The tourist brochure sports a photo of turquoise beaches, sun-drenched palm trees and a buxom girl in a sarong holding a coconut split in two. Jamaica, it goes on to say, is
‘an intoxicating mix of natural beauty, sweet fragrances, shimmering sunsets, and spicy flavours. Our epicurean feasts will tantalize your taste buds. No wonder hearts in Jamaica beat faster. Our hospitality is well-renowned. Discover why Jamaica is one of the most special places on Earth’.
Hearts may indeed beat faster in Jamaica, but island hospitality does not extend to gays who have, over the past decade, become something of an endangered species. Gays and lesbians have been chased through the streets, dragged from their houses, chopped to pieces with machetes, or left to die in churchyards. Their murderers have been egged on by the island´s reggae singers who advocate the killing of gays, and who in one case, allegedly participated in the assault of six gay men; by bishops and politicians; and by US fundamentalist groups which have recently made forays into Jamaica in an effort to develop new ministries in this deeply Christian society.
Larry Chang, a gay pioneer who started Jamaica´s first gay group, J-FLAG, and edited its first gay newspaper, remembers a more halcyon time.
I had gone to college in Oakland, California, where black power, women´s lib. and gay lib. were all the rage. I became radicalized by that. My parents wanted me to stay in the US, but I decided to go back. They were thinking, I guess, of the lack of education and lack of opportunity in Jamaica – but I wanted to come back and help build the nation. I was starry-eyed, maybe, made a pact with myself that I´d live life on my own terms, and I began the Jamaica Gay News, and helped organise a bar called The Closet. Homophobia started in the mid-80s following a period of political violence in Jamaica. Politicians were introducing guns into their constituencies, and those constituencies became well-armed, and the dogs of war were let loose. Gays – indeed the gay movement – were caught in the crosshairs, and it wasn´t very comfortable.
The Gay Freedom Movement started, fizzled out in the early 80s so Chang started a salon in his home where gays mingled with intellectuals and artists. But as homophobia began to increase, Chang was targeted.
I came under attack. My house was stoned and my car vandalised – I decided to leave. I got a job with a politician and lived on his property in Trelawny. I only lived there for a year, but I heard that the villagers were going to burn me and I thought; there is nowhere in Jamaica where I can be safe.
When Chang fled Jamaica, he left a void in the gay movement, one filled by Brian Williamson, a man who had attended one of Chang´s soirées. Williamson bought a large property and converted it into a gay nightclub, but the police continually tried to close it down, it remained open for two years until a knife-wielding patron lunged at Williamson and he, like Chang, decided it was to leave the country. He fled to Europe, but he missed the place he called home, and in 2002, he decided to return. Not two years later, Williamson was stabbed 77 times until he choked on his own blood. Even now, Rebecca Schleifer, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Washington, cannot forget the sight which greeted her when she arrived at Williamson´s house for a meeting.
It was like something out of The Wicker Man, there was a small crowd singing and dancing. One man called out “Battyman, he got killed!” others were celebrating and shouting; “Let´s get them one at a time. That´s what they get for sin.” Others were singing a song, Boom Bye Bye, which is a Buju Banton song about shooting and burning gay men. It was like a parade. They were basically partying.
The scene was no more decorous inside as police traipsed through the blood destroying forensic evidence underfoot. When one of his friends went back to clean up the apartment, he discovered that two possible murder weapons – an ice pick and a ratchet knife – had not even been bagged by police, and that they were lying in a pool of blood which, it turned out later, had not even been tested for a DNA sample. According to a report, Hated to Death, written by Scleifer and published in November 2004, Ellis Robinson, a material witness, attended a police lineup in an effort to identify Williamson´s killers, but the lineup procedure was a joke. The men all had towels on their faces, he says, and toothpaste plastered on their faces, making them unrecognisable. The police declared the murder “a robbery gone wrong” and denied publicly that it was a hate crime. In May 2006, Dwight Hayden was sentenced to 15 years for the murder of Williamson.
Thirteen days after Williamson´s murder, another gay man, Victor Jarret, a runaway who had left home because his family was hostile to gays, was murdered by an anti-gay mob in Montego Bay after being beaten by the police officers. Gareth Henry, the then president of J-FLAG, was in Montego Bay when Jarret was killed.
