum and had spoken up a few times, was a long time friend of hers. This was the first time she realized he was gay. I asked how she felt now about gay friends. She was still in a bit of a daze but was adamant that she loved him and what a wonderful person he was. Another small step.
As a matter of curiosity, the next day, I asked two strangers in Kingston about homosexuality. One guy named Orlando, a native Jamaican, who worked in the Hilton Hotel where I went to check my e-mail. I asked Orlando, who was in his twenties, what he would say if a friend of his told him he was gay. “I would try to persuade him to move away from being that way. It’s a choice, like choosing to steal, and it can be turned away from,” he replied. I didn’t engage him much as it was during his working hours, but I did ask him one of the common rebuttal questions: why, if it was a choice, would someone choose something that caused so much trouble and pain in one’s life? He hadn’t considered that question before so we had an awkward moment until he regained his default stance that it was wrong nevertheless.
To offset Orlando there was Belinda, an attractive chicly dressed travel agent to whom I posed the same question. “I have several gay friends and I don’t think it matters. We know but we don’t talk about it,” she replied in a matter-of-fact manner. She had never spoken to her friends about it because it wasn’t something people talked about to others. It was private. Her attitude was as update as any in Amsterdam.
To gain further balance about lesbigay life here, I dined with Tony Hron and one of the J-FLAG volunteers, George, one evening. At one point, the gossip got ”juicy’ when we talked about the Prime Minister, Mr. ‘PJ’ Paterson. The rumors swirl about ‘her’ but no one has any hard proof of his proclivities. During the last slug-fest election his irascible opponents accused Patterson in public of being a poof. In defense he went on radio and vehemently denied all such accusations.
But whether he leans that way or not, Tony said, he has steadfastly refused to take up the issue in the national parliament. It would be political suicide if he tried to make a change in the law. As well, the Governor-General of Jamaica, an archaic position left over from the era of British rule, has also stated his opposition to liberalizing the laws to decriminalize same-sex acts. So the deck still remains stacked against LGBT folks here.
Before I left downtown Kingston with its pot-holed streets and fast-food stores, I was fortunate to catch Dr Heather Royes for a conversation about this issue of sexual politics. She is a short, slight woman with a keen mind that serves her well in her social research and consulting. She is an avid supporter of JAS and J-FLAG as well as a good friend to several staff members. I asked her about this use of homophobia as a public weapon. She agreed with my term that Jamaica’s mainstream society seemed ‘frozen in time’ regarding sexual understanding and attitudes.
“I think a lot of this trouble come from such denial about human nature, and about Jamaica’s own sexual politics. Historically Jamaica is a plantation society and there were all kinds of sexual and inter-racial relationships going on then, between owners and slaves, male and female and certainly among the same sexes. It’s all there but it’s all denied–and of course something denied makes us doubtful and insecure. And that I think is where a lot of Jamaican men are vulnerable. So this of course contributes to homophobia and the threat it poses to the macho self-image men have.”
This posturing has taken various modern forms as many Jamaica men feel that having numerous wives or girlfriends was a measure of a masculine person. Heather called this illusion the ‘glue’ of masculinity. Such sexual posturing was common for the poorer classes since they had little else to boost their esteem. But the habit is also seen in the higher echelons of society, including elected officials who carry on with secret affairs (gay and non-gay) while posturing in public to be moral gatekeepers. This leads to a ‘norm’ of hypocrisy, she claimed, that becomes very hard to change since no one wants to be caught or unmasked.
Heather was referring to the use of gay-bashing during the last election as the rumors circulated about high ranking leaders. “They get caught in their own web of deception and it becomes a straight-jacket. There will be no legal reforms as long as this kind of deception and denial is so prevalent.” She suggested that it takes outsiders like Tony Hron at J-FLAG, as well as many dedicated Jamaicans, to help push through this resistance and advocate for change.
Queer as Folk—for Education
In a subsequent chat with Tony and George, the issue of homosexuality in the media came up. To my surprise, the popular TV series, ‘Queer as Folk’ is quite popular in Jamaica. Tony reported that the show is especially watched by straight women. “There was an attempt by the Broadcast Commission to block the show but these supporters came out in such strong force to oppose the ban,” he explained. I think the appeal has something to do with ‘forbidden fruit’–just as straight men here like to watch lesbian sexuality, especially at some of the strip-clubs in Kingston.”
