07.20.2009 1:21pm EDT
(Kingston, Jamaica) Even now, about three years after a near-fatal gay bashing, Sherman gets jittery at dusk. On bad days, his blood quickens, his eyes dart, and he seeks refuge indoors.
“It gets like five, six o’clock, my heart begins to race. I just need to go home, I start to get nervous,” said the 36-year-old outside the secret office of Jamaica’s sole gay rights group. Like many other gays, Sherman won’t give his full name for fear of retribution.
Despite the easygoing image propagated by tourist boards, gays and their advocates agree that Jamaica is by far the most hostile island toward homosexuals in the already conservative Caribbean. They say gays, especially those in poor communities, suffer frequent abuse. But they have little recourse because of rampant anti-gay stigma and a sodomy law banning sex between men in Jamaica and 10 other former British colonies in the Caribbean.
It is impossible to say just how common gay bashing attacks like the one against Sherman are in Jamaica - their tormentors are sometimes the police themselves. But many homosexuals in Jamaica say homophobia is pervasive across the sun-soaked island, from the pulpit to the floor of the Parliament.
Hostility toward gays has reached such a level that four months ago, gay advocates in New York City launched a short-lived boycott against Jamaica at the site of the Stonewall Inn, where demonstrations launched the gay-rights movement in 1969. In its 2008 report, the U.S. State Department also notes that gays have faced death and arson threats, and are hesitant to report incidents against them because of fear.
For gays, the reality of this enduring hostility is loneliness and fear, and sometimes even murder.
Andrew, a 36-year-old volunteer for an AIDS education program, said he was driven from the island after his ex-lover was killed for being gay - which police said was just a robbery gone wrong. He moved to the U.K. for several years, but returned to Jamaica in 2008 for personal reasons he declined to disclose.
“I’m living in fear on a day-to-day basis,” he said softly during a recent interview in Kingston. “In the community where my ex-lover was killed, people will say to me when I’m passing on the street, they will make remarks like ‘boom-boom-boom’ or ‘batty boy fi dead.’ I don’t feel free walking on the streets.”
Many in this highly Christian nation perceive homosexuality as a sin, and insist violence against gays is blown out of proportion by gay activists. Some say Jamaica tolerates homosexuality as long as it is not advertised - a tropical version of former President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the U.S. military.
Jamaica’s most prominent evangelical pastor, Bishop Herro Blair, said he sympathizes with those who face intolerance, but that homosexuals themselves are actually behind most of the attacks reported against them.
“Among themselves, homosexuals are extremely jealous,” said Blair during a recent interview. “But some of them do cause a reaction by their own behaviors, for, in many people’s opinions, homosexuality is distasteful.”
Other church leaders have accused gays of flaunting their behavior to “recruit” youngsters, or called for them to undergo “redemptive work” to break free of their sexual orientation.
Perhaps playing to anti-gay constituents, politicians routinely rail against homosexuals. During a parliamentary session in February, lawmaker Ernest Smith of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party stressed that gays were “brazen,” “abusive,” and “violent,” and expressed anxiety that the police force was “overrun by homosexuals.”
A few weeks later, Prime Minister Bruce Golding described gay advocates as “perhaps the most organized lobby in the world” and vowed to keep Jamaica’s “buggery law” - punishable by 10 years - on the books. During a BBC interview last year, Golding vowed to never allow gays in his Cabinet.
The dread of homosexuality is so all-encompassing that many Jamaican men refuse to get digital rectal examinations for prostate cancer, even those whose disease is advanced, said Dr. Trevor Tulloch of St. Andrews Hospital.
“Because it is a homophobic society, there’s such a fear of the sexual implications of having the exam that men won’t seek out help,” said Tulloch, adding Jamaica has a soaring rate of prostate cancer because men won’t be screened.
The anti-gay sentiment on this island of 2.8 million has perhaps become best known through Jamaican “dancehall,” a rap-reggae music hybrid that often has raunchy, violent themes. Some reggae rappers, including Bounty Killer and Elephant Man, depend on gay-bashing songs to rouse concert-goers.
“It stirs up the crowd to a degree that many performers feel they have to come up with an anti-gay song to incite the audience,” said Barry Chevannes, a professor of social anthropology at the University of the West Indies.
Brooklyn-based writer Staceyann Chin, a lesbian who fled her Caribbean homeland for New York more than a decade ago, stressed that violence in Jamaica is high - there were 1,611 killings last year, about 10 times more than the U.S. rate relative to population - but that it is “extraordinarily” high against gays.
“The macho ideal is celebrated, praised in Jamaica, while homosexuality is paralleled with pedophilia, rapists,” Chin said. “Markers that other people perceive as gay - they walk a certain way, wear tight pants, or are overly friendly with a male friend - make them targets. It’s a little pressure cooker waiting to pop.”
In 1996, when she was 20, Chin came out as lesbian on the Kingston UWI campus. She said she was ostracized by her peers, and one day was herded into a campus bathroom by a group of male students, who ripped off her clothes and sexually assaulted her.
“They told me what God wanted from me, that God made women to enjoy sex with men,” recalled Chin, a poet, performer and lecturer who closes her just-published memoir “The Other Side of Paradise” with her searing account of the attack.
Even in New York City, anti-gay Jamaican bigots sent her hate-filled e-mails after a 2007 appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s TV talk show to discuss homosexuality.
Chin said she doesn’t know if she would have the courage to come out now as a lesbian in Jamaica.
“The tensions are higher now. People are feeling very much that they have to declare camps,” she said.
Jamaican nationalism has always been tied in deeply with bugbears about masculinity, making for a “potent brew” where those who violate accepted standards of manliness are easy targets, said Scott Long of Human Rights Watch.
Long, head of a gay rights program at the New York-based group, pointed out that most other English-speaking islands in the region have tiny populations, where gays don’t come out and visible activism is limited.
“(But) what stands out about Jamaica is how absolutely, head-in-the-sand unwilling the authorities have been for years to acknowledge or address homophobic violence,” he said. “Most notably, three successive governments have completely, utterly, publicly refused even to talk about changing the buggery law - which expressly consigns gay people to second-class citizens and paints targets on their backs.”
Prominent Jamaican political activist Yvonne McCalla Sobers noted that social standing still protects gay islanders, especially in Kingston, where a quest for privacy and the fear of crime has driven many to live behind gated walls with key pad entry systems, 24-hour security and closed-circuit television monitoring. People with power and money who are not obviously gay are often protected, she said.
“My thought is there are far more men having sex with men in this country than you would ever think is happening,” Sobers said.
Many gays from poorer areas in Jamaica say they congregate in private to find safety and companionship. Once a month, they have underground church services at revolving locations across the island.
Sherman, meanwhile, is simply trying to move on with his life. But he said he will always remember how, after his attack, patrolmen roughly lifted his bloodied body out of their squad car when a man admonished them for aiding a “batty boy.” A woman shamed them into driving him to a hospital; they stuffed him in the car’s trunk.
“Being gay in Jamaica, it’s like, don’t tell anybody. Just keep it to yourself,” he said evenly, with a half smile.