I was at Gump-Up Beach, a long strip of beach where you can get some cool breeze. About four other guys and I was sitting on this big rock chatting and laughing. We had just finished lunch, and then we saw three police officers on the beach. They were walking in our direction, and Victor was coming in the opposite direction. They held on to his hand and told him to leave the beach. Their exact words were; We don´t want a battyman on this beach. I heard one of the male officers say that. There were two male and one female officer. They held him by the seat of his pants and started to drag him towards the main road. I don´t know what Victor said to him, but they started to beat him. Other people on the beach started gathering and asked the police what was happening. I don´t remember their exact words, but they said; Hand him over. Let us finish him. They were singing that Buju Banton song. They love that song in Jamaica. The police officers threw him to the crowd and just walked off. The crowd started throwing bottles and stones at him. Jarret decided to make a run for it, but the crowd ran after him, and in front of a college, he was set upon and hacked to death.
That very same month, Buju Banton, who, at one concert declared: “There is no end to the war between me and faggot”, allegedly formed part of an armed attack by a dozen men, according to Schleifer´s report. The group forced their way into a home in Kingston, and proceeded to assault its six occupants. Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, “repeatedly denounced the occupants for being homosexual and kicked one man in the mouth and hit him with a board.” Two of the occupants were beaten so severely that they required medical treatment, and the residents were frog-marched from the house at gunpoint, and warned by their attackers – including Banton – that they would be killed if they returned. When they did return some hours later, with a police escort, they discovered that the house had been ransacked, its furniture trashed, and wallets containing thousands of dollars stolen.
The incident hasn´t harmed Banton´s career. Despite a concerted campaign against him by Peter Tatchell – one of the founders of the English group, Outrage – Banton has gone on saying that “queers have to die” and keeps singing the song that made him a household name in Jamaica, as well as the US and South America. Other high-profile rap singers have called for the crucifixion of gays, and Beenie Man, a vehement homophobe who has worked with Janet Jackson and Wyckef Jean of The Fugees – and who was placed on the bill for a concert to fight HIV by Jamaica´s music industry organisation – dismissed the killing of Williamson as unimportant in an interview, likening homosexuality to rape.
One gay dies in Jamaica. What´s the difference? In Jamaica gay is rape. It´s a big man with their money going out into the ghetto to influence the youth into sexual activities. Child molesters in Jamaica, they the gay people. We are the dance hall artists, we have no one to protect our feelings. Gays they terrorising us. I´m a Rastafarian. I know that if a man sleeps with a man, life ceases to exist, and two men cannot breed. And two women can´t make no kids. I´m not fighting against gay and lesbian life. But, as a man, you don´t like to see two men together. It´s disgusting.
As if that was not bad enough, in his campaign for re-election, former Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, adopted a homophobic song by the group TOK, in which he advocates killing gays and razing gay bars to the ground, as his campaign theme. The killings – and indeed the climate of fear – their songs encourage have continued unabated. In November 2005, one of Henry´s ex-lovers, Steve Harvey, who worked at the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life group, was shot to death after a band of thugs invaded his home. When his attackers found photos of nude men on his laptop, he was bundled struggling and screaming into a van.
I receive a call about 7am saying that a body has been found, Henry says. And the police wanted someone to verify whether it was Steve or not. He was lying on a small hill, and even from a distance, I knew that it was him. He had a bullet in his head, and there was a handkerchief on the hill that was not his. I started to cry, and the police officers started being nasty, saying,
“This battyman thing really needs to stop. You must be a battyman crying over another man”
I was very upset by their comments, and left about two minutes after I had identified the body.
The police investigation went nowhere. It was never established exactly whom the handkerchief belonged to, and the DNA samples taken at the scene were later contaminated. In March 2006, four people were charged with the murder, but as of November 2010, none of the have been brought to trail. To quell the international furore, Bishop Herro Blair, the Political Ombudsman of Jamaica, was appointed to “oversee” the investigation into Harvey´s murder. He delivered a report to the government concerning his investigation, though the government has not released it five years later. Blair claims to sympathise with those who face intolerance, but in a recent interview, he said that homosexuals themselves were behind most of the attacks reported against them; an extraordinary comment that flies in the face of the available evidence , particularly concerning Harvey´s murder.
Among themselves, homosexuals are very jealous, he told the Jamaica Gleaner which regularly engages in homo-hysteria and gay-baiting. Some of them do cause a reaction by their own behaviours, for in many people´s opinion, homosexuality is distasteful. I can safely say that nine times out of ten, when a homosexual is killed, it´s by another homosexual.