The best part about ‘Queer as Folk’ said George was that it helped to put faces on the enigma of homosexuality. Because the show deals with much more than steamy sex, straight audiences are getting to see a fuller LGBT picture that includes relationships, love, children, parents and everyday drama.
In line with these small rays of hope, Tony reminded me that not everyone in the government has negative views towards homosexuality. The Chief Medical Officer Dr. Peter Figueroa has for years tried to persuade lawmakers to change the books and decriminalize gayness. His angle of argument is that by continuing to condemn it as a crime, many people avoid getting help and advice about HIV and AIDS. The disease is highly stigmatized in Jamaica, as elsewhere, and so his work as well as JAS’ work is made more difficult by the negative laws.
But Jamaica viewers not have to turn only to TV soap opera for their role models. If Jamaica has a hero, it is certainly Ian McKnight. For fifteen years this robust, solid yet gentle man has carried the ball of HIV and gay rights forward through political condemnation, social stigma and religious bigotry. He was one of the original founders of Jamaica AIDS Support when a dear friend got sick with HIV and had no place to turn for help and care except his friends. From this loving core group it was painfully clear that something needed to be done.
So JAS was born out of loss and Ian and his other friends lobbied organizations in and out of the government for help to initiate care for the many others who were sick with the disease. That was in 1991 and the beginning of JAS and his dedication has not stopped. It was only in 2002 that he agreed to let Dr. Robert Carr, assume the day to day responsibilities of the directorship of JAS. This has freed up much of Ian time to spend more time as Director of Targeted Interventions, the prevention program at JAS for sex workers, inner city youth, and men who have sex with men. Ian is still busy with advocacy work, as a public media spokesman and organizer of outreach educational programs
Ian explained that over the years all class groups within the Jamaican gay community had experienced violence and discrimination. “Unfortunately, the manifestation of homophobia has spared no one, this despite class, educational level or social standing. At the same time though, members of the community have tried to continue living their lives as best they can. There are some persons who have lived with their same sex partner for years. Others have birthed or fostered children. Some semblance of a normal life can be achieved, but most times, the cost is a life of secrecy and constant vigilance.”
Robert Carr and JAS
This same theme was echoed by Robert Carr, JAS’s current director, when I asked him about Jamaica’s reputation for being anti-gay. He thought homophobia there was at an all-time high because the common Jamaican experiences confusion about homosexuality and they have nowhere to turn and no ideas how to sort out something they don’t understand. “They have this one fixed idea about homosexuality being so bad. And they react with what we call “cognitive’ dissonance’; there is no place in their minds to put such a strange and awful thing. It’s confusing and this upsets people because people want to understand what’s around them. If they can’t, they get afraid so they strike out and try to destroy it. They have such poor problem-solving skills so the immediate answer is to carry a weapon.”
Robert is energetic and quick-minded. With an education in sociology he is passionate about JAS’s future and its mission to push further and further out into the neighborhoods where HIV education is needed the most. He told about a recent incident where five people were killed when the police tried to break up a loud party. The people reacted by attacking the police and the police fired on them. “That situation could have been prevented if they had been able and willing to reason and talk to each other. There is so much work to be done.”
Robert also asserted that it hasn’t helped that the government leaders won’t take responsibility for such ignorance and the resulting violence. “Instead of trying to understand sexual orientation the elected legislators have used it as a political weapon to attack each other. The effect of this slander serves to teach the public that homosexuality is a disease and a curse with no hope of change.” He regretted that virtually no useful information is disseminated to the public that could balance out this ignorance. “With the existing laws again laws homosexual behavior there is currently no hope of reforming people’s understanding.” So Robert’s cause seems more like a crusade.
