Risking Life and Limb – Gay in Jamaica

Thirty-six years ago when I left Jamaica as a fey, whip-smart adolescent with tons of personality and self-confidence, I’d already been targeted as different. I was on the receiving end of many a stink eye but it wasn’t a time when you heard about lynching and stoning of a “battyman’ – the unfortunate pejorative terminology for gays–that literally translates to ass man. Today, Jamaica is considered the most homophobic country in the western hemisphere and for better or worse; I’m madly in love with my country and culture. But traveling to Jamaica means taking on an uncomfortable “straight-acting” posture and existing with the real fear of losing my life. 

I try to visit family once a year but for the last 3 years, I’ve avoided traveling to Jamaica due to Zika and the stealthy planning required before I touch down on the island. My time mostly spent in England and Malibu this summer, I was overcome with homesickness but both excited and scared to commit to a long weekend visit. Meanwhile I have dancehall mix tapes from the likes of Alkaline, Movado (fast forwarding the homophobic bits) and Jahmiel on rotation. I became obsessed with watching those hilarious sex-charged dancehall parties where there’s a dance routine for every song and the fashions slay. I longed to turn up and show out like any of those kids. I can bend and grind with the best of them after all. 

Homosexuality is illegal in Jamaica, punishable by up to 10 years of hard labor in jail. This holdover from the “buggery” laws of the colonial days, coupled with the hateful campaign of the evangelical church help to create a toxic, anti-gay manifesto in the country. The reality in Jamaica is that as a gay person who exhibits what are perceived as gay traits, you are surveilled, called out, and all too often – harmed. 

Shocking cases have been reported in recent years. The slaying of JFLAG founder Brian Williamson back in 2004 marked the beginning of dozens of gay killings to come. In 2013, Dwayne Jones lost his life at a Montego Bay street party. Stabbed, beaten, shot and then run over by a car, the 16-year old didn’t stand a chance against a bloodthirsty mob united in hate of a “battyman” who challenged the gender codes and had dancehall queen aspirations. Kenrick ‘Bebe’ Stephenson, a rare openly gay councilman was done in by a hail of bullets in 2014. And just last month Dexter Pottinger, a well known stylist and gay activist was brutally stabbed to death. While the motif for his killing is still under investigation, one of the most unsettling details brought to light from this case is that neighbors heard Pottinger crying for help but no one responded or called the police. Many say flatly that’s because he was gay. 

After much deliberation, involving dissuasion from visiting from several stateside family members, I took the plunge and planned a Jamaica weekend – a stealthy, quick-moving affair akin to being on the run — one night in each place, avoid sightings and move on. 

I grew up in a super rural part of St Elizabeth parish in Jamaica. The dirt road is so ravaged by recent rainfalls and hurricanes that I literally had to walk the final quarter mile to my family house. No longer the bustling country house that it was when I was growing up, my blind aunt lives alone with the aid of a caretaker and daily visits from neighbor for company. This bastion of rural church-obsessed community no longer provides the safeguard it did during my adolescence when my grandparents were alive and viewed as two of the most respectable people in the community. Gone too are the times when several cousins were running around, insulating me in a safe web of family and privilege. 

Today, while we’re still able to identify to which family most neighbors belong, we simply can’t trust the younger generation who are more brazen, grew up on the hate spewing dancehall music and possessing of a lopsided anger toward homosexuality; it’s frightening. This prevents me from spending the night in the house in which I grew up, in the middle of nowhere off a dirt road. In defiance I had a little photo shoot of me wearing a dress as it’s something I would do anywhere else in the world. 

With three days left I spent an afternoon making the rounds of family in Mandeville, a mid-sized city with a tony suburbs. After going into town for a late lunch and attracting a few questioning eyes directed at my anklets (which I forgot to remove), it only affirmed my plan to high tail it out of town at the crack of dawn.  

So back to Kingston where I checked into the Spanish Court Hotel to hide out and bide my time for two days before the great escape. The Spanish Court is tucked inside the business district in New Kingston, an area that’s near empty on the weekends. This is exactly the cover that I needed to walk the streets and explore a bit. New Kingston is near empty but not entirely so. On those mini-excursions I found myself slowing my pace and putting on this faux walk that really looks like a limp although I was really going for something hip-hop, something less swishy. The whole affair felt un-me, unnatural and ultimately sad. I travel the world regularly and my flair and uniqueness are often celebrated, but in my home country, it’s all artifice and effacement. 

On one of my excursions to go smoke a joint outside the hotel, I saw Sasha (no doubt on the same gay Underground Railroad as myself), one of the stars in Vice’s Young and Gay, Jamaica’s Gully Queens, a disturbing documentary about gays cast out of their homes and force to live in the sewers of Kingston and prostitute to survive. I’ve always felt that I could’ve been one of those queens had I remained in Jamaica. 

I caught her attention (she thought I was soliciting services) and had a sit down right there in the park. The pathos was palpable. She highlighted how unstable life is, how rough the day to day, the regular brutality from police. Now 18 years old, she says she can start the process for seeking asylum in London or New York. I could not help but think what address will you use on all the paperwork involved. Out of sheer guilt and not knowing what else to do, I emptied my wallet and gave her my number and said to reach out so I could try to help. I choked up, left, and was happy to know I would be leaving in the morning from this country I love so much.