His cousin, Wellesley Blair, the Administrative Bishop for the New Testament Church in Jamaica, is not preaching peace, brotherhood or love either.
God did not create sodomites, he told the Jamaica Star. They made themselves that way. A homosexual has one of two rights. Either he changes his life or accepts the just punishment of God. Just punishment, Blair went on, is not for the squeamish. Sodomites who are caught should be beaten. Sodomites should be brought into the square at Halfway Tree, lashed, and sent home.
Church leaders have not been the only ones spouting incendiary rhetoric. In February 2009, Ernest Smith, of the Jamaica Labour Party, stood up in Parliament and called gays “brazen”, “abusive” and “violent”, and argued for a tightening of laws outlawing homosexuality. He also called on the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate J-FLAG with a view to having the group charged with conspiracy to corrupt public morals and outlawed.
I am very concerned that homosexuals in Jamaica are becoming so brazen, he told his fellow parliamentarians. How can you legitimise an organisation that is formed for the very purpose of committing criminal offences?
In April 2007, Krik Lester, a prominent gay businessman who owned who gay clubs in Kingston, was murdered. But when the funeral took place, a mob of approximately 80 people gathered outside the church in Mandeville, demanding not only that the service cease, but that “the battyman” not be buried there. Things turned ugly when stones and other object was thrown through the windows raining down on the mourners inside. Henry, who worked with Lester on a HIV outreach programme, attended the service.
It had been going about 15 minutes, and going in, there were all these people jeering and yelling; Battyman Dead!, and it was quite unpleasant. Then they started to throw stones and bottles through the windows of the church. I called the police on my cellphone, but I couldn´t get through, so I phoned Rebecca Schelifer. The church is on a busy highway, and when I went outside to make the call, we saw a patrol car. I went up to them, but they told us they couldn´t help us, and drove off. Schleifer managed to get a police car to come, but they didn´t disperse the crowd at all. Instead, they sat at the back of the churchyard, and when the jeering started again, they just laughed. Then this middle-aged women came into the church naked with a knife and walked up to the pastor and said, “This service is over. There will be no battyman buried here today.” But the pastor refused, and just went on with the service. Anyway, people´s cars were getting smashed with stones, and so people were forced to leave to try to protect their cars. People were having stones hurled at them and they were scrambling to get away. As I said, the church is on a busy highway, so the highway became a battleground. It was extremely frightening.
Gareth Henry was out shopping with three gay friends for a Valentine´s Day gift when he to fell prey to an angry mob. This time, about 2 000 people gathered outside in the mall, and demanded that they be brought out so they could be killed. Terrified staff summoned the police, and Henry claims that when they arrived they turned on him and his friends.
Only four police officers came, they said they couldn´t help us and they left. Again I had to call Rebecca, and it was she who called the police again from New York. A dozen police officers arrived, and they started making nasty comments about homosexuals, saying that we shouldn´t throw our lifestyle in people´s faces, and that we had caused what was happening by our dirty sodomite behaviour. They fired teargas into the crowd which was hurling stones at us and the police, I was shit scared. All I could think of was what had happened to Victor, and that we might end up the same way. I went to live in a very isolated gated community in the hills in Kingston. I didn´t want to leave Jamaica, but I would notice police cars at my gate. I didn´t pay much of a mind to it, but one day when I was stuck in traffic, a man got out of his car and came across to me and said:
“Gareth, we know who you are, and we´re going to kill you and then we´ll burn J-FLAG down.”
I went to see my boyfriend – we´d been together for two years – and to see my mother in the hospital. She was sick with diabetes and suffering from hypertension, and we had a discussion, and it was decided that I should leave. A month after that, I left for Canada, and my boyfriend left a month later.
Chang was granted political asylum in th US in 2004.
Homophobia in our society is well rooted in Christianity which is very much a colonial import. Certainly, religious prejudice within Jamaican society have played a foundational role in homophobic violence which has plagued Jamaica for the las decade. It´s certainly true that there have been gay-on-gay killing´s in Jamaica as Bishop Blair asserts, but that´s true of any society, and what his comments smack of is that old bugbear of blaming the victim. The fact is that Jamaica is a very fundamentalist society. The Spaniards brought Catholicism to Jamaica, and then the British brought their own brand of Anglican Puritanism. Sure, you´ve had the invasion of the Evangelicals in recent times, but it´s still at heart an Old Testament society, and gays are bearing the brunt of that.