But the future belongs to Jamaicans themselves in the long run. Daunting and overwhelming as the task is to bring Jamaica up to date and in compliance with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the work can only be done over time and by those who know how to work the system from within. Politicians come and go. Newspaper editors come and go. Their rise to power reflects the changes among the population—their attitudes and habits. Not all Jamaicans are anti-gay. As the world shrinks and pressure mounts to respect human rights, a bold and compassionate leader will rise in Jamaica who sees this cause as just and right and will push for corrective legislation.
J-FLAG and JAS will continue to chip away old stereotyped thinking among decision-makers. The impoverished class will probably resist the most since masculinity is so fragile there. But among the privileged and educated, injustice can only be tolerated for so long. There are already cracks in the wall.
Open-minded business people who have no issue with variant sexuality will quietly voice their vote. More positive media coverage of healthy gay role models. Television programs will portray real-life LGBT characters. No country can wall out the rest of the world and hope to remain viable and prosperous. It’s a new world with new ideas about human rights and political accountability. Jamaica will change and J-FLAG, JAS and the brave individuals I met will be the flag-bearers.
From UK BlackOut online magazine
The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG) was founded in December 1998 as the first human rights organization in the country’s history to serve the needs of Lesbians, Gays and All-Sexuals. Its first major undertaking was a submission to the Joint Select Committee on the Charter of Rights Bill seeking to amend the non-discrimination clause of the Constitution of Jamaica to include ‘Sexual Orientation’ among its protected groups. Since that time the organization has expanded its Legal Reform and Advocacy efforts, and expanded its activities to include Educational and Social Service Programmes.
Taking a Stand Against Homophobic Violence
Jamaican homosexuals battered by violence and discriminatory laws hope to benefit from public defender Howard Hamilton’s willingness to stand up for anyone whose constitutional rights have been violated. With more than 38 homosexuals killed in Jamaica since 1980 and hundreds of alleged homosexuals viciously beaten, driven from their homes and jobs, J-FLAG has been lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would grant them equal protection under the law.
”Where their constitutional rights have been breached and where one’s right to life is affected,” Hamilton says, that person is entitled to the full protection of the law. He notes that while there is no legal protection from discrimination because of sexual orientation, they can seek protection under various statutes.
”Violence of any kind, whether it be against homosexuals, cannot be tolerated in civilised society,” he says. Under the 1962 constitution, discrimination because of race, creed, and religion is forbidden. But there is no protection from abuse because of gender or sexual orientation. Hamilton, as public defender and ombudsman, must protect the rights of all citizens but says he is unable to advocate the freedom of expression of homosexuals because homosexuality is against the law.
Prime Minister PJ Patterson vowed that he would make no changes to anti-homosexual legislation. This remains a significant obstacle to J-FLAG’s hopes for constitutional reform. Any amendment to the constitution is likely to take years – a freedom of information act has been in the works since 1993- and with anti-gay sentiments high, no government is willing to take the risk, says Steve, a media professional who asked not to be identified by surname for fear of coming to harm if he is known to be a gay man.
Patterson’s stance has found favour with many, but it has put Jamaica in the international spotlight. The Country’s position is in breach of United Nations human rights regulations to which the country is a signatory and according to Hamilton, the country has to uphold the regulations it signed.
The Governor General Howard Cooke, the head of state, indicates just how deep-rooted homophobia is in Jamaican society. Cooke has sanctioned the exclusion of gays from the boys scouts. “Those persons are not the type of persons we wish to be a part of the scout movement,” Cooke, referring to gays, told a local newspaper.
The human rights group Amnesty International, in a recent report on hate crimes, listed Jamaica as one of three Caribbean nations with laws that promote discrimination against homosexuals.
According to Amnesty, ”Laws that treat homosexuals as criminals lend support to a climate of prejudice which increases the risk of attacks (and) other abuses.” Amnesty also highlighted the case of four men arrested on charges of gross indecency at Kingston’s International airport in November 1996 and who were held naked in full view of the public for more than 24 hours.
The police admit intolerance among their own ranks, with many arrests and illegal home invasions designed to cause embarrassment. With victims reluctant to come forward out of fear of humiliation and further violence, many won’t press charges, J-FLAG concedes.
