Monday, July 20, 2009

Gays live - and die - in fear in Jamaica

(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.

A group of men kicked him and slashed him with knives for being a “batty boy” - a slang term for gay men - after he left a party before dawn in October 2006. They sliced his throat, torso, and back, hissed anti-gay epithets, and left him for dead on a Kingston corner.

“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.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hot Five: Auckland, New Zealand | Exclusives |

Hot Five: Auckland, New Zealand | Exclusives |

En route to interview the organizers of Gay Ski Week NZ in Queenstown, OutTraveler's Dennis Hensley spent three action-packed days in the City of Sails, Auckland, New Zealand. Here, in his own words, are his top recommendations.


This 5-star luxury B & B overlooking the Harbor Bridge is the most fabulous place I've ever stayed. The owners, Frances Wilson and Stephen Fitzgerald, have poured lots of TLC into every detail, creating a sumptuous, homey atmosphere that reflects their passions for antiques, opera and contemporary design. There was a baby grand piano in my room. Seriously. You know, in case Josh Groban happened to stop by. There was also a romantic fireplace that roared to life with just the flip of a light switch, again in case Josh Groban happened to stop by.

Though I was tempted to never leave Mollies, a short stroll took me to the eclectic shopping district of Ponsonby Road, where I dined at the Spanish-influenced Rocco, indulged in a raspberry bar at the Earlybird Bakery and Cafe, and had the tastiest chai latte of my life at Dorothy's Sister, a cozy neighborhood hangout that's as old-school camp-tastic as its name would lead you to believe.


My second day, I headed to the funky shopping area of Kingsland with Melissa Crockett, one of two lesbian owners of Potiki Adventures, a company that specializes in contemporary Maori culture tours. After turning me onto mincemeat pies at The Fridge, Melissa led me next door to Native Agent where we perused their wide array of handmade, Maori-inspired crafts and clothing. My favorite item was a kiwi bird-shaped wall hanging made from an old record album, specifically the Village People's "Macho Man." Gay enough for you yet? I thought so.

Then it was off to One Tree Hill, a gorgeous, grassy hillside park with a breathtaking 360-degree view of the entire area and a rich and complicated history as a much-prized Maori battleground. We ended our day with a drive through the rain forest to Piha Beach near where director Jane Campion shot her film The Piano. After snapping the requisite Facebook photos, Melissa and I savored the rich colors of the sunset reflecting on the black sand beach. It's an image I won't soon forget.


My interactive sailing adventure with SailNZ aboard an America's Cup yacht from 1995 started out as a mellow, fun-in-the-sun type proposition. But then the weather started getting rough and our tiny ship was tossed. For a few minutes there, it was like being in The Perfect Storm except George Clooney wasn't there to tell you everything was going to be okay. At times during the downpour, it felt like our vessel was almost perpendicular to the sea but my shipmates and I kept our cool and prevailed, grinding and steering our asses off, then we sailed back to the downtown Auckland pier under a big hot sun and a welcoming gay rainbow.


With assured guidance by my local gay liaison, Nate, I embarked on a big gay club crawl down Karangahape Road or K' Road, is it's more commonly known. We started out with the friendly neighborhood pub Naval and Family then dashed across the street to the bustling, high-energy Family Auckland's preeminent gay dance club.

My favorite stop though was Caluzzi Bar and Cabaret where sassy drag divas serve dinner, clear plates and then put on a hell of a show. The kicker: at least once in each number, the performer or performers leave through the front door and continue to lip-sync for their lives through the front windows from the sidewalk outside, like their in a drag queen aquarium. This leads to some hilarious cameos from unwitting passersby who hadn't planned on appearing in a drag show that night. Sometimes, if the music moves them, a diva will venture beyond the sidewalk right out into street. It's traffic stopping fun…in more ways than one.


Seeing Zachary Quinto on Letterman made me jump off a building. I'll explain: When the Heroes actor was on Late Night to promote his role in the new Star Trek film, Quinto boasted to Dave that he just did the Skyjump, a controlled bunjy-style jump from the SkyTower in Auckland. I figured if Spock can do it, I can do it.

So after getting outfitted in a nifty blue and yellow jumpsuit, I was taken by elevator up to the platform where I enjoyed the amazing view of the city as well as some classic rock songs as I waited for my turn. I was hoping to hear "Freefalling" or "Eye of the Tiger" but I got "Breakdown," which doesn't exactly make one feel invincible. What really unnerved me though was the sound of the cable uncoiling as the jumpers before me took their leap. It's loud and metallic and it gets faster and faster as the person descends. It's the sound of a death splatter, frankly, but I blocked it out and got harnessed up by a guy with a hot accent named Andy.

"Are you nervous?" he asked me.

"Yes," I replied, "but I decided I'm going to stay in the moment and trust the experts."

"Too bad I don't know where they are," he said.

And then I jumped off the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere (630 feet). And I did it with as much grace as I could muster. If I was going to plummet to my death, then I was going to tap into my dance background and do it with good form.

Once I was actually falling, I went from feeling terrified to exhilarated in about a split second. In fact, I got so into my arched-back superhero fantasy that I didn't get my feet under me in time and I sort of botched my landing. The East German judge was particularly harsh but I didn't care. I was having too much fun. I giggled through my landing and for a few minutes or so after. In fact, I'm still giggling.

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