The now-notorious lifestyle of the inner cities of Kingston came to fame in the early ’60s when reggae music found a new niche market. By the end of the 1980s, the sounds of reggae soon gave way to a more vibrant genre called dancehall, which was to transform the perceptions and lifestyle of many who inhabit some of Kingston’s seemingly borderless ghetto areas. The gay youth in the ghetto became a prime target for dancehall lyrics and social ostracism. This is the story of one “ghetto yute” who also happens to be gay. At first glance, the look of despair and chronic fear on John’s (not his real name) face seems to tell the whole story.
Dressed in slacks, he settles down to take me on a journey into his world: his life in the ghetto. At his current age, John has lived all his life in a south-side ghetto community of Kingston. The vivid images of dilapidated houses made of zinc without proper roofing are nothing if not consistent in his mind. After completing his secondary-school education, John was able to hold only temporary odd jobs to make ends meet. His choices were limited to the welding skills he had gained while in secondary school.
This, however, was not enough to provide him with the opportunity to leave the ghetto. It was not enough to afford him the standard of living that would take him from the hardship he endures within the heart of the dancehall culture. According to John, after his brothers found out about his sexual orientation, they did everything they could to make him feel isolated. His mother disowned him, saying she didn’t want a battyman son (a son who is gay).
John confided that he always knew he was gay. He felt strong attraction to people of the same gender. For him, the experience was frightening. He was petrified that he was “one a dem too” (a homosexual as well). He related his experiences of seeing guys in his community beat up other men who are perceived to be gay. The violent treatment and persistent attacks against other gay men that he witnessed led him to suppress his own sexuality and inherently took on the heavy-hat persona (behave as though he was attracted to women and not men). Not wishing to have a baby-mother or even a girlfriend,he was soon labeled within his community as a funny man.
Though he said he was never harmed physically by anyone in his community, he suffered internally as a result of the perceptions attributed to gay men within the ghetto communities. A sense of inferiority took charge of his own outlook on life, making him
feel that he was a misrepresentation of what masculinity should be as dictated by the donmanship presence in the ghettos. For most of his early 20s, John said that he felt devastated as a human being and that thoughts of committing suicide often crept into his head. Salvation for John came in the form of interaction with other members of Jamaica’s GLBT community. After meeting other gay people, he realized he was not alone. He found comfort among other gay people and felt he was able to live his life in acceptance of he is. A happy ending, right?
Since his coming around to full self-acceptance, John has experienced several setbacks in his personal life. One major factor has been the inability to hold a stable job. He sadly states that he has lost several jobs because co-workers suspected he was gay. His most recent experience of discrimination in the workplace involved a job that he described as a very good job. This translated into the ability for him to rent a place to live that was located in a more uptown community, where he would not have been subjected to a potentially harmful environment. He was employed by a company, which is located in Kingston, as a sideman on a truck. His sexual orientation became an issue for some coworkers, and inevitably, the bashing began.
Following many complaints to the manager, John felt he was getting nowhere. Unable to resist the overwhelming pressures in that workplace, he decided it was best for him to walk away from the job for his own safety. Since then, John has managed to secure a janitorial job that does not pay as much but offers the opportunity to make ends meet. At his current workplace, John said he has to maintain a hyper-heterosexual male image.
He does this by making a habit of complimenting the female staff members, trying to touch their breasts or even going as far as asking them for sexual intercourse. For him, life has been a winding road from one level of destitution to another. He further spoke of an incident in which his nose was broken during a brutal attack in New Kingston by three men. Even though the police came to his aid and transported him to Kingston Public Hospital, on the nway, the uniformed lawmen addressed him as “faggot” and “battybwoy”’, seemingly supporting the attacks.
To further add insult to injury, the perpetrators were never caught. When asked for his views on the current gay debate in Jamaica, he pointed out that hypocrisy is the biggest problem in Jamaica: from men who bash gay people while they themselves are having sexual relations with men. He also articulated that Jamaica’s GLBT community is very divided and that this lack of unity is to the detriment of the community as a collective body.
For the next generation of gay ghetto youths, he hopes there will be more support available to prevent them from falling into the paths that feed the current cycle of self-destruction and hopelessness. For now, though, John continues to live from day to day, still clinging to his dreams of leaving the ghetto, where his constant fear of being attacked has become a permanent condition. His message to the Jamaican gay community: Stop tearing up one another.