J-FLAG wants the laws repealed or the constitution amended to give homosexuals the rights afforded every other Jamaican. It’s a life and death situation, Smith says, because in Jamaica, homosexuality is not only against the law, it is also seen as abnormal and wicked, and in light of highly publicised cases of rape and buggery of minors, an unwanted part of society.
J-FLAG’s actions have earned the ire of many influential locals including radio talk show host and attorney-at-law Antoinette Haughton, who says she believes that homosexuals who desire freedom of expression should live outside Jamaica. “They want to corrupt our children and tell them it’s OK to live immoral and nasty lives,” she says. It is a view supported by the traditional churches and recently verbalised by evangelist Errol Hall when he told his congregation that homosexuals should come and have him lay his hand on them and ”cast out the demons.” ”They believe homosexuals are the way they are because they choose to be. Why would someone choose to be something that is scorned and hated?” Smith scoffs.
Jamaica’s homophobia came to international attention in 1993 with dance hall star Buju Banton released ‘Boom Bye Bye’, promoting a bullet to the head for homosexuals. Another group, TOK, has released an anti-homosexual song, ‘Chi Chi Man’, which is being promoted in the United States. It advocates killing homosexuals by ”full them with copper shots.” Until recently, fear of violence and discrimination meant J-FLAG had no face. But Smith, a lesbian, says ”Jamaicans need to see that their brothers, sisters, cousins are or can be gay.” She believes that many parents disown homosexual children because of the violence that fuels homophobia. It is also the reason local human rights groups give for not offering their support to homosexuals.
Author Rikki Beadle-Blair (R).
Jamaica’s acute homophobia is also stalling the Ministry of Health’s safe sex and HIV/AIDS education campaign, forcing Chief Medical Officer Peter Figueroa to call for the buggery laws to be repealed.
In a position Notice, a former prison doctor supports because the law prevents the adequate care and counseling of victims of prison rapes, and hampers HIV/AIDS education and prevention programmes among inmates.
In Jamaica, sodomy is illegal, and men are routinely prosecuted for homosexual acts committed both in private and in public. Once arrested, men’s names, home addresses, and occupations are routinely published in the newspaper, and people known or presumed to be gay are routinely attacked by people wielding machetes and bottles of acid. In describing violent anti-gay attacks, Jamaican newspaper’s demonstrated a general societal support for the persecution of gays and lesbians.
The Cultural Background
Jamaica has a reputation for being deeply troubled by male homosexuality, more than any other Caribbean country. It is a situation Jamaicans readily acknowledge. “It’s a culture that’s compulsively homophobic,” says Michael Linden, a Jesuit priest in Kingston who has worked at the two prisons. “The population is so insecure about many of its common mating practices and gender roles, that homosexuality just ends up being an unfortunate target.”
While there is a homosexual underground, and some tolerance for gay men who stay deeply closeted (lesbianism is mostly just invisible), there is no public gay culture Jamaica.
What homosexual networks do exist function in the shadow of violence. Somewhere between six and 15 men are lynched in Jamaica’s cities every year simply for being gay, estimates Linden. Such lynchings are typically conducted, not by mobs, but by small neighborhood posses. The spark may be offense at a perceived pass, or a sense that a gay man’s behavior has gone over the line. Lynchings are not infrequent in Jamaica, for alleged thieves and other malefactors. Vigilante killings almost never make the news.
What are the sources of this homosexual anxiety? Jamaicans and students of Jamaican society give a variety of answers. One factor is the confluence of West African and English cultures, together with a heavy overlay of God-fearing Christianity, says Prof. Jean Fuller Stanley, coordinator of the Jamaican Reality program at Roxbury Community College in Boston. Others note a tendency for Jamaican boys to be highly feminized during childhood, cared for disproportionately by women, with fathers tending to be distant and, when present, harsh. Some cite the distortions of slavery, the Jamaican form of which was especially brutal, on family and gender relations.
Whatever the underlying causes, Jamaican’s sexual antennae tend to be highly sensitive. “When I was there I sensed that sexuality was very much on the top of the scale of things that people are aware of all the time,” says Richard Landoli, an immigration attorney and former priest who worked at the General Penitentiary in the 1970s. “It gets mixed up right at the top of the soup.”
But the situation of homosexuality in Jamaica isn’t simply one of hostility and repression. “There is a lot of what I call gender and age-group socialization,” says Prof. Stanley. “Boys of a certain age group, for instance, will all tend to play together, go the river together, or whatever.” It is in part the intensity and implicit erotic charge of male same-sex and same-age relationships, she suggests, that makes overt homosexuality so threatening.
“The anti-gay sentiment in Jamaica is there, but that’s where I came out myself, and I was always overwhelmed by the homoeroticism that could be found all around,” says Joseph Owens, an ethnographer who has lived on the island and has written about the Rastafarians. “In the 14 years that I’ve been in the Caribbean and Central America, I’ve found nothing comparable to it. ”
(3) Brutal slaying of activistBrian Williamson spurs an outcry against bigotry; detailed report of the slaying.
New Times Broward-Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301
( http://www.newtimesbpb.com )
June 24, 2004
By Jeff Stratton, email@example.com
When Desmond Chambers found the corpse of his friend, Brian Williamson, he couldn’t believe the carnage. Blood was spattered on all four walls of the tiny bedroom in New Kingston, a well-to-do part of the Jamaican capital. The carpet was drenched from multiple wounds to Williamson’s head and neck. The 59-year-old was facedown, in his underwear. A safe had been stolen, a television set tossed onto a bed, and drawers ransacked. Williamson’s hyperactive little dog, Tessa, circled the room, yapping frantically.
Williamson had been alone on June 9 when an attacker entered through an unlocked door and killed him with a machete. To many, the murder appeared to be a hate crime. Williamson had been the first and only native-born Jamaican to publicly champion gay rights, appearing on television screens across the country and speaking on radio talk shows.
Williamson’s decision to be so prominent was daring in a country some activists consider the most homophobic in the Western Hemisphere. The island’s “buggery laws” (making male-on-male sex a felony punishable by ten years hard time) have been on the books since Colonial days, and dancehall reggae songs regularly call for the burning and stomping of “chi-chi men” and “batty boys.” Gay-rights organizations claim 30 homosexuals have been killed in Jamaica since 1997, the same year 16 men were slaughtered in a prison uprising because other inmates thought they were gay.
Just eight days before Williamson was murdered, Amnesty International had released a public appeal to Prime Minister P.J. Patterson. It was titled: “Jamaica’s Gays: Protection from Homophobes Urgently Needed. Gays and Lesbians Are Being Beaten, Cut, Burned, and Shot.” The issue has particular resonance in Broward County, where Jamaicans are the second-largest immigrant group (after Haitians), and in Fort Lauderdale, the nation’s second-gayest city (after San Francisco), according to the U.S. Census.
New Times is the only American news organization to describe the murder and its aftermath in detail.
With brown wavy hair and an easy, open smile, the light-complected Williamson operated close to the top of Jamaica’s socially stratified caste system. Born into an upper-middle-class family in the rural parrish of St. Ann, Williamson had studied to become a Catholic priest in Montego Bay.
By 1979, he had given up that calling to pursue another: gay rights for Jamaicans. No one else in the nation’s history had addressed the topic so publicly. At first, he used his apartment in Kingston as a place where gay couples could gather every two weeks or so to converse in a safe setting.
By the early 1990s, Williamson had taken his crusade a step further, buying a large property on New Kingston’s yuppified Haughton Street and converting part of it into Entourage, a gay nightclub. It was likely the island’s only such hot spot, and police tried to shut it down. Many of the patrons were workers from foreign embassies in Kingston. Entourage remained open for two years until a knife-wielding patron attacked Williamson one night, slicing his arm.
Jamaica’s homophobia is so deeply ingrained, few can pinpoint its source. It is part of early life, daily life, family life, and street life, taught by the church, condoned by authorities, supported by legislation, and hammered home in popular music. A letter to the editor of the Jamaica Observer after Williamson’s death summed it up with brutal efficiency: “To be gay in Jamaica is to be dead.”
Williamson and a few comrades saw the need for a group devoted to protecting gay rights. In 1998, he helped found the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG). Soon, he became the group’s public face, appearing on national television programs like Perspective and Nationwide with host Chris Hughes and on radio talk shows to debate bigots, demand funding for AIDS, and decry homophobia.
Williamson was the sole Jamaican citizen willing to use his real name and show his face. Some J-FLAG staff are foreigners with much less to lose and a place to run. Jamaican volunteers must use pseudonyms, fearing abandonment by family and reprisals from employers. Williamson gave the group a native voice and realized that without that, the organization would remain hamstrung. But shortly thereafter, he relocated to Toronto, where he had relatives, and then to England. The knife attack at the club and the hostility he felt contributed to his decision.
J-FLAG continued in his absence as a kind of underground organization. No one kept a list of its members, who gathered in secret. It now shares office space with a nonprofit group just a mile from where Williamson was killed.
When Williamson returned to Jamaica in 2002, he moved into a small apartment in the compound where his nightclub had been. He decided again to take a lead role in the struggle – because no one else could afford to stick his neck out so far. As one black Jamaican J-FLAG member puts it: “Brian Williamson is our Martin Luther King.”
Brian Chang, who helped found J-FLAG, left the island to seek political asylum in the United States. He says Williamson was so committed to helping gay Jamaicans that he gave up his easy existence abroad to jump back into “the belly of the beast.” Chang, who lives in Brooklyn, didn’t hear from Williamson for months. “I wonder if this was silent reproach that I had not followed his example to return and rejoin the struggle,” he says. “But if I had remained or returned to Jamaica, his fate would have been mine also.”
Williamson was generous with money too, offering handouts and odd jobs to acquaintances. Says Chang: “His color, class, affluence, accessibility… made him an easy target. With his Catholic upbringing, his endless compassion, patience, and humility… he put himself at risk for martyrdom.”
In the weeks before his murder, Williamson befriended a closeted gay man from New Kingston, according to J-FLAG members. He gave the man money and even purchased stacks of newspapers for him to sell on street corners. On June 11, two days after the murder, police arrested the paper vendor. Because the safe and other items were missing, Kingston police are investigating the crime as a robbery.
J-FLAG members have a short video of the scene outside Williamson’s house on Haughton Street that was taken soon after the murder. The roof of a six-story building across the street was lined with spectators that morning, as was the street. Loud laughter makes up the soundtrack. “It was like a party to them,” says Jason Byles (not his real name), who publishes a gay newsletter in Kingston. “They were laughing and making jokes, saying things like ‘This is long overdue’ and things like ‘Batty man fi dead!’ [‘Faggots should die!’]”
According to J-FLAG members, cops overlooked crucial evidence at Williamson’s home. “I’m told 12 officers went to the crime scene,” says Mark Clifford, program director at J-FLAG. “In the evening, some of Brian’s close friends went back to help clean up the mess and found two more murder weapons laying in the blood – an ice pick and a ratchet knife. That says something about the forensic investigations.
“Especially if it’s a gay-on-gay murder, the police really don’t investigate,” Clifford continues. “If gay people are abused and take it to the police, it’s very common for police to throw the people out of the station and become abusive themselves.”
On June 13, the Sunday Gleaner carried the headline “OUTRAGE!” over a story about British concern over Williamson’s killing. J-FLAG and Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the possibility that the murder was a hate crime. Regardless of whether that description fits, Williamson’s death and the reaction to it are clearly watershed events – a turning point in the history of Jamaica’s gay minority.
The thought that Williamson may have been killed by someone within the tight-knit group hit the gay community hard. “No one I know is willing to step forward and take over that role now, so it is a big loss for advocacy in Jamaica,” explains Tony Hron, who headed J-FLAG for three years, until January, and still volunteers with the group.
Hron, Byles’ partner for the past two years, lives about a mile from Williamson’s property; the two rent a small home together. Hron, a Caucasian from Nebraska, came to Kingston in 2000 on a Peace Corps assignment and stayed to help the beleaguered gay population. At five feet seven, Hron is dwarfed by his partner’s thin, six-foot-six frame. Byles is gangly and coltish, with the physical poise and physique of Grace Jones. A soft, Michael Jackson whisper emerges when he speaks.
In his flat, Midwestern voice, Hron says of his experience in Jamaica: “I’ve never felt unsafe in this area. Only once have I heard a comment in the four years I’ve been down here.” But local friends of his haven’t been as fortunate. “I know a gay man who was attacked at a shopping mall – within five minutes of this house. He and another friend were viewed as being gay, as the other friend was a little bit effeminate. They were punched and kicked and had to run into a store to get away from the attackers.”
Byles looks longingly at a stack of glossy gay magazines friends have brought down from Wilton Manors. Poring through the pages of beefcake, he recalls his one visit to South Florida, where for the first time, he was able to show the world his true self. How did it feel?
Byles folds his arms behind his head, leans back against his living room couch, rolls his eyes back dramatically, and smiles. “Liberating!” he says.
Memorial Ceremony for Williamson
On the sweltering Sunday evening four days after Williamson’s murder, cars begin to line the swale in front of the converted house that serves as J-FLAG’s headquarters. Across the front porch on this day – and this day alone – billow a huge Jamaican flag and, next to it, a rainbow pride banner. The yard fills with young males in skin-tight shirts, 60-ish white-haired Brits in khakis, dyed-afro lesbians in dashikis, and more. Men openly hug, weep, and hold hands. Some wear purple roses pinned to their shirts. A few women arrive dressed in work boots, Dickies, and lumberjack shirts.
Were they to walk around downtown Kingston dressed like this, what would happen? “They would be dead in the blink of an eye, oh yes,” says Julia Lowe, who also helped start J-FLAG in 1998. Framed beneath loose, short curls, Lowe’s brown eyes burn with anger. “I do not walk alone on the streets,” she continues. “I’m one of these people who takes six or eight people – my security – with me.”
Nearly 200 people are gathered for Brian Williamson’s memorial. An ersatz piano melody crackles through the PA as J-FLAG’s Joseph Robinson begins the ceremony on a solemn, respectful note. “Today is a new day for Jamaica,” he says, “a day where we can go to our parents and say, ‘Hey, Mom, I’m different’ and they can celebrate with it. Then we can see that Brian lived for a purpose.”
The next two hours include teary tributes, exuberant Marley covers, angry poetry slams, fond remembrances, lip-synched Whitney Houston tunes, and several playings of the Princess Diana version of “Candle in the Wind.” Yet when the lights go out and the opening strains of Celine Dion’s “I’m Alive” calls forth drag queen Diva, the party explodes. A collective scream goes up from the crowd, with young men springing to their feet and sprinting to the front to throw hugs, kisses, and money.
After that delirious peak, Robinson again takes the mic. Everyone in the audience is given a candle to light and hoist high in the heavy night air. He quickly returns the service to the tinkling piano plateau and releases his go-in-peace sermon. “I see the prime ministers,” he intones. “I see the police force. I see nurses. I see teachers. I see your parents coming together, all standing for peace. And if you see that with me, hold up your candles and let me hear you say Brian!”
The yard thunders with a deafening chorus of “BRIAN!” A jubilant man in dark sunglasses, dressed in red slacks, a red shirt, and a red hat, takes the mic. “May your soul rest in peace, Brian!” he shouts, holding a photo of Brian aloft amid a sea of blazing candles and cheering spectators.
Hron can’t help but break out in a grin so wide, his dual dimples look ready to form smiles themselves. “Most Jamaicans have no idea this exists,” he remarks. “They would be absolutely appalled.”
Much as they undoubtedly were when Williamson first entered national conciousness. “Most Jamaicans were scandalized that one of their own would dare admit they were gay, and all the more so when he said he was proud of it,” Hron says. “Once those words came out of his mouth, he became a hero to some and a demon to others.”
As the crowd trickles home or toward the darkened house where booming bass emanates from within, Hron and Byles pull together, straining to hold a conversation amid the din. Byles touches Hron on the arm accidentally, only tonight, he doesn’t have to pull away and look around to see who’s noticed. He moves his hand down Hron’s arm, softly takes his hand in his, and holds it. For now, behind the tall hedges separating the street from the yard, they are safe.
For a recent commentary (2006) see:
Gay Jamaica News & Reports 2005-06 #12